Charles Robinson is a recording artist, composer, pianist and alto saxophone player based in Texas. He was exposed to a wide array of musical styles and genres in his youth and this eclectic range of influences is reflected in his music. Just some of his artistic inspirations include John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, Prince, Chick Corea, Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix, amongst many others.
After attending Alcorn State University where he studied piano/saxophone and marched with the world renowned Sounds of Dynamite marching band, he went on to serve in the military as well as serve as musical director for several religious organizations. He released his debut album , The Golden Ratio, in 2018.
This album, Strange Dreams, consists of thirteen instrumental tracks. It starts out with the intense Bel, which is driven by a brooding, circular bassline that draws you in and underpins the whole track. The drums start out as very jazzy before breaking out into an insistent full beat, over which Charles runs riot with his virtuosic, smoky Rhodes playing. Aside from this is a subtle use of synths, which adds to the atmosphere and subtle mystical vibe. The style is certainly heavily jazz-influenced but Charles explores various kinds of jazz fusion across the course of the album, and this is a great opener.
The second track Supermoon is more traditionally jazz with another recurring bass figure, this one on double bass. The atmospheric synths linger in the background and there are no drums, allowing Charles to weave an intoxicating spell with some superb piano playing that covers the length of the keyboard. His mellifluous flair is not to be underestimated, with not only his skill but the way he always structures his playing in a melodious fashion, never just virtuosity for its own sake.
The following In Your Face! is a return to the electric piano-led sound of the first track and again features a moody, repeating bass motif, though only in certain sections as it gets more expansive in others. The most surprising aspect of the track is the crisp, funky breakbeat that Charles might find hip hop artists want to sample. Aside from some more wonderful echo-drenched Rhodes, there are brief passages of flute (or at least a convincing flute-sounding synth!) which adds to the instrumental texture. One of the album highlights for me.
Soul Dance takes us somewhere else, this one built upon a bed of infectious, exotic world music percussion which cooks up a tasty groove, full of nuance and intricacies. Again, Charles mesmerizes you with some blissed out electric piano work. The surprises keep on coming with Elysian Fields, which is essentially a drum and bass track set at a rapid tempo. The busy drums and bass, along with pulsing EDM style synths, is contrasted with the mellow jazz piano playing and the dichotomy creates an effective tension. The bassline is particularly good on this one.
Turbulence is one the album’s epics at nearly six minutes long, this one based around a simple but effective beat and driven by low-end Stevie Wonder-style synth that is allowed time to grow and breathe, musically. Heaven’s Gate is even more laid back, built on a hypnotic, tranquil groove. As you can tell from the titles and alluded to earlier, there’s a strong mystical, spiritual vibe to his music which is something he shares with one of his musical heroes, John Coltrane. The music throughout has a transcendent quality that takes the listener to some far out places, and this aptly named track is no exception.
Soul Moon Trap is one of the album’s finest moments with a gorgeous piano melody that Herbie Hancock would have been proud of. A pulsing, ostinato bassline holds it together over a slinky bossa nova beat. Robinson’s piano playing here is exceptional. Mercury Retrograde stands out for its complex, angular electronic rhythm full of triplets and syncopations and some more fine piano work.
Parachute is wild, a frenetic rollercoaster ride of a track featuring a hugely infectious beat and bassline which provides the bedrock for some extraordinary piano and synth combinations. This is a remarkable fusion of jazz, soul and hip hop like nothing else you’ll have heard.
The Journey is one of the most unusual tracks and finds Robinson at his most mystical sounding. It’s one of the epics at a shade under six minutes and as the title suggests, takes the listener on an expansive sonic journey. Some sections sound relatively conventional but there’s some strikingly unexpected chord changes that make you feel you’re floating in the ether.
Next comes the title track and again the title is apposite. Robinson conjures up a mesmerising soundscape with a cavernous, powerful beat allied to a loping, understated bassline. A swirl of synths weave in and out, along with some more stellar passages on the piano.
The closing Morning Light (For Hendrix) is a lovely way to finish. As the title obviously suggests, it’s dedicated to the genius of Jimi Hendrix. Set to a lilting, low key groove Robinson takes a back seat and provides supporting Rhodes, allowing his guest guitarist to let rip with some versatile and inventive electric jazz guitar. Listen out for the passage where the guitar and bass play a complicated line in tandem, simply stunning musicianship and it ends things on a high note, literally.
Overall, this is a fascinating jazz fusion odyssey by a versatile, highly imaginative musician and composer. Taking jazz and fusing it successfully with soul, hip hop and rock is no mean feat and Charles Robinson performs this balancing act with some style. Completely at ease on his primary instruments, he also balances his considerable virtuosity with melodic craft so that it never descends into jazz noodling. There’s not a dud track on the whole album and Strange Dreams deserves to be recognised as jazz fusion of the highest quality.
VERDICT = 9.1 out of 10