Courtesy of Herb Robertson

Winter & Winter



I'm no expert and don't mention myself in conversations as a jazz "critic" of any sort, but alas, I did stay at a Holiday Inn last night and having done so, I can say with confidence that Herb Robertson is one of the most inventive trumpeters on the block. He placed himself in fine company, having played with stalwarts Vinny Golia and Tim Berne. I spoke with Robertson about a recent revival of his music, his often critically misunderstood music, and his promising future, as always, unedited and in his own words.

FRED JUNG: Let's start from the beginning.

HERB ROBERTSON: I guess originally, it was when I was like twelve years old. My junior high music teacher introduced me to jazz. I was playing the trumpet for two years at that point. I started playing it at ten and around twelve, that is when he introduced me to jazz and I was just amazed. It was through Miles Davis actually. He turned me onto a Miles Davis record. I was amazed at the facility that the trumpet had at that point. I was just twelve years old and so it was a mind-blowing experience for me to hear the trumpet played like that. He turned me on, when it was like 1965, it was like earlier, it was Milestones. I think the record was Milestones, which was an earlier recording. When I got into him, I was twelve years old so it would have been about 1965, when I was checking out Milestones. And then I immediately went out and started buying his records. Of course, the more modern stuff like ESP, I really couldn't get next to that, but I had a curious, I am very curious about the music. I didn't understand it, but I was very curious about it. So it was Milestones and Kind of Blue.

FJ: Those are bebop records.

HERB ROBERTSON: Yeah, well, at that time, because they were bebop records, I started checking out Art Blakey records and I really started getting into the Blue Note records and Horace Silver's recordings and stuff. I was just checking out a lot of stuff in that style. When I started advancing as far as hearing music, I think it was when I was a sophomore or junior in high school, I heard John Coltrane's Expression record and that just blew my mind. I couldn't make heads or tails out of that music at all. It was just beyond my comprehension and being involved with jazz up to that point as a teenager, I was just curious about it, but I was still dismissing it as something that I couldn't really comprehend. But I was curious about it and I kept it in the back of my mind. It wasn't until I started listening more, it wasn't really until I went to Berklee and then I would come home, I was checking out Chick Corea's music and stuff, that I started branching out into the more freer forms of music.

FJ: Berklee was a catalyst.

HERB ROBERTSON: Oh sure, Fred. Art Baron was there. When I was at the school, they used to have these jam sessions at night after the classes were finished. I usually would just hang around as a freshmen when I first got there and I went down, they used to have these jam sessions downstairs and I started hearing people jamming other forms of music. Art Baron was there. I was involved with him. I was just really curious as to what was this other stuff because they really weren't teaching this stuff at Berklee. It was just basic big band and some improvisations and classes like that. So I was really curious as to what was going on with these newer players. There was a few players there. Like Art Baron really sticks out in my mind of playing more like Roswell Rudd and coming from that. It just peaked, the whole interest, it wasn't until I left Berklee that I really started delving into that type of music, where I really started understanding it and emotionally, really connecting with it. That was later on, after I left Berklee. But all during the Berklee experience, I don't put it down as far as giving me a certain aspect of jazz. It definitely had a purpose for me in introducing me to different forms at that time, but it was when I left Berklee that I really started branching out and figuring out and just checking out Chick Corea's music and just checking out a lot of music. Just listening a lot and starting to incorporate that into jam sessions afterwards. There was an underground thing that was happening there, but it was never really taught in school. It was brought to our attention and it was up to us whether we really wanted to go in that direction. My whole thing was hard bop. That was my whole thing as far as when I was growing up as a teenager, just playing a lot of hard bop. I even listen to recordings today of people made recordings in the Seventies when I was doing stuff like that, that I don't even recognize my own playing. I definitely said, "Who is that playing the trumpet?" "Well, that's you playing the trumpet." I was cracking up (laughing). I don't play like that anymore and maybe I should start incorporating that more back into my style. I was definitely coming from a real hard bop background.

FJ: What is your style now?

HERB ROBERTSON: Well, Fred, my style now would be more, I try to still, I still love to swing. That is deep inside so I like to go back and forth. I like to play through. I like to play lines. I like to play lyrical, melodic lines on the trumpet. I do some intervallic things but I don't like to really, completely leave the tradition behind or whatever they want to call it. I want to incorporate everything and make it have lyrical sense. My whole structure is form. I try to remember things that I play as I am playing, certain aspects of my playing because if I am creating something new, I try to remember things that I played previously, like if I am doing an improvisation and something peaks my interest, I say, "I will have to remember that." Even though I keep going, the thinking process is really quick, but then I really go back and think that I can recapitulate that, so I really have a form and structure to it, where I like to go back and recreate melodies that I started before.

