Sunday, May 11, 2014

George Robert - Swiss Master

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

It is always great fun to encounter a musician who is new to you and whose music moves your ears in different directions.

Such was the case for me with the Swiss-born alto/soprano saxophonist and clarinetist George Robert [“row-bear”-  if you are looking for a pronunciation of his last name that is closer to the French].

George’s career had been underway for some time before I discovered his work, initially due to Philip Barker’s production of George’s Tribute CD in 1994 for his Jazz Focus label [JFCD 004]. George’s quintet on this recording featured Italian pianist Dado Moroni.

I became a great fan of Dado’s playing and a few years later Philip and I co-produced Out of the Night: The Dado Moroni Trio on Jazz Focus [JFCD 032].

Philip had compiled discographies of the recordings of both George and Dado from which I learned of the 1993 recording, George Robert with The Metropole Orchestra Conducted by Rob Pronk [Mons CD 876-993], and two other CDs by George from around the same period: a collaboration between George and Dado entitled Youngbloods [1992, Mons CD 1897] and The George Robert Quartet Featuring Mr. Clark Terry [1990, TCB 90802].

It wasn’t until March, 1999 when I was in Seattle for the recordings sessions of Dado’s Out of the Night that Bill Goodwin, the drummer on the date, hipped me to two records by George that are among my enduring favorites. George made these with a quintet that he co-led with trumpeter Tom Harrell and which existed for about three years as a working group with a rhythm section made up of Dado on piano, Reggie Johnson on bass and Bill on drums.

These are Sun Dance: The Tom Harrell - George Robert Quintet [Contemporary CCD 14037-2] and Lonely Eyes: The George Robert - Tom Harrell Quintet [GPR 1002]. Bill Goodwin produced both dates.

Dan Morgenstern, the esteemed Jazz author and the Director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University [now retired], penned the insert notes to both recordings.

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles wrote to Dan requesting permission to reproduce them as part of this feature which he very graciously granted.

Together, Dan’s writings will provide you with a comprehensive and informative introduction to the engaging and exciting music of George Robert.

© -Dan Morgenstern: used with the author’s permission; copyright protected; all rights reserved.


“At this moment in time, nothing is more important to jazz than the presence of gifted young players who know and love the true language of the music and are committed to its continuation. The list of such musicians, happily, has been growing of late, and on the evidence of this splendid record, we can safely add to it the name of George Robert.

What this young man has put together here is a band - not just a bunch of guys who met in a studio and went through the motions, but a musical collective made up of players who think and feel together, listen to each other and make their own music.

A finely matched blend of seasoned veterans and young comers is what we have here, and there may be something symbolic in the fact that the former are Americans and the latter Europeans - though the time when you could tell most European jazzmen by their accent is long since past, they still take their inspiration from this side of the pond.

Yet, for Swiss-born George Robert, jazz is something that came quite naturally, from his home environment. His American-born mother's love for jazz was shared by his father, five brothers and two sisters; the boys all played instruments, and formed a family band. George started piano at 8, took up clarinet at 10, and studied with Luc Hoffmann at a distinguished conservatory in his native Geneva.

"I would always hear jazz records at home.”' he said, "and I feel that my ears got a solid foundation from that, at a very early stage. Later on, I met a lot of American musicians passing through Geneva and played sessions with them at my home. Among them, Jimmy Woode, Sam Woodyard, and Billy Hart really encouraged me when I was just 13 or 14. And studying classical clarinet gave me discipline, control and technique that were most helpful when I picked up the saxophone."

Among the alto players who influenced young George were Johnny Hodges, Benny Carter, Charlie Parker, and Cannonball Adderley. "They all had an influence,”' he recalled, "but when ! was about 14, a Phil Woods album, Alive & Well in Paris, really caught my ear - his gorgeous sound was the first thing that attracted me.”'

Subsequently, other aspects of Woods's playing - "his lyricism, impeccable time, total command of the instrument, and beautiful musical conception" -made their impact on him, but he stressed that "besides his unique artistry, there's his commitment to the music, setting a very high standard that is so inspiring to a young musician...  I love Phil.”

