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Moraga-- Carol Robbins

Of the few jazz musicians who have played the harp, Dorothy Ashby (1932-1986) was one of the first to make any kind of impact. Over the course of her 10 albums, Ashby demonstrated that the harp could be a viable front line instrument on which fluent improvisations could be created. One of her students was Carol Robbins, who continues to this day to make the case for the harp in jazz, rather than just in classical, background, or mood music. Although Robbins has performed and recorded with numerous top artists, from Frank Sinatra and Brian Wilson, to Dianne Reeves and Manhattan Transfer, it is as a member of pianist Billy Childs' Jazz Chamber Ensemble that she has probably gotten the most significant exposure. Childs joins Robbins on Moraga, her fourth CD, which also features guitarist Larry Koonse, bassist Darek Oles, drummer Gary Novak, and, on soprano or clarinet for four tracks, Gary Meek. Five of the nine tunes presented are by Robbins, and prove her talent not just as a player, but also as a composer.

Meek's soprano plays the undulating, mellow theme of the title tune, "Moraga," with Robbins executing the first solo, which contains nimble singe-note lines and emphatic glissandos, and often sounds like a cross between piano and guitar. Childs' trickling, darting solo is played with his distinctive rounded keyboard sound. Robbins' accentuations and fills add welcome texture to the piece. Robbins and Meek's soprano interact in a free from rubato introduction to "The Sand Rover," before Oles' bass ostinato kicks off the staccato, untethered theme. Childs' propulsive improv, Robbins' unpredictable and exciting one, and finally Meeks' soaring escapade, all contribute to the vital and absorbing nature of this performance. "Three Rings" is a spellbinding waltz that highlights the succulent harmonic mixture of harp, clarinet, and guitar, with Meek taking the lead. Robbins and Koonse each solo with delicate and heartfelt introspection.

Robbins and Koonse effectively share the melody of the leader's lithesome bossa nova "Dolore." The guitarist's solo is in the best Brazilian tradition, emotionally connected. Robbins is compelling as well in her variegated exploration. Childs, Oles, and Novak manage to be simultaneously unobtrusive and provoking. Harp and guitar engage in a winning dialogue that encompasses the entire latter section of the track. For Cole Porter's "Every Time We Say Goodbye," Robbins soothing glissandos both introduce and accompany Childs' gentle enunciation of the theme, which the harpist then reiterates. Robbins then solos compellingly, artfully mingling inflections and effects. Childs' own ringing discourse takes a page from Robbins, followed by the penetrating lyricism of Oles. Childs' reprise includes both bravura and understated passages. Koonse's glistening guitar takes the lead on Childs' "Hope In the Face of Despair," which has the flavor of a Jobim ballad. Koonse, Robbins, and Oles each solo with beguiling emotion and some degree of forcefulness. Novak's drums provide a responsive commentary throughout that elevates the proceedings.

"Straight Away" is a stair-stepping, staccato theme, little more really than a vamp, but still offering more than enough to fuel ecstatic improvisations by clarinetist Meek and Childs, while Robbins in contrast is more deliberate in her deft probings. A boisterous Novak then ups the ante prior to the reprise, and a riveting final free form exchange between Meek, Childs, and Novak takes the track out. Jobim's gracefully pensive ballad "Caminhos Cruzados" is given an eloquent duet treatment by Robbins and Koonse, as they share the lead role and put forth shimmering, poignant solos and seamless, focused interplay. Nino Rota's "Rotadendron," arranged by Robbins, wraps up the CD in appealing fashion. Robbins, Childs, Koonse, and Oles form the quartet that establishes a haunting atmosphere characterized by piercing tonalities and hypnotic, finely calibrated interaction. The imaginative arrangement transforms the work from a sound evocative of Japanese music to ultimately that of a romantic movie theme.

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Scott Albin