FJ: Yet media perception of one of free music.

HERB ROBERTSON: I mean, I think free is a general term and I am thinking it is not free. It is more structured than a lot of music. Free, if we are talking about free, we're talking about the Sixties, when everything was full blown, just go for it, total freedom, no structure. I think what Vinny (Vinny Golia) and Tim (Tim Berne) was saying is how we can incorporate that into a form and give it structure and utilize our freedom through a structure. I think it becomes more form oriented and more structurized.

FJ: Let's touch on your collaborations with Tim Berne.

HERB ROBERTSON: I met Tim through jam sessions in New York. When I came to New York, I started just doing a lot of sessions and he was associated with Ed Schuller and Ed was playing with Tim and he had his Empire label happening at the time and Ed was recording with him. I was playing with Ed at some sessions and Tim came to a session in New York and we just started jamming together. It was during a free session that we really started hooking up. It was really nice because Tim thought that we really had something going here. There was some kind of communication. It continued since then and he started inviting me to play some of his written music and he had a European tour coming up pretty immediately after that and I ended up going to Europe with him with a quartet of Paul Motian and Ed and Tim. That's when we did those records for Soul Note in the early Eighties. Timing was right as far as here was like a brother, someone who I could really identify with and he invited me to go to Europe with him for his tour and that's how that started. That was like late '82 when I met him.

FJ: Both Tim and Vinny have had to release records on their own labels and your recording legacy is a handful of indies, mostly European labels and Cadence/CIMP. In a time not so far, far away, Alfred Lion put out whatever an artist recorded on a label called Blue Note.

HERB ROBERTSON: I think so, especially on the American labels. Every label that you mentioned were European labels and with American labels now, it is hard to make a contact with them, except for some people who get through and can kind of do a few records like that. Even with JMT (now Winter & Winter), I actually, it is funny you mentioned that, Fred, because just two days ago, I got an email from Stefan Winter who has Winter & Winter now and he wants me to arrange some music, some modern music for an early string ensemble, like viola da gamba and those instruments. He has an early music ensemble and he called me and contacted me. It's been years since he was in touch with me and he wants me to arrange something for that in a modern way with a trumpet. He's reissuing all that JMT stuff and all of the sudden, he contacts me. I thought that was the end of it, but then all of the sudden, their interest has peaked again and they come out and say that they want me to record with them again. I believe as long as you keep something going, you can always go back to some of those people, but as far as major labels in America, I really have a problem with them and I'm not really at the point where I have the facility right now to do my own label. I've never really done that. I've always depended on producers with my music, putting it out on their labels.

FJ: Touring is the States is even more of a challenge.

HERB ROBERTSON: Yeah, exactly, Fred. As I did do a few tours through the years and we'd go to these little out of the way places in the States, there's fans that come up and say, "Oh, we know you. We heard of you for years. It's great that you finally came down." You go out there to the middle of nowhere and you play your music and they've been checking it out for years and they are meeting you finally. And it always surprised me. I would be there going, "Wow, you heard of me?" I would have never thought that the music was reaching people in the States and yet people were coming out and they said that they really knew what was happening in these small pockets of areas in America. It really surprised me and it made me feel good in a way that this is reaching some type of, there is an audience here in America. There are people out there who are really checking some stuff out.

FJ: Let's touch on Sound Implosion (CIMP). Like Vinny, you have at your disposal a traveling arsenal of sounds.

HERB ROBERTSON: Yeah, yeah, I always like to have my bags with whistles, flutes, and toys and even piano. I love playing piano, the acoustic piano, which one of these days, I will come out, I love playing the piano and any instrument I can get my hands on. But basically, I have a bag of things besides my trumpet and my mutes, flutes and whistles and calls and things that I have had in my arsenal for years since the Seventies. I always love having that, especially at free sessions like that, just being able to create sounds at a certain point. The trumpet is not going to work here or I get tired of playing the trumpet or whatever and I pick up a mouthpiece like a saxophone mouthpiece and all of the sudden, I am playing a saxophone mouthpiece. I think it really comes down to a thinking process of improvisation, again coming back to structure and form and how to make these sounds. It is not like a child playing a bell or something. When I am putting that bell in there, like a little bell or a little whistle or something, I really feel that it belongs there at the moment. So I always want those instruments available. Sometimes I don't even pick them up at all. There will be nights where I will just play the trumpet. But as long as they're there in front of me, at least I'm surrounded by all of these things here.