A few years after coming to the U.S. in the fall of 1980 to study at Berklee, George even took a few lesson with Woods, but his major at Berklee was composing and arranging. "What was most important about my time there was being able to study with Joseph Viola - the best teacher I've ever had and an exceptional person, who taught me so much about the saxophone. Andy McGhee was very helpful and encouraging too." During this period, George played lead alto in several big band and honed his writing skills: "My masters have always been Duke Ellington, Thad Jones, Oliver Nelson, and Horace Silver. "

In 1985, George moved to New York, having accepted a scholarship at the Manhattan School of Music, from which he obtained a master's degree in 1987. He played lead alto in the MSM Big Band, but there was professional as well as academic experience. In 1984, his quartet received an "Outstanding performance" award from Down Beat and performed at the Montreux jazz Festival. In 1985, he worked with bassist Ray Drummond in Finland and recorded his first album, with Ron McClure on bass, Niels Lan Doky on piano, and Klaus Suonsaari on drums, for his own GPR label. In 1986, he performed at the American Music Festival in New York with Buster Williams and old friend Billy Hart; the same year found him in the company of Buster Williams, Billy Higgins and the wonderful Italian pianist heard on this album, Dado Moroni, at the Cully Jazz Festival in Switzerland.

The group heard here was formed in the spring of 1987 and toured in Switzerland and France; the album was recorded in Lausanne during the tour. Another European tour was set for the spring of '88, along with some summer festival appearances.

“I’ve always admired Tom, both as a player and a composer; to have him next to me is a great inspiration", the leader said. The two horns get a beautiful blend, and have a very special way of interacting, notably in the interludes of collective improvisation that are a feature of the band. "Jimmy Woode introduced me to Dado in 1985, and since then, I've always worked with him. He's a wonderful pianist. His touch is just superb, and the way he comps is a rare gift." This young man moved to Amsterdam in 1986, and I've not the slightest doubt that we'll hear much from and about him. Bassist Reggie Johnson, with whom George had worked before, was the perfect choice. "Reggie is an exceptional musician and the ideal bassist for us - we love him. And Bill has been a friend for a long time. I think he's one of the most musical drummers around." Goodwin's outstanding solo on the title cut proves that statement, and his experience as a record producer came in handy as well. In a varied program of uniformly excellent originals by Robert and Harrell, the band strikes a happy balance between ensemble and solo strength. The leader gets a fine, full sound from both his alto and soprano (he handles the latter with a fluency that reflects his clarinet training) and tells a story when he plays. So does Harrell, surely one of the most underrated and underpublicized trumpeters of our time (and quite a flugelhornist, too). The rhythm section is a delight, with a real feeling for not only time but also dynamics, and works hand-in-glove with the multihued horns.

"We always play acoustic jazz," said Robert. "That's the way we want it... to preserve the true sound of each instrument."

When you sound as good as these five guys, there's no need for artifice. This music speaks for itself; it swings and sings and it's always alive. We look forward to hearing more from George Robert and company - a new branch on the tree of jazz with exceptionally solid roots.”

Dan Morgenstern Director, Institute of Jazz Studies, Rutgers University

Lonely Eyes

“This is the second album by what is unquestionably one of the best groups on the contemporary jazz scene. This is music that radiates togetherness and reflects George Robert's statement that the quintet, together since the spring of 1987, "is like a family; everybody loves working with one another... the chemistry is there".
Indeed it is, and the music here surpasses the excellence of the quintet's impressive debut on records (Sun Dance : Contemporary C-14037), which received critical acclaim from all comers of the jazz spectrum.

As on that first record, the quintet here presents its own music. All the compositions are originals from within the group-five by Robert, three by Harrell, and one by the band's youngest member, pianist Dado Moroni - and they are not just sketches on blues or "Rhythm" changes, but genuine pieces of music with an impressive variety of moods and textures. The quintet achieves its own identity and freshness, but it does so without artifice or self-conscious striving for novelty or effect. Clearly, there is a shared language among all its members, a language solidly rooted but never mired in the jazz tradition. The music flows with a natural ease that is a pleasure to hear.

