Jazz CD Reviews – late September 2017

September 30, 2017

Patrick Arthur/Dana Fitzsimons/Chris Otts the ¢heap 3nsemble (independent release)

This highly musical Atlanta-based trio is exploratory, inventive and lyrical. To use founder Dana Fitzsimons’ words, the music played is “. . . dominated by melodicism and space, rather than rhythmic density”. Drawing inspiration from an abstract painting by Gerhard Richter, drummer Dana teamed up with tenor saxophonist Chris Otts and guitarist Patrick Arthur to develop music free from the restraints of too-rigid tempos and conducive to calm reflection. cheap danaAgain quoting Dana: “Since we’re living in such a crazy and stressful period in our own history, we wanted to work with sustained sounds and less rhythmic freneticism, and make music that could heal.” Among the tracks are originals by Chris, Volkslied and Reflection, and Patrick’s Front, as well as works by Bruce Hornsby, Fortunate Son, Chick Corea, Matrix, Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, Pure Imagination, and Raymond Hubbell and John L. Golden, Poor Butterfly. Throughout, there are well-crafted solos from saxophonist and guitarist, all with controlled emotional heart, and intelligent underpinning from the drummer. Interestingly, the cover art on this album is the Gerhard Richter painting that inspired Dana to conceive this music.

For more on Patrick, Dana, Chris and the ¢heap 3nsemble, including booking, contact Mouthpiece Music.

Manny Echazabal Short Notice (independent release)

A recent graduate of University of Miami, tenor saxophonist Manny Echazabal presents a selection of his own compositions on this, his debut album. For his themes, Manny has developed some concepts that originated in assignments but there is nothing tentative or immature about the end product. Other ideas stem from personal experiences, and while not all of these were good they did prove inspirational. Among these works is the title track, which was a “write a composition in just an hour” assignment given by trumpeter Terence Blanchard who also teaches at UM. Another piece is a three-part work, New Dawn, that deals with aspects of depression, while Abraham’s Warriors centers upon fundraising efforts of a family friend whose young child had terminal cancer. Although the thinking behind this music is outwardly dark, the musical results are far from this. Instead, they are filled with optimism and light and vividly demonstrate Manny’s exceptional musical skill.manny After graduation, he played in Miami clubs and also various jazz festivals. Manny is a fluent player, his technical ability comfortably matching the tasks he sets himself through his compositions. The quartet on this session is completed by pianist Tal Cohen, bassist Dion Kerr and drummer David Chiverton, all young musicians who are similarly gifted and are making names for themselves in the US. This release is sure to extend their audience.

For more on Manny Echazabal, including booking, contact Mouthpiece Music.

Josh Nelson The Sky Remains (Origin 82741)

On this musical portrait of Los Angeles, pianist Josh Nelson takes inspiration from places and people and events that have added to the city’s rich history. Instrumentalists joining Josh on this album are trumpeter Chris Lawrence, alto saxophonist Josh Johnson, clarinetist Brian Walsh, organist Larry Goldings, guitarist Anthony Wilson, bassist Alex Boneham, drummer Dan Schnelle, and percussionist Aaron Serfaty. Also heard are vocalists Kathleen Grace (on Bridges and Tunnels, The Sky Remains, Pitseleh, Run) and Lillian Sengpiehl (on Bridges and Tunnels, Ah, Los Angeles, Lost Souls of Saturn), both of them soloing well – sometimes with lyrics other times wordlessly – and also blending effectively with the instrumental ensemble. Anthony takes a long and engaging solo on Ah, Los Angeles, Chris, Brian and others solo on Lost Souls of Saturn, a track that has intriguing instrumental ensemble passages underpinned by fiery percussion. josh nelsonSeveral of the works hear here are Josh’s compositions, among them Bridges and Tunnels, which paints an aural image of those aspects of the city familiar to moviegoers (and depicted also on the sleeve), Ah, Los Angeles, inspired by John Fante’s semi-autobiographical 1939 novel Ask the Dust, and Pacific Ocean Park, a long forgotten amusement park. Also largely forgotten is the Polynesian culture present among the ethnic ingredients of the city in the 1930s, recalled here in Russ Garcia’s Lost Souls of Saturn. There is also a collaborative song by Josh and Kathleen, Run, which commemorates Mack Robinson (bother of Jackie) who won a silver medal to Jesse Owens’ gold in the 200 meters at the 1936 Olympic Games – surely a test of memory for even the most-devoted sports fan. Overall, the mood of this album is reflective – understandably so given the underlying concept – and it is a revealing picture of a city most of us think we know better than is actually so. Very effective playing by all enhances The Sky Remains, which is a rewarding musical experience.

