Perry Robinson: Extraordinary Travels with Clarinet

Perry Robinson: Extraordinary Travels with Clarinet

by Matt Snyder
copyright © 1999 Matt Snyder

Mention clarinetist Perry Robinson to fans of a certain age on this side of the Atlantic, and you'll likely be greeted with a statement and a question: One - I remember him, he's great. Two - what happened to him? The European fans, on the other hand, may not only know Robinson's recent work, they're far more likely to have seen him within the past few years, despite the fact that he has been based in northern New Jersey for the last couple of decades. Like so many musicians, the man's bread and butter can usually be found overseas. The Traveler, his 1977 album (on the Chiaroscuro label), was prophetically titled, even if it was meant as a musical metaphor.

And an apt metaphor it was. Robinson has traveled far and wide to play with the most important musicians of his time, and he hasn't let up. The list of artists with whom he has been associated is immense in quantity, quality and stylistic diversity. His discography reveals work with, among others, Henry Grimes, David Izenson, Gunter Hampel, the Brubecks, Tete Montoliu, Charlie Haden, Carla Bley, Archie Shepp, Bill Dixon, Mark Whitecage, John Carter, Lou Grassi, and Burton Greene. And don't forget Robinson's own late father, Earl, the patron saint of generations of troubadours and social movers, and the composer of songs like "Joe Hill," "Ballad for Americans" and "The House I Live In."

Perry Robinson's earliest influences were not jazz musicians, but his Dad and the people he hung out with: Leadbelly, Pete Seeger and the Weavers, Woody Guthrie. And these are only the roots; Robinson's language has so many different streams of music in it that he has always been notoriously hard to categorize, though pundits have stuck him in every conceivable bag. Trim and fit at age 60, the bespectacled Robinson sat down in his Jersey City apartment recently and recounted some highlights of his career.

Born in New York in 1938, Perry Morris Robinson's family moved to Los Angeles for a few years when he was a child. It was there that he began discovering music and the clarinet, in both the classical and jazz worlds. Earl Robinson, of course, kept the house stocked with music of all kinds. In addition to a healthy collection of western classical music and jazz, there were Schoenberg recordings around the house, and Earl was also friendly with Dial Records owner Ross Russell, who was recording Charlie Parker at the time. Perry was therefore aware of both 12-tone composition and bebop by the time he was ten years old.

After an unsuccessful start on piano, Perry began playing clarinet at around age 9. Although he enjoyed playing, it was Earl who boosted Perry's practice schedule by bribing him with nickels for each half-hour of work. His first teacher was a Hollywood studio musician, but before long the boy was studying with the legendary Kalman Bloch of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

The budding musician had also discovered the role of the clarinet in jazz by this time.

"My Dad had lots of Ellington," he recalls. "I remember hearing 'Mood Indigo' when I was pretty young. The thing that really got me, though, was Benny Goodman's Carnegie Hall concert." Although the clarinet would remain his lifelong love, Robinson had a brief flirtation with the alto sax: "I saw Buddy Colette playing alto when I was still in L.A. I wanted to start playing it, so my Dad rented me a sax. I was intrigued by how it looked; I remember standing in front of the mirror holding it and fingering the keys."

Earl Robinson moved his family back to New York in time for his son to attend the city's prestigious High School of Music and Art. Though the school had a big band, there was no formal jazz program in effect (Robinson did a classical audition). The informal jamming, however, was non-stop. "We would jam all the time," he remembers with a smile. "Shorty Rogers went there, Pete LaRoca was there, he was a great timbale player at that time. [Saxophonist] George Braith was there, too. We were just always cutting class and jamming, I think I passed high school by only one point."

Saxophone had become part of Robinson's world after all: "I was playing tenor in high school and getting gigs with it, I was making good bread. There was a point, though, where I actually realized that I had to make a decision. I dug the tenor but I knew the clarinet was somehow substantial for me." Determined to stick with the difficult, cantankerous axe, Robinson began trying to play in the style of saxophonists such as Hank Mobley and Sonny Rollins. He also searched for the few modern clarinetists around in the '50s. Through Jazz at the Philharmonic records he discovered Buddy De Franco, and he began listening to more of him, particularly De Franco's quartet recordings with Kenny Drew and Art Blakey.

