NO HIDING PLACE P
PHIL ROBSON has carved out a reputation as a leading improviser with strong compositional ideas, ambition, and the ability to see his ideas bear fruit. He talks to ANDY ROBSON about urban jazz for urban settings, Partisans, his solo work and the art of the instant message hil Robson, guitarist, leader, composer, waits patiently. But then he knows something about communication. His latest album, The Immeasurable Code, is a series of meditations on the mystery of communication, featuring songs with titles such as ‘Telepathy and Transmission’, ‘Telegram’, ‘The Instant Message’, ‘The Net’ and it climaxes with a fun re-telling of the old Family Favourite, ‘Happy Talk’.
Phil, patience personified, gets to join the conversation, and in a way, his attitude to this interview is reflected in the pleasures of The Immeasurable Code: it’s an album rich with an ensemble feel, of voices shared and taking turns, each instrumentalist having their own voice, but not dominating, of music composed, yet with space for all to express themselves individually. Indeed, one of the few caveats you’d have about the release is that you don’t hear enough of Robson the soloist, the guitarist who, in the turn of a bar, can yaw from the lyrically melodic to the seriously tough.
Robson smiles affably; it’s a comment he’s heard before, but one he’s not displeased with. “My gut reaction to that is I absolutely love playing in an accompanying role. As far as I’m concerned, my playing is all over this recording: but I enjoy accompanying more than soloing. I absolutely love it, trying to find nice chords, that groove, that connection between one section and another.”
This isn’t false modesty from Robson: it’s simply a celebration of the guitarist’s art which rarely gets recognised, just as the pianist as accompanist, Sonny Clark being a classic example, seldom gets his (or her) due. And of course there are serious sections of solo guitar on this all-live recording, from the Kessel-like rolling of chorus after chorus on the extended ‘The Instant Message’ to the effects-laden pyrotechnics of ‘The Net’, or the distorted beauty of ‘Telepathy and Transmission’. Yet it’s the subtleties of Robson’s harmonic texturing that really stand out (or rather blend in) on The Immeasurable Code, as on his stoking of the flames beneath Mark Turner’s sax and Gareth Lockrane’s flute on the visceral ‘Fire And The Drum.’
Turner and Lockrane aren’t the only stellar players on board; there’s Michael Janisch on bass and new to British ears but not the international stage, Ernesto Simpson, Richard Bona’s regular drummer, no less, on drums. Indeed, considering the band’s virtuosic components it’s a credit to Robson’s writing that it’s the voice of the band as a whole that you hear, not a string of stars each fighting to grab the limelight.
Of course, for Robson, this line-up isn’t about starry showboating but musicality; Turner may have the biggest profile, through his work with the Dave Holland Big Band, and his major label status – Warner Bros’ In This World projected him to a world stage – but for Robson Turner’s simply an old mucker from over a decade ago. “I’ve known Mark for ages,” he says. “We go back to 1998, before In This World, when we all got to hear him. We did an album with Christine Tobin (Deepsong); Christine wanted a really great horn player, and Peter Herbert, the Austrian bass player, suggested Mark. He hadn’t really broken then, but of course he was wonderful, the kind of musician I instantly take to. He’s one of those who can adapt to whatever music you’re playing rather than coming with their own set agenda. He has a sense of his own character, he plays those
‘THERE ARE MESSAGES IN HERE. I’M NOT BEING COY BUT THERE IS A PERSONAL MESSAGE, A GOODWILL TYPE OF THING’ – PHIL ROBSON
incredible lines yet he can blend with what’s going on. And he’s also a nice guy! Of course it takes a couple of gigs to slot in – I also played with him on a Mike Janisch project – it’s instinctive, if hard to explain, but you know when someone’s going to fit.”
