HERB ROBERTSON: A brass user of all available means
Born February 21st 1951 in Plainfield, New Jersey, Clarence Clifford Robertson Jr. is the son of a Scottish/American father and an Italian/American mother. He grew up in the white middle class of Piscataway, New Jersey and became interested in music during his childhood.
As the young and shy boy that he was (and he remains), he received his first trumpet from the school at ten years old. By the age of twelve music and jazz were the most important and sole force in his life. At the same age, Clarence began formal lessons and within three years, he was already playing in local bands. While still in school (at around age 14), Clarence Clifford became widely known as "Herb", because the kids in the school (knowing that he plays trumpet) picked up that name for him (inspired by trumpeter Herb Alpert, a pop mariachi musician from California very listened to on the radio at that time).
Herb spent a lot of his young adolescence listening to John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Freddie Hubbard, knowing then that his life was bound to follow jazz. He did so by leaving New Jersey to attend the famous Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. While at Berklee, Robertson met and was inspired by Herb Pomeroy who was a confirmed senior trumpeter and top teacher at the school.
In 1978, Herb was invited and played in a New York performance by Denman Maroney, whose band included emerging avant-garde pioneers such as bassist Ed Schuller and singer Shelley Hirsch. People began to recognize his dramatic originality, his mysterious sensibility and his icily cool detached way of touching audiences.
Although Herb spent three years in college, he continued to educate himself about musical ideas and he realised that he enjoyed improvising as much as or even more than playing classic jazz standards. By 1981, Herb was performing and recording professionally with Tim Berne, Ed Schuler, Ray Anderson, Paul Motian, and Mack Goldsbury. Berne was already known in the New York City "downtown" scene and Herb would become a "downtown" pioneer when the Knitting Factory would open in 1987 codifying the term "downtown".
The "avant garde" style of Herb’s playing reflected the social and emotional climate of his time. Herb likes to challenge the listener by allowing himself to choose his own musical path rather than follow the traditional approaches to which many jazz musicians adhere to. All aspects of Herb’s music are at the discretion of his improvising.
Herb plays his horn in a lyrical and colourful way, often employing an array of mutes to make his sound more personal and unique. The mutes give him many ways to speak with and a way to tame his shyness. He also found unique ways to incorporate the classic American jazz styles into modern 20th century classical music, which is more likely linked to European jazz.
By 1985, Robertson became a serious arranger and composer in his own right and put together his first quintet with his album Transparency. He opened the Greenwich Village Jazz Festival in 1986 with Bill Frisell, Tim Berne, Lindsey Horner and Joey Baron: a première for an avant-garde band at a major jazz festival in the United States. Herb was highly acclaimed for his originality and the way in which he could speak words of his own.
In 1986, Stefan Winter put together an octet and recorded in Brooklyn, The Little Trumpet under Herb’s arrangements. This octet, composed of Herb Robertson: pocket trumpet, flugelhorn, cornet; Tim Berne: alto saxophone; Robin Eubanks: trombone; Bob Stewart: tuba; Bill Frisell: acoustic and electric guitars; Warren Smith: vibes, marimba; Anthony Cox: bass; Reggie Nicholson: drums, explored a wide range of subtle voicings on this recording.
Herb kept a long association with Winter’s JMT record label. In 1987 Herb brought together a quintet that included saxophonist Tim Berne, as well as such great musicians as vibraphonist Gust William Tsilis, Lindsey Horner and Joey Baron. He composed the music of «X"Cerpts and recorded it live on CD at Willisau, Switzerland while on European tour with his quintet.
The year 1988 saw the Herb Robertson brass ensemble coming up with Shades of Bud Powell in the jazz scene. Herb dares to bring in the avant-garde mind-set to the tabloids of Bud Powell, one of the most formidable creators of piano music in any time or idiom. Robertson's chord changes bring an idea of what can be a new thinking for be-boppers.
Certified saw it's day in 1991, again under the JMT label. This album shows Robertson in full maturity of his art. He added new modes or scales, rather than chord structures, as the basis for the soloist’s improvisations. The song Cosmic Child written in memory of drummer Peter Lemaître, stole a spotlight in the downtown music scene. The music of Certified proves once again Herb’s natural inclination to move forward into new and uncharted musical waters.