For more on Josh Nelson, including booking, contact Mouthpiece Music.

John Daversa Wobbly Dance Flower (BFM Jazz 302 062 438 2)

Trumpeter John Daversa’s instrumental collaborators here are Bob Mintzer, tenor saxophone and bass clarinet, pianist and Hammond organist Joe Bagg, guitarist Zane Carney, bassist Jerry Watts Jr, and drummer Gene Coye. John and Bob are also heard on EVI (electronic valve instrument) and EWI (electric wind instrument) respectively. With the exception of Donna Lee all the titles played on this album are John’s compositions. Many of these are developed out of what might seem at first glance to be random thoughts. A reality check reveals that the thoughts of writers – of music or not – are seldom without some connection to the world around them. Put another way, the imagination is never completely turned off. For example, like all frequent fliers, John often has time to kill at airports and sometimes uses his cell phone to record melodies that come into his mind. John is a composer but that particular source of inspiration should ring bells with many writers of all kinds. (Digressing wildly, an idea for a short story came into my mind on a railway station in the North of England and by the time the train reached London the story was finished – and appears elsewhere on this site.)

wobblyBut getting back to John and the airport, the piece that resulted from this is Meet Me at the Airport, which effectively depicts the organized chaos of such places and has long solos from John, followed by Bob, then Joe on the Hammond B3, and Jerry and Zane. Ms. Turkey, a fast-paced work, has fleet soloing from John underpinned by Gene crackling drumming while Donna Lee here has a more relaxed treatment than this bop standard that it is usually given. The opening passage of Be Free, with its hints at a Latin feel, is a good opportunity to hear Joe’s skill on the Hammond B3, in the middle section Bob’s tenor takes an approach in keeping with the tune title, and John brings to an end with a crisp boppish solo. Brooklyn Still has John and Bob in an introspective frame of mind, soloing and effectively supporting one another. Wobbly Dance Flower, again featuring John and Bob who are punched along by Gene, is a lively jaunt that will certainly leave any dancers trying to keep up a little wobbly when it’s over. In contrast, Jazz Heads is a thoughtful piece with John and Bob (here on bass clarinet) underscored by Joe who is again on B3. On the energetic You Got a Puppy? Zane and Gene are heard after opening statements from the horns while the brief (less than a minute) closer, Extra Credit, is a quick word from all. And speaking of quick words, in his liner note fellow trumpeter Brian Lynch writes: “The through line for this project can be boiled down to one word: fun!” No arguments from me.

For more on John Daversa, including booking, contact Mouthpiece Music.

All albums available at Amazon.

Jazz CD Reviews – late November 2015

November 25, 2015

Perhaps it has become a cliché, but over the years many of the masters of jazz have maintained that their music should tell a story. This is especially relevant with the first two albums here, those by Ernie Krivda and Aaron Irwin, because they are tied closely to storytelling and make strong connections with historic events and tales of fiction.

Ernie Krivda Requiem For A Jazz Lady (Capri 74140-2)

Hailing from Cleveland, tenor saxophonist Ernie Krivda has an international reputation yet has never lost a very strong connection with his hometown. This connection is manifested in this new album, which is inspired by places and people and events there in the past. The result is an engaging and always interesting selection of compositions Ernie has written, all of which are presented in a warm and powerful manner. Among these pieces of music is an engagingly funky blues entitled Great Lakes Gumbo, which combines elements of the many jazz styles of the mid-west cities that have Cleveland at their core. The Remarkable Mr Black is for Ernie’s late accompanist Claude Black. Taken at a brisk tempo, Ernie opens with a long improvisation and is followed by pianist Lafayette Carthon before a closing section where Ernie and drummer Renell Gonsalves trade ideas. A personal tribute is Little Face, a charming ballad on which Lafayette shines, that is for Ernie’s wife, Faye. A warm picture portraying Ernie’s present home in nearby Lakewood is Emerald, the key soloists here being Ernie and Lafayette and bassist Marion Hayden. Aside from the music, the liner notes for this release includes a fascinating account Ernie Krivda has written of Cleveland’s jazz world in that era and which itself paints vivid pictures that add immeasurably to the musical portraits.

