In many ways Sydney saxophonist Andrew Robson is the epitome of the contemporary Australian jazz musician, an artist who is at once working to advance the jazz tradition while at the same time successfully exploring other musical terrain.
Winner of the prestigious Freedman Foundation Jazz Fellowship in 2003, Andrew has performed with some of the country’s jazz leading ensembles, including The catholics, Sandy Evans Group, The World According to James, Wanderlust and Ten Part Invention. For more than a decade, he has also been an integral part of the folk/world music group MARA.
The saxophonist’s main vehicle as leader is the Andrew Robson Trio, a band he formed in 1990 while studying in Canberra. Bassist Steve Elphick and drummer Hamish Stuart are his long-time collaborators. The Trio’s latest album Radiola, has recently been released on Andrew’s own label Lamplight Records.
In parallel, ABC Classics has released Bearing the Bell on which Andrew leads a quartet of leading improvisers in interpreting the hymns of Tudor composer Thomas Tallis.
Andrew Robson spoke to Jazz Australia about his various projects as well as his approach to music making more generally.
Jazz Australia: You have been playing in a trio format for quite a while. What are the challenges and pleasures of that structure?
Andrew Robson: I think it is the freedom of the trio that I find most appealing, and of course the freedom is both a pleasure and a challenge.
Our harmonies are created by the three of us interacting, rather than the harmony being constantly stated by a harmonic instrument. The chordal effect we create comes about through the interaction of the saxophone and double bass and the pitch of the drums also plays a big part too. I think often this interaction can be so easily overruled by a piano chord.
This sounds like I am being down on piano players – not at all. I love playing with a harmonic instrument too. It’s just that, for me, the trio feels so comfortable and natural. And I do love the way the bass and saxophone blend. We can hint at harmonies and still leave things beautifully ambiguous. I think there is an openness that comes with the saxophone, bass and drums format and as I said, this is both the challenge and the pleasure of the trio.
JA: The current trio has been together for more than a decade. What difference does it make to work with musicians who are so familiar with you and your music?
AR: I think our long history as a group allows us to take more risks within the music, because we trust each other. Over the 15 years we have been playing together we have developed a kind of informal language that we access when we play. This gives us a very strong foundation to build on.
Also, our musical relationships extend beyond my trio. Hamish and I worked together in groups led by the late Jackie Orszaczky and Steve and I perform together in Mara, Ten Part Invention, The World According to James as well as a number of other projects. So when we perform as the Andrew Robson Trio, the music is informed by all of these other influences and experiences.
JA: More particularly, what do Hamish and Steve bring to the trio? What you like about their playing and/or approach.
AR: When I asked Steve and Hamish to join the trio, I had no idea that they had not played together before (at least in a regular situation).
Steve has a wonderfully melodic approach to playing and he somehow manages to combine this freedom with the more traditional roll of a bass player. Hamish plays such a deep, rich time feel at any tempo. He creates a real sense of excitement when he plays. Steve and Hamish really enjoy working as a rhythm section as well. Their strengths compliment each other.
JA: You mention the idea of freedom. How does that manifest itself for you musically? Or, to put it another way, what are you looking for in terms of context or material to be “free”?
AR: The absence of a harmonic instrument, or any other instrument for that matter, does create much of the freedom. We are not tied down to specific harmonies provided by an accompanying chord voicing. Obviously, there are many wonderful pianists out there who are very sympathetic and supportive in their approach to accompaniment but for Steve and I to be able to explore the harmonies and intervals of a composition together is, for me, one of the great thrill of music making.
If we feel it necessary to really spell something out, we can do that. Steve also has double stop options (two strings sounded simultaneously) to fill out a chord further.
There is a freedom that comes from performing with only two other people. Often when we play, it feels like we are having a very heartfelt discussion, throwing ideas around between three good friends. I think this feeling of intimacy can be lost or at least diluted with larger ensembles. Of course larger groups bring many different delights and challenges to bear, but the trio is very much a bare-bones affair, making music with the basic elements of music, melody, harmony and rhythm. It’s like making a fire with two sticks (or three as the case may be)!
I also like to think of “freedom” in terms of the material itself. So elements such as the way we treat a melody, play time, improvise on forms or vamps. With a trio these things can be very flexible.
JA: Have Ornette Coleman’s often hard to articulate but nonetheless palpable ideas of musical freedom influenced you much?