FJ: Is there a tap to the flow or are the ideas limitless?

HERB ROBERTSON: It is limitless. The possibilities are endless on the instrument itself. I have found that. What limits is the physicality as I get older, I'm finding it harder to play the trumpet even though I have more music to put out. I feel my music is stronger, but now I have to work harder in keeping the trumpet up to the music, where before, I had more trumpet and less music. Not less music, but a way of organizing it to get it through the horn.

FJ: The tragic irony.

HERB ROBERTSON: Yeah, yeah, so now it is the complete opposite. I have the music now, but some days, I am just not making it on the instrument and I better practice it and that is what I do. Even, I am fifty-one years old and I am practicing the trumpet everyday because even my teachers would say, "Wait till you hit forty and you are just going to sail. You hit your thirties and you won't even have to practice. You'll just play and then you are going to hit forty-five, forty-six and you're going to need to get back to the horn again just to practice the mechanics of the instrument (laughing)."

FJ: Does the approach vary for a larger ensemble recording (Music for Long Attention Spans)?

HERB ROBERTSON: Yeah, there is a different approach. What I do is I, I'm very symphonic in the way I approach music as far as instrumentation. When I have a trio, with a trio, which is a magic number, the trinity, there is something special about a trio, things can kind of just move along. But a lot depends on each individual on a high level as far as being really capable and always playing something just to keep the thing going. Now with a sextet, it is more orchestral with a sextet because there is more instrumentation, so I approach it more like the trumpet isn't playing in an orchestra all the time and I like to listen to other people play and then I hear different sounds happening and I say, "What can I put in here?" So I kind of edit my playing a little bit in a certain way as far as technique or whatever, just keeping up with everybody. At that point, it is kind of like a part of the interior of the music, like a part of the plot as they would say. I am going to be subtle and almost unrecognizable as an instrument because it is blending in with other stuff. With the trio, it is more trumpet. It is more I am out front. It is a trio, bass, drums, and trumpet, so everybody has to be really on the case all the time. I think it is harder to play with a trio than it is with a sextet in a free situation.

FJ: On consecutive days, you recorded Ritual (duo with Phil Haynes) and Brooklyn-Berlin (5tet) for the CIMP label.

HERB ROBERTSON: Yeah, each situation, we had to set up a different environment. In other words, because we were playing, we had this quintet recording to do and then we had this duo recording to do and with this Spirit Room, this little room that Bob Rusch has up there, it is kind of like a little living room with a fireplace and people set up. It has carpet and things like that, but we wanted to change the environment when the duo happened, just to really give it a different flavor. So we took the rug out and we had candles and all this stuff, just to change the environment.

FJ: Jersey raised, you picked up and moved across the Atlantic.

HERB ROBERTSON: I was married and my wife and I separated in Brooklyn. I was living in Brooklyn for seventeen years and I moved out of Jersey and I went to Brooklyn and I got married in 1991 to a German woman. Around 1995, she went back to Germany. We were still married, but separated. So we were separated for about two years and then in 1997, we decided we would give it a second chance and so I went over to Europe and she happened to get a hold of this great apartment. Ed was living there. Ed Schuller was living there at the time. I said, "OK, let me try and move to Europe." It was more of a domestic move than it was a career move. I think it had more to do with family, of us trying to work our marriage out, but it didn't work. Second time around, it just didn't pan out. I did get some things going. I was there for almost three years before I came back here, but in the process, I lost my apartment in Brooklyn and I am now back in Jersey, kind of floating around and living with family in and out and looking for places to live in New York. The rent has gone extremely high in New York. When I lost my apartment, it is ridiculous now. I mean, it is unbelievable. Everybody is in a hard situation there. For me, to find a new apartment to live in New York right now is almost impossible. So my move to Berlin was a nice move for a while, but it just didn't work out. I wanted to leave because it just became almost unbearable for me towards the end. It really wasn't more music. It was more a personal thing.

FJ: How is Berlin?