Aaron Irwin A Room Forever (independent)

On this album, clarinetist Aaron Irwin’s inspiration for his compositions comes from the short stories of Breece Dexter John Pancake, a West Virginian writer whose death in 1979 at the age of 26 brought to an abrupt halt a career that would surely have been at the very least interesting and perhaps exceptional. He writes with a sharp eye for the sometimes grim hardscrabble lives of his fellow West Virginians and his spare style is admirably suited to the settings and the people. While bleak tales of difficult lives might appear to be unpromising as a source for musical inspiration, Aaron Irwin has found in them much that is rewarding. There is in the music an intriguing mix of pastoral openness and tight introspection as he draws upon varied musical genres to create themes over which he and his collaborators can lay their improvisations.irwin_a_room_forever_cover Aaron is accompanied here by trombonist Matthew McDonald, guitarist Pete McCann, and bassist Thomas Kneeland, the unusual instrumental make-up of the quartet providing interesting and unusual voicings. Titled as are Pancake’s stories, the tracks include A Room Forever, a melody that Aaron develops over Pete McCann’s plaintive guitar and which mirrors a tale of hopeless lives; Hollow, which traces a dourly-told tale of hard work below ground and forgotten love above; and Trilobites, a piece that reflects the story of a young man’s disintegrating life in which he finds a measure of purpose only in the perpetuity of the distant past. At first glance, the doom and despair that fill Pancake’s stories might seem an unlikely source for music but such is Aaron Irwin’s skill as a composer that everything here is by no means mired in gloom.

Mike Holober Balancing Act (Palmetto PALM 22058)

In many ways, pianist Mike Holober’s compositions heard here also draw upon the American landscape but this is through the composer’s non-musical activities. Although deeply involved for many years as composer and performer and conductor, including spells with big bands in Germany, Mike is at heart an outdoorsman and this is displayed in his writing.holober On this album five of the eight tracks are his own compositions and include Grace At Sea, a gentle ballad with Mike’s piano setting the scene and cushioning Kate McGarry’s voice, Marvin Stamm’s flugelhorn and Mark Patterson’s trombone. Brian Blade’s subtle drums allied to Mike’s piano and John Hébert’s bass sets the mood for Canyon, a spare, open ballad that features Kate as well as Marvin’s trumpet and Dick Oatts on alto saxophone. Dick also plays soprano saxophone in this band and is heard on flute on When There Were Trains, which also features Kate with the the reflective lyric. On Book Of Sighs Mike’s piano and Kate’s voice open the pages and later Dick and Mark are heard in extended solos. Brian is featured on Idris, a crisp and fitting tribute to Idris Muhammed composed by Jason Rigby. Mike is a regular member of a quartet led by Jason who also plays clarinet, bass clarinet and tenor saxophone on this album, soloing well on Billy Joel’s Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel). An album of stories then, musical this time, but careful listeners will hear and understand what they are being told.

All these albums (and Breece D’J Pancake’s short stories) are available at Amazon.

Jazz CD Reviews – April 2013

April 30, 2013

 

Rich Halley 4 Crossing The Passes (Pine Eagle 005)

