Ochs-Robinson Duo — A Civil Right (ESP-Disk, 2021)
I don’t think I saw any live music during all 2020. That includes the 10 weeks before lockdown set in; I really believe I didn’t get out for all of that time. There’s some kind of lesson in there about never making the shots you don’t take.
So my first show in at least 18 months, possibly longer, was something to savor. It came two months ago, in June, to see Larry Ochs (sax) and Donald Robinson (drums) were playing as a duo, supporting A Civil Right, their new album on ESP-Disk. (So, yes, this predates the Apura! concert I just wrote about.)
It was also my first trip to at The Back Room, a DIY labor of love in downtown Berkeley operated by Sam Rudin. It’s a comfortable space in a brick building right off University Avenue — but with social distancing cautions still in effect, the show was held out on tiny Bonita Avenue, where the stage and audience consumed half the street’s width. On late weekend afternoons, downtown gets pretty quiet, so the street was hardly trafficked. It felt safe in a Covid sense but also in a not-getting-run-over sense.
And they draw a crowd, possibly more than fifty. The Back Room gravitates toward mainstream jazz and world music, but Rudin says he’s developed an affinity for more freely improvised work as well, and that audience was hungry for real-time, in-person music.
One song title I remember from the show is “Yesterday and Tomorrow,” a track from the album, written by Robinson. It opens with pensive cymbals and hi-hat — meditative but hardly quiet, filled with the clashing of metal. On the album, and on stage as well, if I’m remembering correctly, this led into Ochs on sopranino saxophone, tracing a thin-lined whisper through the empty air. I remember the piece making heavy use of silence, and while the street noises nearby were unavoidable, the crowd listened reverently — the kind of shared moment that can’t be replicated online.
Most of the pieces, though, were lively. Ochs and Robinson have played together for decades in many contexts, including the duo, so they have that telepathic link and a shared sense of purpose. Their music is composition-based in the sense that a gazebo is “indoors” — the structure is there, but you’re surrounded by openness and seemingly infinite degrees of freedom. Their unhurried improvising is thoughtful even through passages of bombast, and they’re especially good at using relatively fast motion to set up a reflective mood — “Regret,” on the new album, is a good example of that. Robinson’s drumming is an equal partner to Ochs’ sax, filled with calm precision and fluid rolls on the toms.
“Arise the Poet” is a good opener for the album, grabbing the attention as Ochs plunges quickly into small squalls of sound. Robinson is deceptively serene while keeping the energy strong and flowing.
Ochs is one-fourth of ROVA Saxophone Quartet, and they’ve done a live show as well, in addition to some webcasts. They’ll also have an album coming out on ESP-Disk, the same label as A Civil Right. It’s a slow healing process, but it’s happening.