Phil Robson – from New York to New Turf

    The guitarist's surprisingly rather experimental new album ranges from jazz to Irish folk to Black Sabbath

    Phil Robson. Photo © Brian Payne

    The title of guitarist Phil Robson’s current EP release, Portrait In Extreme, recorded as the pandemic raged, is beautifully apt. “I was trying in a fun way to convey the extremes of everything that was going on because in the music world we’d gone from 90 to nought in a fairly swift time,” he explains. “And my own situation also radically changed because I’d been living in New York City – or actually in Jersey City, just across the Hudson River – and I’m now in the countryside of County Roscommon [in Ireland] so that was quite a jump. I joke that we’ve swapped skyscrapers for cows!”

    Like many musicians and non-musicians alike Robson found the pandemic and associated lockdowns demoralising. “I was struggling to keep my motivation,” he admits. “And because I live in a rural area it’s very difficult to get high-speed internet so I couldn’t do live streams. I did do some videos but it was almost like I was back in the 90s where I had to leave them uploading all night so that was frustrating. So musically speaking I was very much on my own and I ground to a bit of a halt with practice.”

    On most tracks on Portrait In Extreme Robson plays over drum loops supplied by Irish drummer David Lyttle. “I had a clear idea about the things I was going to try so I asked him for specific things,” he says. “I sent him tempos and a description of the vibe I was trying to get with each one – but with freedom for him to be himself as well. And he sent me these really fabulous loops which I chopped up and then I put my parts down. And then I went back to his loops and if I needed more variation I used other bits from the same loops. Most of them were about a minute long so I had more than a few bars which was great.”

    Robson enthuses about Lyttle’s capabilities. “He’s very adaptable and really nice to work with. And a serious jazz musician. He loves all aspects of the tradition and because of that he’s got a real depth to his playing.”

    Robson acknowledges that he has missed face-to-face interaction with other musicians. “My God, I can’t tell you how much. There’s no substitute for that. But, still, it was lovely to have something to work with and the things David sent me were exciting. And I was also using this software called Ableton that has lots of sounds and effects so experimenting with this new toy and not quite knowing what was going to come out was my substitute for playing with real people. It was a classic lockdown project and I learned loads so it was a great experience.”

    In the future Robson hopes to use the software more. “It’s early days and I’m still learning how to use it. I’d like to incorporate it into a live setting but I haven’t quite figured out how you can do this and play guitar at the same time – a basic question but a fairly important one!”

    On Rumours Abound, Energy Persists Robson creates a strikingly disturbing soundscape. “It was meant to represent this whole [pandemic] thing coming in, from the end of 2019,” he says. “It’s a little snapshot of how life was and trying to capture that ominous feeling.”

    And the Energy Persists part of the title? “I was trying to convey people trying to carry on. And also have a bit of fun because there’s a slight American sound to the crazy guitar stuff on that track which is reminiscent of people far greater than me. Star Spangled Banner and all that!” he laughs, alluding to Jimi Hendrix.

    Robson’s playing on New Turf has the melodic beauty of a traditional Irish air. “Yeah, I was trying to capture something of that,” he agrees. “Wherever I am I always listen to things from that place so I was listening to a lot of really lovely Irish music like The Gloaming. So it’s the influence of being here and what’s going on.”

    Singer-songwriter Christine Tobin, Robson’s life-partner, sings, wordlessly, on the track. “She had freedom to change it but that was a written melody,” says Robson. “There’s a little violin part playing with her which is not a real violin – I did it with the Ableton thing. And the later part of New Turf, which is a huge contrast, is the one drum groove I did myself and it was done by literally tapping on a table and then messing around with sounds on Ableton.”

    ‘I was a metaller through and through when I was about 10 so Black Sabbath were my favourite band. The thing I liked most about them and bands like Led Zeppelin was they were so clearly coming out of blues’

    The Masters is a powerful tribute to Black Sabbath. “I was a metaller through and through when I was about 10 so Black Sabbath were my favourite band. The thing I liked most about them and bands like Led Zeppelin was they were so clearly coming out of blues and the love of blues is so genuine. And I love the slow tempos that you would never get in a modern rock or heavy metal band. Things like Cornucopia on Black Sabbath Vol 4 which is so slow it’s almost a dirge. I just love the gritty slowness.”