More significant in the long run for Robinson, however, was his musical and personal discovery of the other great bebop clarinetist: "Mike Gold [a friend] came to school one day and said he'd met this guy Tony Scott at Charles Ponte's store on 48th street. He knew I was into the modern players. I heard one of Tony's records with Osie Johnson, Percy Heath, and Dick Katz, a beautiful quartet. On the cover he looked all Italian with his hair slicked back and a crystal mouthpiece. The way he improvised, with that sound and the sliding tones and his harmonic sense, amazing. He took both me and Mike to jam sessions with him. I met Bill [Evans], Paul Motian and Scott LaFaro through Tony, too." Scott was a key influence on Robinson's developing sensibility. Although he never directly copied the older musician, one can to this day hear echoes of Scott's pure attitude in sound in Robinson's playing.

After high school, Robinson followed up his studies for a couple of years at the Manhattan and Mannes Schools of Music, but his real work began in 1959 when he attended the famed Lenox School of Jazz in the Massachusetts Berkshires. An ambitious summer program of jazz instruction, its faculty featured some of the greatest musicians and theorists of the era; Bill Evans, Max Roach, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Herb Pomeroy, Kenny Dorham, George Russell, Gunther Schuller and Jimmy Giuffre were all teaching there that summer. Equally significant were Robinson's classmates Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry, both of whom ended up informally teaching as well. (It was there that their rise to fame began, as John Lewis became their champion.)

The entire direction of Perry Robinson's playing changed as a result of his exposure to Coleman and Cherry. Just as important was his meeting Giuffre, with whom he later studied composition. Robinson vividly remembers watching a jam session that summer at which Giuffre was so amazed by Coleman's playing that he actually fell on the floor. Robinson was of course very excited by Coleman also, but as it had been with Scott, "I didn't imitate Ornette per se, but he influenced me to think more freely."

The first of Robinson's travels began shortly after the Lenox experience. After doing some gigs in Spain in a trio with Chuck Israels and Arnie Wise, Robinson played for a few months with the pianist Tete Montoliu. It was at this time that he first began applying Coleman's processes in his own improvisations. Robinson returned to Europe in 1961, attending the World Youth Festival in Helsinki, Finland, where he met Archie Shepp and Bill Dixon (of whom, more later).

The next year saw the release on Savoy of Robinson's first recording as a leader, Funk Dumpling. Perry had by this time become close friends with bassist Henry Grimes, and Grimes assembled the band for the date. The quartet on this session featured Paul Motian and a youthful Kenny Barron. In retrospect the personnel are fascinating, bringing together musicians of widely varying backgrounds. The album is important in jazz history for the style of playing and new sound it brought to the clarinet. The record is a colorful picture of Robinson's early fusion of influences: the melodic folk of "Moon Over Moscow" and "Home Is Where The Hearth Is," the Colemanesque approach of "Farmer Alfalfa" and "Sprite's Delight," the mainstream blues of "Funk Dumpling." About half the tunes were composed by Robinson (some while he was in Spain), the other half by Grimes. "That record epitomized for me what I was trying to do at the time," says Perry, "it was the harbinger of things to come for me."

Robinson's career took a detour, however, as the U.S. Army drafted him in 1963. Perry joined the Panama-based 79th Army band, which toured Central and South America (Joe Henderson had recently done his army time in the same group). It was during this army stint that another important piece of Robinson's style fell into place: He began a zen method of writing, randomly distributing dots on staff paper and modifying the results into finished compositions. The results (which Perry he called "automatic composition") sounded somewhat like the 12-tone music of Schoenberg and Berg.

"Bill Folwell [bass] and Tom Price [drums] were with me in that band," he says, "and we worked out that music every night. We didn't know how to play it at first, we had to figure it out. That was the first version of the Uni Trio." Perry eventually recorded all of the first batch of these "automatic" compositions, which included "Unisphere," "Touch of Strange" and "Warp Factor 9." In their isolation, Robinson and his army cohorts "had our own separate thing going, but we were getting records from the states too, like Albert Ayler, and [Paul Bley's] Footloose, and of course Coltrane, so we had the best of both worlds. When we got back to New York, the stuff we were doing fit right in to what was going on."