1998 was a heady year for Robson and his contemporaries, hooking up with Turner and the New York scene being just one of the elements. “At that time Mark was one of those people, like Kurt (Rosenwinkel) that came out of a small but important scene. They were really innovating, and they had a new harmonic language. It was the right time for them, for us too. It was so exciting in ’98. We had Partisans on the move, I’d just started playing with Gene in a big way: and it was the year of the first Partisans album. It was all brand spanking new, we were young men doing lots of gigs, it was so exciting all round.”
Robson isn’t one to mull over what’s gone, “it’s not that I don’t like to reflect, it’s just that I’m so busy with what’s going on right now.” But now having turned 40 (he’ll never sport that haircut from Impish days again), he has a growing sense of the changes he’s played through. “When you look back at what came before and what’s come since, what stands out for me about Mark and others from that scene is the melodic content. Innovations before and since were rhythmicallyoriented, like Steve Coleman. But Mark stood out for his melodic quality and that’s something I really love in music.”
Indeed, listening back to solo work like Impish or Sourpuss by Partisans, both of which date back to the turn of the millennium, it’s intriguing how the melodic threads can be heard leading up to The Immeasurable Code. “That’s interesting to hear you say that; sometimes it feels that I’ve played diverse types of music, but it’s nice to hear that something unifies it. And maybe it is the melodic ‘thing’. It’s quite simple really, I just love tunes! All kinds of tunes from all kinds of musics. So the style I play may change, I love swing, groove, whatever it is. What joins it up is loving strong tunes, and that’s what I’ve tried to develop over the years.”
In cahoots with Julian Siegel, Thad Kelly and Calderazzo, Robson and Partisans carved out not only their own path, but paved the way for the new wave of Brit-Jazz so often cited with the rise of Acoustic Ladyland and Polar Bear, bands that took improvised music to a new, younger audience.
For Robson, Partisans then and now “was about playing the things we loved and mashing them all up together,” he says. “In retrospect it was unusual to mix up so much stuff: Ornette, Sco’s band, Paul Motian – we all loved Miles, Hendrix and just to chuck it all in seemed very natural. Looking back, what was different about the bands that came after us was they played different venues. We were doing it in straightahead venues, and got a mixture of reactions, concluding we were better in bigger places like Leeds, Birmingham, and London. It was more difficult ‘out of town’ so we invented our own circuit, which was urban, reflecting the music which was very urban. By the time others came along the scene was different. It became fantastic, but we were in jazz clubs so we must have seemed at odds with things at the time. That’s why the old Vortex in Stoke Newington was huge for so many people. It was my local, I lived round the corner and looking back now I realise more and more that it was amazing to have that opportunity not just to play but to see such fabulous gigs. I miss it a lot actually.”
Robson has no regrets that later, perhaps more “media attractive” bands began to grab headlines. “It would have been nice to have had more attention. We had a lot of close encounters with ‘success’. But that was the era; there’s no ill feelings. What we really would have liked would have been to play more in Europe. And that’s still so difficult after all these years. I’ve never
30 NOVEMBER11 // Jazzwise sussed it. We have been in and out over the years, played some festivals, but it would be nice to play more. The English scene is still seen as a little bit separate, and most of us don’t have that label clout that Americans do. And of course funding is different in Europe. I get the feeling everyone in Scandinavia is funded by local government.”
Not that Robson’s complaining: Derby Jazz have stuck close to their native son over the years. Robson may now live in Margate via Hackney, but he keeps contact with his Midlands roots, even if he doesn’t follow the Rams as avidly as he did in his youth. “Funny that, I did in the 1970s but not now,” he chortles, doubtless contemplating their league plight. Like all musicians, and particularly those in the jazz world, Robson is feeling the financial pinch “it’s universal, less places to play, and it’s harder to fill those Monday, Tuesday nights. People just aren’t coming out.” Funds remain scarce, which is why he’s grateful to Derby Jazz. “They commissioned me to write the music – it was over a year coming together. And this was a big project, considering current circumstances, calling in international artists. Jazz Services funded the tour so it’s impossible to overestimate how much they helped. Fantastic. I did apply to the Arts Council. Let’s just say it would have been helpful if they’d come up with some money.”