On his latest release, Rich Halley and his regular quartet play an excellent selection of original compositions. Interestingly, these eleven pieces have been built upon the composer’s memories of a recent north-south trek he made across Oregon’s Wallowa Mountains. The music created forms metaphorical images of the mountain range, the musical language being Rich’s always effective styling that reflects the way in which jazz has developed through the post-bop era towards the frontiers of free jazz. Among the snapshots of rugged landscape are Traversing The Maze, The Spring Rains, Basin And Range and Rain, Wind And Hail. richhalleyThe other fine musicians are trombonist Michael Vlatkovich, bassist Clyde Reed and drummer Carson Halley. (The last named is Rich’s son, who joined him on the trek, as did nephew Tim Binford.) Together for several years, the four musicians play with an enviable single-mindedness. This quality extends to four of the tracks that are joint compositions by the quartet: Looking West From West, Crossing The Passes, Acute Angles and Journey Across The Land. As always, Rich’s playing is commanding, hinting subtly at the great tradition of the more rugged jazz tenor saxophonists, such as Don Byas and David S. Ware, while retaining his individuality. Indeed, all four men display an enviable personal style that nevertheless conveys how much they have absorbed and uphold the great traditions of their respective traditions in jazz.

Rich Halley’s previous release, Back From Beyond, is featured on an earlier page (flick back to October 6, 2012 for details).

Laszlo Gardony Clarity (Sunnyside SSC 4014)

A leading figure in jazz education, Laszlo Gardony here develops an exceptional train of thought as he improvises a moving tribute to his parents whose deaths had only recently occurred. Born in Hungary, Laszlo started his musical journey with classical music, moved into rock and blues-based forms before taking the jazz path. This brought him to Berklee in 1983 as a student, following which he became a member of the faculty there. laszlogardonyHe began his recording career in 1989 and since then has made many live and recorded appearances, usually with a trio. (The other two members of his recent trio are most often bassist John Lockwood and drummer Yoron Israel.) On this new release, however, in keeping with the highly personal nature of Laszlo’s thoughts at the time, this is a solo album. The music presented is in ten pieces, yet it forms a cohesive whole that while deeply personal to its creator draws in the listener who can then share in its beauty. As might be expected, Laszlo’s playing is flawless, at once delicate and strong, and filled throughout with skill and effortless charm.

Ana Alcaide La Cantiga Del Fuego (ARC Music EUCD 2417)

It is tempting for an outsider to speak of ‘Italian music’ or ‘Norwegian music’ or ‘Indian music’, yet it takes only a moment’s thought to realize how impossibly limiting this is. The foregoing remark is prompted by listening to the lovely music contained on this release. Ana Alcaide is Spanish and so is the music she performs, most of which she has also composed. Yet there is little that the ‘outsider’ might think of as typically Spanish. analcaidaIn part this is because Ana has drawn upon the musical tradition of Spain’s Sephardic Jews, music that in its turn was built upon the exile of these people and their endless journey to find a home. (This musical tradition has also attracted singer Kat Parra; for details of her album, Las Aventuras de ¡Pasión!, look back to August 1, 2012.) Another untypical aspect of this music is that to perform it Ana plays on a most unusual instrument, the nyckelharpa. This is a Swedish keyed fiddle played with a bow that originated perhaps as early as the 14th century. Ana came across this instrument while studying biology in Sweden and was captivated by its potential; it even looks daunting. The music is reflective, haunting, and evokes impressions of restless longing.

All these CDs can be found at many established sales points, among which is Amazon.

Jazz CDs reviewed – early October 2012

October 6, 2012

Dan Block Duality (Miles High MHR 8620)

A multi-talented jazz musician, Dan Block is in demand as sideman, orchestral player and arranger. On From His World To Mine (Miles High MHR 8612), he presents the music of Duke Ellington, choosing interesting and effective examples from Ellington’s huge contribution to 20th century music. Dan stays away from the familiar and instead plays his own arrangements of pieces many of which are Ellington’s lesser-known works. This CD therefore serves a dual purpose, that of presenting Dan as both soloist and arranger and in making the listener aware of how wide was Ellington’s (and Billy Strayhorn’s) mastery of music. Playing principally clarinet and tenor saxophone, Dan is ably aided by a fine accompanying group: Mike Kanan, James Chirillo, Lee Hudson, Brian Grice, Mark Sherman, Renato Thoms and Pat O’Leary.