When he was discharged in 1965, Robinson moved to Brooklyn and kept the Trio together, although the personnel shifted over time to include David Izenson and Randy Kaye. This group continued playing together on and off over the next few years, and to this day one of Perry's favorite playing environments is a stripped-down trio.

The automatic writing had a strong effect on Robinson's improvising, as can be heard on Henry Grimes's only recording as a leader, The Call, recorded in late 1965 (issued on ESP). Recorded in trio with Tom Price, it was a furious session, about as far from the pleasant pastures of Funk Dumpling as one could imagine. Here was a clarinetist playing in the style of the "new thing," although Perry attributes this development in his sound to many influences, including the Uni Trio. The album featured the first recording of what evolved into Robinson's primeval piece for solo clarinet, "The Call," which he has recorded various times over the years.

By the mid-to-late 1960s Robinson had definitively joined the radicals of the jazz world, living amid a virtual colony of them in the East Village. Many of those radicals found him a valuable voice: Archie Shepp employed Perry on his Mama Too Tight, and Robinson also collaborated with Bill Dixon in several of the trumpeter's combos, unfortunately never recorded. This was not the case, however, with the Jazz Composers Orchestra. It was through this organization that he wound up on Carla Bley's suite Escalator Over The Hill and Charlie Haden's first Liberation Music Orchestra recording. Grachan Moncur III and Roswell Rudd also had Perry on their respective solo recordings through JCOA.

In 1971 Robinson made yet another important connection, beginning a decades-long association with the German bandleader Gunter Hampel. His first appearances on record with Hampel were on Out of New York and Spirits. Perry has participated periodically in Hampel's Galaxie Dream Band ever since. Other regulars of that ensemble have been the late Steve McCall, vocalist Jeanne Lee, and reedman Mark Whitecage, among others. Whitecage and Robinson had met a few years before and have played together in every conceivable setting in the decades since.

During the time he was doing much work with Hampel, Robinson unexpectedly found himself in the big-time. In 1973 he had joined the pianist Darius Brubeck's band, playing alongside and ultimately replacing the clarinetist Bob Fritz. This ensemble recorded the young Brubeck's first solo record, Chaplin's Back, before Darius and his brother Chris proposed to their father an expanded ensemble featuring them all together. Dave Brubeck, of course, said sure, and Perry was part of the resulting band, Two Generations of Brubeck. This group, which also came to feature the youngest brother, Danny Brubeck as well as Jerry Bergonzi, did a fair amount of touring and released two albums on Atlantic over three years.

Even while doing the Brubeck tours, Robinson continued to work all over the place in the '70s, particularly in the downtown New York loft scene which was raging at that time. He, the pianist John Fischer and Whitecage had a group called INTERface which played standards as well as free improvisations, and they recorded a number of times for the Composers Collective and ReEntry labels. And at long last Robinson recorded a second album under his own name: The Traveler featured a quartet with Phil Wilson, bassist Frank Luther and pianist Hilly Dolganes.

In addition to premiering several more Robinson originals such as "You Are Too Good" and "The Traveler," the recording marked the first time Perry recorded one of his father's compositions ("How Can I Keep From Singing"). The Travelerwas almost immediately followed up in 1978 by Kundalini on Paul Bley's Improvising Artists label. Perry and tabla man Badal Roy had been performing duets at that time, and for the recording Roy brought in his friend, multi-instrumentalist Nana Vasconcelos. "It's a short album," Robinson says, "but it was edited a lot; there's stuff left over, enough for another disk."

Given all this activity, Robinson was fairly familiar to jazz listeners in the 70's, and it is notable that he was placing highly in the Down Beat Critics Polls throughout the decade (usually in the oddly-named category "Talent Deserving Wider Recognition"). Even if his public profile dropped somewhat, Robinson remained as busy as ever around the turn of the '80s. In late 1979 Perry had the opportunity to play with the composer and clarinet master John Carter at a concert entitled "Clarinet Summit" organized by the German writer Joachim Berendt, not to be confused with Carter's own project of the same name. "I played on a piece he wrote for three clarinets. It was very technically difficult," Robinson recalls. Ironically, Carter died just before he was to record with Robinson and the German Clarinet Duo on what turned out to be the 1991 recording Materialized Perception. Perry and Mike Morgenstern directed a clarinet project of their own in the mid-80's called the Licorice Factory, a series of concerts in New York in which they recruited as many clarinetists onto one stage as they could. Participants included Eddie Daniels, Kenny Davern, Tony Scott, Dewey Redman, Ron Odrich, Gunter Hampel, Don Byron, and Mark Whitecage.