AR: Undoubtedly. He is such a wonderful example of someone pursuing their art and their vision. I hear his music as being very joyous and optimistic and I do find Ornette’s music very uplifting. I think his groups have always highlighted that interactive creativity that is such a big part of the music I enjoy.
There are other saxophone players who have had a bigger influence on me as players of the instrument, but I think that Ornette is really so much more than an alto player. He is one of the very few musicians I can think of who has created a complete musical philosophy.
JA: And speaking of influences, on Radiola you dedicate pieces to two saxophonists: Lace Work to Steve Lacy and Big Ben to Bennie Wallace. Why did you choose to honor these players?
AR: It’s not the first time I have dedicated tunes to other musicians, but it is the first time I have been so blatant about it. In part it is a way of saying thank you to them. Also there is an element of hoping that someone who likes my music might go on to check out these saxophonists too, I don’t think either Steve or Bennie is as well known as they should be.
Both of the compositions in question (Big Ben and Lace Work) were definitely composed with them in mind. I did try to incorporate elements of each of these players’ style or approach. I think that both Bennie Wallace and Steve Lacy have very personalized approaches to their music and this is something that I am working towards.
JA: Personal expression is the essence of jazz but developing a unique sound is easier said than done. How does one go about it? And which Australian musicians have done this most successfully in recent years, do you think?
I have spent a lot of time trying to develop my sound on the saxophone, and I have always just trusted in what that will bring. For me, it would feel dishonest to try to sound like someone else, so hopefully that just leaves me sounding like myself. I think that sounding like yourself is more or less inevitable, but I agree that some musicians have achieved this more effectively than others.
I really believe we are very lucky in our isolation in Australia. I do think this country has produced an amazing number of musicians with very distinctive sounds and approaches. In terms of saxophone players, Bernie McGann is completely unique. Bernie is instantly identifiable. Mark Simmonds also has a very distinctive tone and approach as does Sandy Evans.
JA: Along with Radiola, you have also recently released Bearing the Bell, on which you, Sandy Evans, James Greening and Steve Elphick interpret hymns by the Tudor composer Thomas Tallis. It’s a lovely album. What drew you to the music and how did you approach the material?
Steve Elphick first introduced me to Thomas Tallis many years ago. He brought the third hymn along to a rehearsal. This is the hymn tune that Vaughn Williams used in his very well known Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis. We performed it once or twice but left after that, mainly for want of a better context in which to play it. Ever since this I have been looking for a way to play and present this music. About five years ago I discovered the other Tallis hymns and decided to arrange and record them in this way.
In writing the arrangements I tried to give each of the musicians a chance to improvise and play with the material and at the same time retain the spirit of the original composition. I am the first to admit that I am no expert on Tallis and his music, but this was quite a liberating place from which to approach the arrangements. I just had to focus on the music without worrying about stylistic concerns. We were not setting out to give instrumental readings of the original, the idea was to come up with something new.
JA: It has been suggested that the success of Officium, the album produced by the Hilliard Ensemble with Jan Gabarek, and the popularity of composers such as Arvo Part, suggest a yearning for music that has a spiritual dimension. How do you see it?
This is an aspect of music I have always been attracted to. Some music may tap into this aspect more than others. Obviously it very evident in the music of Coltrane for instance, but it does seem to me that if music is sincere and heartfelt, then the spiritual aspect is more likely to be apparent.
In terms of my Tallis project, I am not trying to make any obvious religious connection. The decision to use the material was based entirely on the music itself. Tallis composed the pieces to be sung in church, but it was a deliberate decision not to include the text in the liner notes, as I wanted to let the music speak for itself. I am happy for the listener to hear what they wish in the music.
JA: What are your plans for the remainder of the year and what are some of your longer term goals?
At the moment, my main aim is to work as much as I can with my trio. We are busy promoting the new record and have plans for a live album somewhere down the line.
I have been writing and playing in a duo with John Pochee. It is such a thrill to play with John, he has such a personal approach to the drum kit and he encompasses so much of the Australian jazz sound. He brings such a depth of expression to his music I am hoping to do some more two-out performances with John.
I have also recorded a new album with James Greening’s quartet The World According to James which we are hoping to release early 2009. I do try to write as much as possible so there are always a few projects on the backburners.
I have just started my own independent record label Lamplight Records, so that is also keeping me busy.
Longer term, I have a few ideas but right now I am just working on my playing and with a bit of luck things will flow from that.
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