On a recent album, Duality (Miles High MHR 8620), Dan takes a bold step in teaming himself with other leading lights of contemporary mainstream jazz in a set of mainly duets. His partners here are pianists Ted Rosenthal, a lovely Long Ago And Far Away, and Rosanno Sportiello, bass player Lee Hudson, guitarists Paul Myers, Saul Rubin and Matt Munisteri, vibraphone player Mark Sherman, taking a new look at Bix Beiderbecke’s In The Dark, and singer Catherine Russell on an unusual and highly effective take on Tadd Dameron’s If You Could See Me Now. There are two trio tracks, on one, the Ellington-Jimmy Blanton classic, Pitter Panther Patter, Dan is joined by fellow reed player Scott Robinson and Ted Rosenthal, on the other by drummer Tim Horner and Lee Hudson. In these duets, Dan plays clarinet, bass clarinet, and tenor and baritone saxophones.

Throughout these two exceptional sets, Dan Block vividly demonstrates his deep understanding of and love for all that has happened in jazz over the decades while remaining completely in touch with the style and taste of today.

Dan Block cover

 

 

 

 

 

Graham Dechter Takin’ It There (Capri 74117-2)

For his second album as leader, jazz guitarist Graham Dechter is again joined by his fellow rhythm section collaborators from the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra: pianist Tamir Hendelman, bassist John Clayton and drummer Jeff Hamilton. Individually, these are all superb musicians and their solo skills are in evidence throughout this outstanding set. Collectively, their experience of playing together at the CHJO rhythm section is vividly apparent. Graham’s choice of music reveals the respect he has for jazz guitarists of an earlier jazz age with selections from the pen or book of Wes Montgomery and Barney Kessell, while other jazzmen so recalled include Lee Morgan and George Coleman. Graham’s musical pedigree is notable: father, a composer, arranger, player in Hollywood; mother, singer; grandfather, music teacher, trombonist (with Stan Kenton). All of this background has been developed so that the guitarist brings to his interpretations a measure of confidence and maturity that far outweighs his years. This is an exceptional album, the ballad selections filled with depth and understanding, the up-tempo pieces overflowing with invention, and throughout these four masterly musicians never fail to swing.

graham dechter cd

 

 

 

 

 

Rich Halley 4 Back From Beyond (Pine Eagle 004)

Tenor saxophonist Rich Halley has the rare capacity to take elements from the post-bop jazz mainstream and color them with touches that hint at the exhilaration of early free jazz. Often performing his own compositions, Halley is regularly backed by bassist Clyde Reed and drummer Carson Halley. Their music retains hints of the jazz style of earlier years while never losing the feel of contemporary improvised music. Throughout his recordings, Halley displays imaginative ideas that he executes with considerable flair and polish. On this CD, Halley is teamed with trombonist Michael Vlatkovich, a like-minded colleague with whom he has recorded before. This is a set that is filled with imaginative and powerfully played jazz music that allies sensitivity with drama. The support from Reed and Carson Halley is astute and thoughtful, and they weave fluid, driving solos that are filled with fully realized ideas. This is exceptional music, extremely well played by all four of these fine jazz musicians.

Previous releases by Rich Halley on Pine Eagle Records are Live At The Penofin Jazz Festival (Pine Eagle 001), Children Of The Blue Supermarket (Pine Eagle 002) and Requiem For A Pit Viper (Pine Eagle 003).

Rich Halley CD cover

 

 

 

 

 

Stephanie Nakasian Show Me The Way To Get Out Of This World (Capri 74115-2)

More than just a jazz singer, Stephanie Nakasian is also a jazz singing teacher and her knowledge and understanding of the art is apparent in all that she does. On this CD, the latest of a dozen or so she has recorded in the past decade, Nakasian draws her repertoire from a wide range of sources, including the jazz world, classic pop, contemporary pop, and Latin. Deftly playing with time signatures, Nakasian brings unexpected variations on familiar themes, yet never strays far from the melodic magic that has made many of the songs timeless. These songs include Lucky So And So, Zanzibar, Nica’s Dream, So In Love, Ill Wind, You And The Night And The Music, Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most, The End Of A Love Affair and Lonesome Road. On this set, Nakasian’s subtle vocal charm is aided and abetted by Harris Simon, piano, Chris Brydge, bass, and Billy Williams, drums. The pianist is also a jazz music teacher at the College of William and Mary, which is where Nakasian also teaches. Their meeting there led to local gigs from which developed the idea for this wholly admirable album.