In 1995, Herb played the last concert under the JMT label at New York's Knitting Factory and Winter’s The Little Trumpet was mystified forever at this farewell. For a decade with JMT, Herb tamed his shy character through his horns bringing to jazz music his controversial style. The Little Trumpet sounded like the fox of Antoine de St. Exupéry saying:
'Please,' 'tame me!' ..."You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed....
You are responsible for your rose. . ." Herb’s rose is without a doubt, jazz!
Understanding Herb’s hyper-sensibility understands what St. Exupéry’s story is about. Clarence Clifford "Herb" Robertson is as The Little Prince living happily alone on his music planet. He lavishes his love and attention upon the horns, which in turn tormented him day after day. Herb’s is constantly in search of the secret of what is important in jazz and music.
From 1996, Herb ventured back into more free improvisations and recorded for projects of the CIMP and Cadence record labels. Knudstock 2000 is a unique album that gathers friends at Knud’s place in the same town where Herb was born 49 years before, Plainfield, NJ. The music is defiant and strongly speaks about the characters of each musician involved in this project. The inception on the album of Jim Hart, a long time lasting friend of Herb, brings to this release one of the keys to understand the magical charm that can work when Herb is around in any musical project.
The Legend of the Missing Link appears in 2001 (just when Herb left Berlin to move back to America). In this septet and quintet experience, Herb shows us the great improviser-trumpet player-mute wizard-free spirit he became. The music is totally in the avant-garde style, which characterizes Robertson and the love that musicians give to him throughout the world; proof that Herb is a fascinating human being and an icon of the 21st century trumpet world.
Herb is constantly called as a sideman to perform and record with great musicians such as Tim Berne, The Mark Helias Band, The Fonda / Stevens Group, The Simon Nabatov Quintet, Andy Laster's Hydra, Barry Guy's New Orchestra, Anthony Davis, Bobby Previte, Elliot Sharpe, Claude Tchamitchian, Mark Dresser, David Sanborn, The George Gruntz Concert Jazz Band, The London Jazz Composer's Orchestra, The Klaus Konig Orchestra, Rashied Ali, Ray Anderson, Bill Frisell, Paul Motian and Dewey Redman, Dom Minasi, Steve Swell, Joe Maneri, Gunther Schuller, among many others.
Currently Herb's own ensembles include: The Double Infinitives, The Herb Robertson Brass Ensemble, his improvising groupings with Dominic Duval, Jay Rosen, Paul Smoker and Phil Haynes as well as his trio with the eclectic Gerry Hemingway and original cello player Okkyung Lee. Among Robertson's performances and recordings for theatrical and dance productions are the Merce Cunningham Dance Foundation with David Behrman and the Public Theatre production of «Track and Field" with composer, John Zorn.
This year appears as a great vintage from Herb. He brought in a working group that will certainly go down in history; "The Downtown All-stars" is one of the great jazz quintets of all times. It includes pianist Sylvie Courvoisier, bassist Mark Dresser, alto saxophonist Tim Berne and drummer Tom Rainey. This quintet created under Herb's soul inspiration has recorded without doubt a timeless album called "Elaboration", under the label Trem Azul/ Clean Feed.
Between 2005 and 2006 the audiences will be delighted to see his latest innovation around the corner and Robertson in his great pick of his own mature sense of avant-gardism, brilliant and mysterious as usual. He will show us once again his ability to play moving solos that will endear him to audiences and will demonstrate nonetheless his affinity with tradition. Nowadays when jazz is going toward academia and repertory orchestras rather than nurturing forward, Herb still reminds us of what is a boundless jazz inventor, using all available brass means. In each concert, Herb Robertson, The Jazz Little Prince, past and future will pass to the audience The Little Prince knowledge of the healing power of love (his powerful relationship with the trumpet), which makes all things unique, and how the pain of saying goodbye (after each gig) is worth it if it changes how we look at the jazz-world.
Ana Isabel Ordonez, Summer 2005
In: "Tales from the Road taming Wild Cats"