    Alas, Robson never saw Sabbath live. “I was a little too young for the original Black Sabbath but I saw Ozzy [Osbourne] live when I was about 13 in Derby, my hometown. It was incredibly loud – I couldn’t hear for two days! – but very exciting.”

    Robson actually sings on The Masters although his vocals are mixed very low. “Well, that was a bit of fun, really,” he chuckles. “I can take a stab at emulating the overall sound-world but I can’t take a stab at emulating Ozzy!”

    Robson may have been a heavy-metal fan but at the age of 18 and without being a graduate he enrolled in the postgraduate jazz course at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. “Though I had this background of Black Sabbath I’d also been into jazz pretty seriously since I was about 14.

    “The modern system of jazz education wasn’t in place at the time so that was really the only jazz course and I managed to pass the audition, which bypassed having to have a degree. The course was really valuable. I had great teachers and met some great musical friends but it was over too quickly, really. It was one year and then I was hurled out: ‘Go and be a musician, son!’”

    Which Robson duly did, one of his key subsequent bands being Partisans, which formed in 1996. “We were very good mates and I have endless fun memories of tours and gigs we did,” he reminisces. “And I’m very proud of the albums. That band was together a long time and the nicest thing about it was that it was more than the sum of four parts. Myself and [saxophonist] Julian [Siegel] were the writers but the contribution to the material was massive from the other two guys [bassist Thaddeus Kelly and drummer Gene Calderazzo] and the tunes got massively changed by playing them.”

    Robson also played in the BBC Big Band for 10 years. I wonder if he felt it musically constraining to play in that band as opposed to the more cutting-edge Partisans. “It got more that way as it went on,” he concedes, “but when I joined it there were lots of exciting guests, like Joe Lovano and Phil Woods and Vince Mendoza – we did two days in Abbey Road with him, playing his music.

    “And the more conservative end of it, I got a kick out of the discipline of that. And I like playing a lot of different styles which you can hear as a thread through all my music.”

    Once, in 2009, on a Friday Night With Jonathan Ross special, Robson backed Barbra Streisand. “The nicest part was a long dress rehearsal where we played about 10 tunes because she wanted to play through all the options to see what she would pick as the two [for the show]. Despite the fact that her entourage were trying to have me living in abject terror because I’d got dark blue trousers on instead of black it was actually very relaxed and she was very friendly and very nice and sang really great. It was lovely.”

    The singer that Robson has accompanied most often has been Christine Tobin. “She writes her music on the piano so the biggest challenge for me is to find a way of capturing what she’s written on the piano and try to make it sound as full as possible. Which is the biggest problem with guitar in jazz as a harmonic instrument – you’re never going to be able to match what a piano player can do but I’ve learned over the years how to fill out the sound behind her and play the right things in the gaps.”

    In 2015 Robson, with Tobin, relocated to New York. “I’m always trying to expand my horizons and learn more and delve deeper and deeper into the music and it was a means of doing that.”

    It was, however, a bold move to leave the relative security of being an established figure in British jazz to try and make a living in a city where the competition for gigs is brutal. “Most people would be doing that when they’re in their early 20s but I was doing it in my mid-40s,” reflects Robson. “Basically you have to start again so it was very challenging but super exciting as well and it was a great experience.”

    The contrast with his current home county of Roscommon, where the largest town has fewer than 6,000 inhabitants, is almost comical. “I always loved extremes – hence the name of the album! I love big cities and I love the countryside so living here doesn’t seem weird to me,” he asserts.

    Currently Portrait In Extreme is only available digitally, on Lyte Records, which is owned by Lyttle. “It would be nice to have some form of hard copy I could sell on gigs but we decided to put it out as a digital thing initially to see if there was any interest,” says Robson. “And I’m delighted that people have been very positive so I’m really happy about that.”