The horns of the co-leaders are splendidly matched, both in ensemble and solo roles. Doubling and skillfully varied writing allow for a textural variety quite amazing for a small group. Harrell, who finally seems to be getting some of the credit long due him as one of the most original and consistently excellent creative improvisers of our time, plays trumpet and flugelhorn and gets his own sound, at once warm and brilliant, from both. Robert's main horn is the alto sax, from which he gets a strong, personal sound, but he also has mastered the soprano and the clarinet (the latter his first horn after starting music on the piano, and heard here with the quintet for the first time on record). These two have marvelous rapport; truly together in ensemble unison, harmony or interplay, and feeding off each other in solo excursions.

The rhythm section is always finely attuned to its supporting tasks, which are far from routine-this group deals with subtle rhythmic as well as harmonic demands-but it seems inaccurate to describe this dynamic triumvirate as a mere "rhythm section". The greatly gifted Moroni is not only a wonderfully sensitive and alert accompanist, but adds solo strength (his modal ballad Adrienne reveals talent as a composer as well). Reggie Johnson's impeccable intonation and rhythmic strength would be enough, but he also steps out as a soloist, and when he does, it's not in the obligatory manner of giving the bassist some, but with lucidly musical (and never over-long) statements. Master percussionist Bill Goodwin is always there, adding colors and textures to the quintet's overall sonic meld and providing the kind of absolute rhythmic security that allows everyone to relax and play without fear of falling off the wire. On this album, Bill modestly restrains his solo role, but when he steps front and center, he makes musical sense.

There isn't a weak link in this group, and there isn't a weak track on this program. Robert's Quest for Peace and The Long Trail are parts of his "American Indian Suite"; the title track of the group's debut album rounds out this fine composition. Trail, with its haunting minor theme, has a rhythmic feel that reflects the suite's inspiration; Robert observed a ritual dance in Wyoming. It's heartening (and indicative of the universal character of jazz) that such quintessentially American music was created by a Swiss-born musician who came to the U.S. in 1980. On this piece, and elsewhere as well, Robert shows his skill at constructing solos that build in intensity and have a beginning and an end - too many players start hot and wind up with nowhere to go.

Another facet of Robert's writing is Lonely Eyes, a most attractive ballad in 3/4 ; Harrell is beautifully expressive here, both lyrical and abstract, and Robert shows he knows how to "sing" a melody. His Sensual Winds has a bossa flavor and gives us a taste of his clarinet, fluent and lively. And One for Thad is a loving tribute to one of Robert's major influences, the late Thad Jones. With a shuffle rhythm and gospel feel, it also contains the elements of surprise and humor that were part and parcel of Jones's special genius. Robert plays soprano on this (also in keeping with Thad's legacy); he keeps it in tune and displays, as on all his horns, a fine tonal quality.
Harrell weighs in with the fetching Opaling, somehow reminiscent of Tadd Dameron, but Tom's no copycat. These guys know their changes. Visions of Gaudi, inspired by the works of the visionary and eccentric Spanish architect, is a relaxed samba with lovely, open horn voicings and gently emotional solo work. The third Harrell opus, Coral Sea, presents yet another hue in the palette of this versatile ensemble : flugel and low-register clarinet combine most warmly and attractively. Robert gets a beautiful sound in the chalumeau register, and the piece ebbs and swells like the tide.

This remarkable quintet has now been together, at this writing, for more than two years; 1989 began with a successful European tour, to be followed by one of the U.S. and Canada, and another of Europe. As this record shows, they just keep getting better. "This band is committed to keep working together", says Robert.
Congratulations, gentlemen - and please do stay together ! We need you to keep the jazz flame burning bright.”

Dan Morgenstern
Director, Institute of Jazz Studies,
Rutgers University

The following video tribute to George features a track from his Tribute Jazz Focus CD on which he performs with Oliver Gannon, guitar, Dado Moroni, piano, Reggie Johnson, bass and George Ursan, drums. The tune is Kenny Barron’s Voyage.

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