Stephanie Nakasian CD cover

 

 

 

 

 

Curtis Fuller  Down Home (Capri 74116-2)

During the past few years, jazz trombonist Curtis Fuller has made a small number of outstanding CDs. This late flowering as leader has added to his exceptional cv as a major jazz trombonist whose past accomplishments took him through spells with Art Blakey, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie and Count Basie. On recording dates, it is not only the playing of Curtis Fuller that is featured, but also his skill as a jazz composer. This new release teams Fuller with his regular band, which is now in its seventh year: trumpeter Al Hood, tenor saxophonist Keith Oxman, pianist Chip Stephens, bassist Ken Walker and drummer Todd Reid. Most of the music here is written and/or arranged by band members and is finely crafted to allow the musicians to display their collective skills as well as their ability to play imaginative, glowing solos. This excellent album will appeal to all who love jazz in the post-bop mainstream. Similarly filled with exceptional music is 2010’s I Will Tell Her (Capri 74100-2), which is also by Curtis Fuller and what he regards as ‘his band of choice’.

Curtis Fuller CD cover

 

 

 

 

 

Maria Neckam Unison (Sunnyside SSC 1321)

Among the many jazz singers around today is Austrian-born Maria Neckam. Her crystalline vocal sound brings subtle appeal to a selection of her own songs that owe their intellectual origins to a wide range of sources. Included among the source material is a Rainer Maria Rilke poem, Solitude, and a poem by Persian mystic Hafez, Where Do You Think You Will Be?. Starting out in Vienna, Neckam’s musical education included spells at Amsterdam Conservatory and the Manhattan School of Music in New York. Stylistically, this educational process has taken Neckam through opera and rock, musical theatre and pop, music of the Far East and contemporary improv. Echoes of all these influences can be heard in Neckam’s songs – blending here, contrasting there – to provide a rich and always interesting vocal palette. Neckam’s collaborators on this CD include Aaron Parks, keyboards, Thomas Morgan, bass, and Colin Stranahan, drums, with featured horn players Lars Dietrich, alto saxophone, and Samir Zarif, tenor saxophone. There are also guest appearances by Nir Felder, guitar, Will Vinson, alto saxophone, Kenny Warren, trumpet, Mariel Roberts, cello, and Glenn Zaleski, piano.

Maria Neckam CD cover

 

 

 

 

 

Ithamara Koorax Got To Be Real (Irma Records IRM 922 CD)

Although most of Ithamara Koorax’s work cleaves closely to her Brazilian roots, she has a good ear for jazz and from time to time hints of this appear on CDs such as Ithamara Koorax Sings The Luiz Bonfá Songbook (King), Love Dance: The Ballad Collection (Som Livre) and Brazilian Butterfly (Irma). There are many attractions on these CDs and her interpretations of a largely non-jazz repertoire are elegant and eloquent. Ithamara is very much in a jazz mood on Serenade In Blue (Milestone) and Autumn In New York (Huks Music). On the former, she moves confidently towards the jazz genre, which is fully and successfully embraced with the latter where she swings elegantly through an always interesting set of mainly standards, backed by a tight-knit trio. Ithamara Koorax in NY CD coverThese sensitive interpretations of lyrics and inventive improvisations combine to make this a CD deserving of the high praise it has received. With Obrigado: Dom Um Romao (TCB), Ithamara memorably reflects upon a planned European tour on which she was to have worked with Dom Um Romao and the Peter Schärli Trio. Romao’s death intervened and it was decided to go ahead with the tour but that no attempt would be made to replace his remarkable talent. It was during this tour that the music on this CD was recorded by Swiss radio, and the result is some exceptionally fine playing and singing. Peter is an inventive trumpet player with a softly burning tone, and Ithamara’s singing leans slightly towards the mainstream that she embraced so well on Autumn In New York.

Ithamara and Peter are reunited for a delightful selection of songs on O Grande Amor (TCB), a 2010 session of mainly Brazilian songs intriguingly colored with subtle jazz improvisations from the trio that underline and uplift the singer’s effortless styling, the fiery core of Peter’s trumpet playing contrasting vividly with Ithamara’s glowing vocal sound. Ithamara Koorax CD coverOn 2012’s Got To Be Real (Irma), Ithamara is once again centered on Brazilian music, but with a repertoire that includes a few standards albeit colored with subtle overtones drawn from her musical heritage. In whatever mood, Ithamara Koorax is a singer to savor.