Yet Robson remains positive. Indeed he feels in a particularly good place as an artist. Partisans remain a vibrant band, although “we’re on a short break right now but I’m sure we’ll be doing stuff soon.” He continues: “That’s what’s kept the band going; we only want to do Partisans when there’s something new to be said. We have such an enormous repertoire you could fall back on a way of playing which is just comfortable. And we’d never do that, which is why By Proxy worked: we only come together when we have something new and fresh to say.”
What’s also new and fresh is Christine Tobin’s new project, setting the poems of W. B. Yeats to music. Indeed, it’ll get its English première at the same Purcell Room gig that sees the launch of The Immeasurable Code. Won’t that be a tough call? “It would be if Christine’s project was a hard blowing gig. But it’s almost like contemporary classical music, with a chamber feel. It’s very rich harmonically, with all kinds of influences from Messiaen to folk, yet without being obviously traditional Irish music. She’s created beautiful backdrops to some unusual choices of poems. She’s another person who, like me, writes unconventionally.”
Robson, for example, held most of the music for The Immeasurable Code in his head for a year before getting the ten tunes down “and that’s a lot of music for me.” And it all seems a long way from Robson’s Derby upbringing. “Yeah, you worked for British Rail or Rolls-Royce – or you left. I laugh, but the talks with the careers officer weren’t helpful. It was really like that: the railways or Rolls Royce. They thought I was joking when I said I
wanted to be a musician.”
Music had always been important to him; he began playing when he was 10, and by 14 he had made up his mind. “I fell in love with the music. With jazz. I had no choice. Popular music of the time didn’t interest me, Human League, Duran Duran, while jazz felt so exotic. Especially bebop. It was so strange! Things have changed so much since then. We had no information. I loved the Miles Davis Live In Antibes recording with George Coleman, ‘Autumn Leaves’, and I remember trying to work out what key it was in. These days a young musician looks it all up on the Internet. Of course jazz education has changed everything. It was harder, but the fact you had to look for everything yourself made every discovery special. It’s easier now [to get information] but is it as exciting? It’s not that one way of discovery is better than the other but it’s going to lead to a different way of playing. Yeah, definitely, I was the last of a generation in a way. We may not have had the technical information about the music but we knew what it was about, what the music meant. Now younger players need to seek out the environment this music came out of, what it meant to the musicians who made it.”
“That’s why I like Mike Janisch so much. He’s a younger guy doing what we were just talking about. He wants to play with all the great players whatever their age. Like playing with George Garzone last year. A terrifying prospect – a tough guy and one of the greatest players in the universe.” Garzone’s students have included Joshua Redman, Donny McCaslin and indeed Mark Turner. “It takes some guts to do that.”
Robson has had his own baptisms of fire. “Billy Hart was really important for me; not always cosy. Dave Liebman: that was tough. The great thing is they’re so direct. They don’t mince words. Dave’s a great, positive guy but he makes you think: he likes to play a certain way, he likes a lot of space, abstract phrasing. He made me think a lot and change my phrasing, as did Billy.”
It’s the communications, direct and also subtle from such players (Robson also cites his father and his guitar teacher from teenage years as mentors) that all feed into The Immeasurable Code. “In a sense this, compositionally, is some sort of pinnacle for me. I’ll have to look back in ten years and think about it. But for want of a better phrase, my writing’s settled down. These are clearly my tunes; hopefully there’s some maturity. I’m a writer of tunes, not a composer of huge works, but if there is a maturity it’s all the influences from over the years blending together.”
Is there a message in the music, does he think? Especially in the Morse code that Lockrane so skilfully articulates. “There are messages in here, let’s say it’s a positive one. It’s not fuck you! I’m not being coy but there is a personal message, a goodwill type of thing. But I’m not about hiding a coded message. The music is about finding an interpretive element to this theme of communication.” The IMS Quintet with Mark Turner play the London Jazz Festival in the Purcell Room on 15 November
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