01 Apr Maestro Perry Robinson-Clarinetist and Jazz Icon
Maestro Perry Robinson-Clarinetist and Jazz Icon
This post originally appeared on my website a number of years back. I’ve now updated and rewritten this entry.
Please meet my friend and mentor who’s been an inspiration to me for nearly twenty years now: Perry Robinson…
Throughout the history of the jazz clarinet, there exists no one like the mercurial clarinetist Perry Robinson. The man is a complete original and a living legend, having recorded on such famous albums as the first Charlie Haden Liberation Music Orchestra recording, Carla Bley’s epic Escalator Over The Hill and The Call, Heny Grimes legendary free jazz disc on ESP records. His debut as a leader, Funk Dumpling on Savoy Jazz (1961), features a band of legendary proportions: drummer Paul Motian, pianist Kenny Barron and Henry Grimes on bass .
Recorded when Perry was 19 years of age, it has withstood the test of time, still sounding fresh and interesting to this day. This recording was my introduction to Perry’s work. I remember bringing it home and listening to it the first time, and being stuck by his highly original tone and conception. Little did I know how much influence he would have on me over the course of the next 20 years……..
(For a more detailed look into the life of Perry Robinson, the link to the Perry Robinson Wiki site can be found here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perry_Robinson)
My friendship with Perry Robinson, often referred to by his friends as Meist, short for Maestro, began after reading his hilarious biography The Traveler (Writers Club Press), co written with Florence Witzel. The details of his life are incredible and too much to go into here, but the accounts of his days gigging with Dave Brubeck (while Jerry Bergonzi was in the band, I might add…) and other jazz legends is truly fascinating. At the end of the book it states that Perry was alive and well and living in Jersey City, NJ. I called him up and literally told him he was my spiritual clarinet grandfather and that we should be friends. We had several conversations over a few years and traded CD’s. Over time a plan was hatched and the result was my recording Sinfonetta, made in 2004 in New York City with Perry, George and Ed Schuller, and Frank Kimbrough. During the recording process, although I was familiar with Perry’s playing, I was struck by the lightness of his tone and attack, and the strength of his solos and the presence of his personality in the music. I must defer to some written words that I believe describe the personality, style and imagination that came across to me in the Maestro’s playing: Critic Rich Scheinin described Perry to me in an email recently….”It’s almost like folk music, and with such a free and impish kind of spirit, and very melodic.” Perry’s friend from New York, Matthew Snyder, said this to me in an email recently, “Nice transcription, it shows what great, understated and beautifully constructed solos Perry was capable of playing even in 1962.” In short, I couldn’t have said it any better myself.
Some time ago I set out to transcribe a couple of Perry’s solos, in order to get a better sense of what he’s made of musically, and to try to deconstruct and demystify some of his work. If you delve fully into Perry’s music you will see what an incredible variety of styles he makes use of; I find that The Maestro has a foot in both jazz camps, the traditional jazz improviser using conventional harmony, and the free jazz vocabulary that incorporates microtones, growls, and multiphonics. And that duality, to me, is the main thing makes him truly original and great.
In in the Fall of 2004 I ventured to the East Coast for my cousin Jaime Sowlakis’ wedding, to the lovely soon to be Tricia Sowlakis, in Connecticut. In addition to the wedding I booked some studio time in Brooklyn and hired some of my favorite musicians to do a couple of recordings sessions. Those musicians were brothers George Schuller and Ed Schuller, respectively on drums and bass, Frank Kimbrough on piano, and Perry himself on clarinet. I packed a clarinet and a bass clarinet along for the trip, and took a stack of compositions with me. What resulted was my self produced recording Sinfonetta. One day of recording yielded enough material for most of a CD–a testament to the collective abilities of these fine New York jazz musicians. It was a pleasure to work with these guys, and I will be forever proud of the results. Here is a link to the All About Jazz review that Ollie Bivins wrote about Sinfonetta…..https://www.allaboutjazz.com/sinfonetta-mark-sowlakis-pacific-winds-review-by-ollie-bivens.php
On the third try we nailed my tune Simple Beauty, which gave Perry a chance to show off his gifts in a minor tonality. I wanted to give him a platform to make that kind of introspective statement that only he can make, and something minor and moody seemed like the perfect vehicle to make that to happen. What resulted was a Perry Robinson classic solo with great phrases, an atmospheric mood and vibe, and like Perry himself, so very relaxed. The breathiness of his tone, reminiscent of his mentor Tony Scott, really colors his sound here. This is a study in how to communicate “feeling” in the music; his note choices and phrasing are truly sublime. A simple, beautiful and elegant solo……..you can hear it here: https://soundcloud.com/user-84203206/simple-beautyperry-solo. The pdf transcription of Simple Beauty and Perry’s solo appears below. If you are a clarinetist, please feel free to play along with the recording. You will really get a feel for Perry’s sound and phrasing from this.
We nailed another tune of mine, Seaside Sanctuary, in no time flat. It really shows Perry at his best from the melodic side. In the moment Perry forgot that he was supposed to take two choruses on this tune, as Frank Kimbrough does on his solo. I sure do miss that second chorus, as he was developing some nice shapes here. In spite of that he managed to create a very clever short solo that hangs together brilliantly; you’ll see again how he stays well within the traditional harmony. Maestro plays such cohesive phrases, he truly has a gift for melody. I love what he did with this here, it is a Meist Classic! Hear it here: https://soundcloud.com/user-84203206/seaside-sanctuaryedit. Again the pdf of Seaside Sanctuary and Perry’s solo appears below.
We also did a duet take of Perry’s tune The Call. After we trade the melody statement we get into a call and response musical conversation that shows the freer side of both our personalities. There are some free jazz phrases and some modern clarinet techniques thrown in, and also some New Orleans style things. Again, the dual aspects of Perry’s playing are on display here, the melodic and the “out” things, and I was influenced in the moment and certainly gravitated towards things he was suggesting. It was a lot of fun, and Perry managed to add the nice harmony part to the line at the end, and exclaimed, “Perfect timing,” which you can hear at the very end of the track. Give it a listen here…https://soundcloud.com/user-84203206/the-call
The clarinet has been forgotten for a long time in jazz. There are only a few great ones left to admire and study; Perry Robinson certainly has blazed a path for us. His recorded legacy is amazing, and I hope you will take the time to find some of his music and go on a musical journey with him. He’s opened my eyes to some things on the clarinet and in music that I might have missed out on had I not followed his path. Perry Robinson, what a character and what an original. Thanks Maestro……Markos
P.S. I have quite a bit of material about Maestro Robinson that will appear in future blog posts, including a blindfold test I did in his apartment with him, and some interviews where he discusses the free jazz scene in Europe, among many other things. I will be editing the audio and transcribing some of the conversations in order to write coherent blog posts from this material. I also have a large collection of pictures that he gave to me that include the photo of him above as a child. If you love Perry as much as I do you will no doubt enjoy the future blog posts that will delve deeper into his life and career. Please stay tune for that….