 

 

Reviews of some of these CDs are among the hundreds appearing in Jazz Journal, a monthly magazine that also features articles about international jazz musicians past and present.

You can learn more about any of these albums at the artist’s or the record company’s website.

If you want to buy them, go to Amazon.

 

Spike Robinson

August 30, 2012

Jazz tenor saxophonist Spike Robinson always played with relaxed and seemingly effortless skill, imbuing his playing with charm, wit and understanding, qualities that matched his off-stage manner. He loved engaging in conversation with fans, and, obviously, preferred talking music, in the course of which it quickly became apparent that he had encyclopedic knowledge of the classic pop repertoire. Like many (perhaps all) leading jazz instrumentalists, he knew the lyrics to all of the songs he played. Indeed, there were times when his improvisations were at least as moving as performances by singers who sang the words.

And if the subject of music should ever pall, mention of motorbikes would certainly liven things up.

Spike Robinson sketch

He was born Henry Berthold Robinson, on 16 January 1930 in Kenosha, Wisconsin. While in his teens, he started out playing clarinet and alto saxophone but soon realized that making a living playing jazz was a tough row to hoe. In 1948, he joined the US Navy as a musician and at the start of the next decade found himself in the UK. This was a perfect time for a musician already versed in bop. London’s Club Eleven, Downbeat Club, and Studio 51 were hangouts for leading lights, among whom were Tommy Pollard and Victor Feldman. Spike was heard by Carlo Krahmer who recorded him for Esquire Records, sides that would later become much-treasured examples of this fine musician’s early flowering. Unfortunately, it couldn’t last and Spike was transferred out of the UK, somewhere along the way exchanging his saxophone for a motorbike. Eventually, he left the navy and tried the music scene again, this time in Chicago where things were just as tough; indeed, in some respects they were worse and he would later recall how discouraged he was as drugs made inroads into the jazz scene.

Determined to avoid that path, Spike decided to suspend all thoughts of a music career and taking advantage of the GI Bill Of Rights, he studied engineering. He then found a job in Colorado, which he held for most of the next three decades. Even so, he was not completely cut off from jazz.

Spike-Robonson-CD

Hep Records CD2098

After a while, he began playing again, this time tenor saxophone, in local clubs and a recent find has resulted in a CD recorded in Boulder around 1974.  In the early 1980s, Spike was urged to re-visit the UK and from 1984 he toured regularly and successfully. This prompted him to take early retirement and begin what he had always wanted, a full-time career in music. From hereon,  Spike toured clubs and festivals throughout the UK, Europe, and various parts of the USA. In 1989, he became a permanent resident in England where he was capably managed by Susan May, whom he later married. Although he never again took to the saddle, he did not lose his early love of motorbikes and he was especially delighted when a gig on the Isle of Man fell during the TT races; adding to the pleasure, he could see the course from his hotel window. 

Spike-Robinson-CD

Hep Records CD2056

Throughout these later years, Spike made a succession of superb albums, as leader and co-leader, appearing with leading jazz artists who included Louis Stewart, Harry ‘Sweets’ Edison, Al Cohn, Roy Williams, Elaine Delmar, Ellyn Rucker, Claude Tissendier, Scott Hamilton, and Ken Peplowski. Throughout these memorable albums, Spike explored the classic song books, and in some instances his earlier recordings were reissued, among them a 1981 date with Victor Feldman that paid tribute to songwriter Harry Warren to which new tracks were added.

Critical and public praise for Spike, who died on 29 October 2001 in Writtle, Essex, England, was universal. His bop beginnings allied with his love for the classic popular songs, had provided a solid foundation upon which he built his later career as a consummate ballad player who lovingly explored the endless archives of the Great American Song Book. His instantly identifiable rhapsodic, breathy style and the effortless loping swing he brought to everything he played helped make Spike Robinson one of the outstanding tenor saxophonists of his generation.

 

Spike Robinson
oil on canvas
Copyright©Bruce Crowther

 

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