HERB ROBERTSON: It's OK. There's a heavy local scene there in the city itself with local musicians who don't travel that much. But I was coming in as an international musician and I was still doing tours and traveling around and so I really didn't establish the local scene because I was traveling. I knew some Berlin musicians like Gebhard Ullman, who really also weren't hooked into the local scene because they were more international. So there was that dilemma that we had to get through. Even I had to get through the fact that I wasn't playing locally with local jazz musicians because I was always away. I was really just living there, just like what I was doing in New York (laughing). I was in New York and not playing in New York that much except at the Knitting Factory and Tonic, a few places through the years and New York was great because of all the musicians that are there. There's a good psychological support system, but when I was in Berlin, I felt I was alone. I really did. Maybe because I really didn't get familiar with the culture or the language or something, but I was never really there. All of the sudden, I would end up doing a tour for four weeks or three weeks and I would go back to Berlin and go home and now what? I would just wait for the next tour. But all of that stuff was happening when I was living in New York. It didn't matter where I was living. I was still doing tours in Europe. I guess at this point, I could live in Memphis and still go to Europe. There's international airports all over the place and with email and all this virtual reality, you can just be anywhere at this point, which is good. For me, it works because right now, I am kind of up in the air. My career has taken a second, it has taken off again on really a high level again, but I really don't have a place that I could call my own where I am living.

FJ: Is the life of a jazz musician nomadic by nature?

HERB ROBERTSON: For me, for this particular one it is. I don't mind that, Fred. I've been pretty nomadic my whole life. I think basically in general, I feel really comfortable when I am on the road. When I leave and I go on tour, I feel at home. That's when I am most relaxed, when I am traveling on the train. I don't like airports anymore because it is too much. It is very stressful, but train travel in Europe, I'm at home there. I love it. This past year was a really good, I did a lot of good festivals in the summer. On the average, I go to Europe about eight to ten times a year. The tours are shorter now because of the economic situation that we're involved with. But it is still OK. I don't think I want to do a six week tour anymore. I think it's too much, but two weeks, three weeks, I don't mind. So I am there about eight, nine, ten times a year. I haven't really toured in the States except with other people like Gerry Hemingway and Joe Fonda. They've set up tours. It seems to be the same circuit. There is this Northeast tour that goes down to South Carolina and up to Maine and then there's a little Midwest thing with Chicago. I haven't been on the West Coast in a long time, for many years.

FJ: Any plans?

HERB ROBERTSON: I would hope so. I would hope so. I don't have any things right now. I was in San Francisco at a festival, but that was a part of this whole thing with Barry Guy. Where is Fullerton? Is that near San Francisco?

FJ: Suburb within a suburb of Los Angeles.

HERB ROBERTSON: Really, so I was totally wrong. Wasn't Vinny just out here?

FJ: I understand he is on tour.

HERB ROBERTSON: I'm really good friends with Ken (Ken Filiano) now. Do you ever hear from Roberto Miranda?

FJ: I last spoke with him about a year ago.

HERB ROBERTSON: How about Nels (Nels Cline)?

FJ: He did a record with Gregg Bendian of Coltrane's Interstellar Space and his popularity has been impressive.

HERB ROBERTSON: Oh, great. I haven't seen them in years. There is some people who are really connected with the States. They've got a stateside thing going, which is cool. I would love to do some stuff at home. Maybe I can work some stuff out.

FJ: It is a shame you're getting recognition, however underground now.

HERB ROBERTSON: I guess I was traveling around so much and I was always obscured as a sideman with Tim or Mark Helias or something. But there was this also, the JMT stuff, the first time around, never really got the great distribution that it needed. I'm glad those records are coming out again. I guess everybody comes into their own some time. I knew I had something original to say. I just had to really keep digging. I never really gave up on that. If I gave up on that, I might as well stop living. I really have to keep doing what I have to do and create my own new music. I am such an instrumentalist also at a certain point. If I wrote more music, I would get more things happening, but I love playing the trumpet so much, that takes away from me writing music.

FJ: And the future?

HERB ROBERTSON: Well, this thing with the new music ensemble on Winter & Winter. I guess we're going to do that in the winter (laughing). I don't know if I'm going to have to go to Germany or whatever. But I have got to write the music first. I just commissioned to do that. That will be the next thing. Phil and I are working on another duo project. I don't if it's going to be for CIMP. I have my sextet going to Portugal, my sextet from Long Attention Spans and I'm going to rerecord that band live at the festival. That's it as far as that.

Fred Jung is the Editor-In-Chief and bought a BMW after watching Wong Kar-Wai's The Follow. Comments? Email Him