Of course, not every project involved other clarinets. In the early '80s Robinson headed Pipe Dreams with guitarist Scott Hardy and two fantastic vocalists, Judy Niemack and Janet Lawson. This band was one of the few Robinson configurations to mainly feature jazz standards. And an altogether new and different setting for Robinson came together in 1985 when his friend Gary Schneider, the founder and director of the Hoboken Chamber Orchestra, wrote Concerto for Jazz Clarinet and String Orchestra for him. With both written clarinet parts and improvised sections, it played to the soloist's strengths, and in performance it was often difficult for the listener to tell when the pre-composed sections ended and the blowing began. Performed several times over the space of a few years, the Concerto was never officially recorded for release.

It wasn't until 1986 that Robinson formed another long-term working group, a stellar quartet featuring the Russian pianist Simon Nabatov, bassist Ed Schuller and drummer Ernst Bier. "I had known Ernst for many years; he came to New York from Germany and studied with Elvin Jones. He told me about this great piano player Simon Nabatov, a young genius. Of course I knew Ed [son of Gunther] since he was a kid running around at the Lenox school." The band's first recording, Nightmare Island, was a live performance, and the quartet immediately proved to be the best platform yet for Robinson's sui generis style of playing. The group beautifully interpreted Perry's older material while inspiring the clarinetist to his very best blowing.

Nabatov, who has several recordings of his own on Enja, is a fiery improviser and accompanist who brought out shades and energies in Robinson's music not previously heard. In the decade-plus since their formation the quartet has toured Europe many times, though the Americas have only seen them play rarely. In 1990 Robinson followed up their first disk with Call To The Stars, a fine studio effort, but it was six years before they again recorded.

The wait was worth it, though, as can be heard on Angelology, which Robinson regards as the finest recording ever under his leadership. Nabatov left the group last year, and Robinson is equally excited about his new pianist, Christof Adams, with whom the Quartet toured for the first time this past spring. Perry notes that "Christof sings, too, so I'm thinking about having the quartet do standards with him singing some of them." This is somewhat of a departure for the band, which has always concentrated on originals.

Naturally, Perry continues his many and varied sideman gigs. A few years ago his old friend Burton Greene, based in Amsterdam, put together Klezmokum, a band which plays the more obscure Jewish Klezmer music. Robinson has gigged regularly and recorded twice with it, revealing yet another facet of his talents. Drummer Lou Grassi has also taken advantage of the Robinson sound, featuring him in his Po group. (This band recently made a landmark recording with Sun Ra alto master Marshall Allen for the CIMP label.) And Robinson's lifelong love of folk music continues, as seen in his trio with guitarists David Bernz and Rande Harris. Perry hopes for this trio to record a tribute to his father.

Robinson still remains loyal to the clarinet at a time when the number of artists who do so exclusively can, even today, still be counted on almost one hand (and virtually none improvise regularly on the small sopranino version of the horn, as Perry does). Most importantly, few practitioners of any instrument have quite the mixture of influences and experience that this singing, versatile player has.

Burton Greene comments of Robinson that "boxes, categories, separatism have little meaning for him. And therefore in his music... whatever he plays is always right on. I can't imagine anyone not liking Perry's music with its immediate warmth and personal communication--and even though some people might term it 'far out.' That's rare--to be able to create new ideas, not what is commonly accepted in the mainstream, and still bring it across immediately to a lot of people."

Perry Robinson continues to produce a thoroughly unique clarinet sound and accompanying style. The best of American melodic streams, both traditional and avant-garde, can be heard simultaneously in this fascinating musician.


Matt Snyder (msnyder@dragonfire.net) wrote the preceding article for Coda Magazine; it was the cover story of the Sept.-Oct. '99 issue.


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