The Meist: Clarinetist Perry Robinson- by Mark Sowlakis

This piece was written by Mark Sowlakis, who is a regular guest blogger here at Casa Valdez Studios.
  Throughout the history of the jazz clarinet, there exists no such figure as the mercurial clarinetist Perry Robinson. The man is a living legend, having recorded on such famous albums as the first Charlie Haden Liberation Music Orchestra recording, Carla Bley’s epic Escalator Over The Hill and The Call, Heny Grimes legendary free jazz disc on ESP records. His debut as a leader, Funk Dumpling on Savoy Jazz (1961), features a band of legendary proportions: drummer Paul Motian, pianist Kenny Barron and Henry Grimes on bass .  Recorded when Perry was 19 years of age, it has withstood the test of time, still sounding fresh and interesting to this day. This recording was my introduction to Perry’s work. I remember bringing it home and listening to it the first time, and being stuck by his highly original tone and conception. Little did I know how much influence he would have on me over the course of the next 15 years……..Initially, merely through his recordings.

  My friendship with Perry, often referred to by his friends as Meist, short for Maestro, began after reading his hilarious biography The Traveler (Writers Club Press), co written with Florence Witzel.     The details of his life are incredible and too much to go into here, but the accounts of his days gigging with Dave Brubeck (while Jerry Bergonzi was in the band, I might add…) and other jazz legends is truly fascinating. At the end of the book it states that Perry was alive and well and living in Jersey City, NJ. I called him up and literally told him he was my spiritual clarinet grandfather and that we should be friends. We had several conversations over a few years and traded CD’s. Over time a plan was hatched and the result was my recording Sinfonetta, made in 2004 in New York City with Perry, George and Ed Schuller, and Frank Kimbrough. During the recording process, although I was familiar with Perry’s playing, I was struck by the lightness of his tone and attack, and the strength of his solos and the presence of his personality in the music. I must defer to some written words that I believe describe the personality, style and imagination that came across to me in the Meist’s  playing: Critic Rich Scheinin described Perry to me in an email recently….”It’s almost like folk music, and with such a free and impish kind of spirit, and very melodic.” Perry’s friend from New York, Matthew Snyder, said this to me in an email recently, “Nice transcription, it shows what great, understated and beautifully constructed solos Perry was capable of playing even in 1962.” In short, I couldn’t have said it any better myself.

  Recently I set out to transcribe a couple of Perry’s solos, in order to get a better sense of what he’s made of musically, and to try to deconstruct and demystify some of his work. The logical starting point seems to be Funk Dumpling, a Henry Grimes tune that becomes a blues in D flat concert after the melody statement.  Take a look at the transcription and have a listen to the edited recording, you’ll hear unique tone and notice the individual melodic sense that he creates, while staying pretty much diatonically rooted to the changes. If you delve fully into Perry’s music you will see what an incredible contrast this solo makes to some of the “free” and “out” things that he’s recorded over the years. I like to say that The Meist has a foot in both jazz camps, the traditional jazz improviser using conventional harmony, and the free jazz vocabulary that incorporates microtones, growls, and multiphonics. And that duality, to me, is the main thing makes him truly original and great.

  My tune Seaside Sanctuary really shows Perry at his best from the melodic side.  In the studio Perry forgot that he was supposed to take two choruses on this tune, as Frank does on his solo.  I sure do miss that second chorus, as he was developing some nice shapes here.  But instead he managed to create a very clever short solo that hangs together brilliantly; you’ll see again how he stays well within the traditional harmony.  Meist plays such cohesive phrases, he truly has a gift for melody.  I love what he did with this here, it is a Meist Classic!

   My tune Simple Beauty gave Perry a chance to show off his gifts in a minor tonality.  I wanted to give him a platform to make that kind of introspective statement that only he can make, and something minor and moody seemed the route I wanted to take to get that to happen. Again, a Meist Classic, great phrases, great mood and vibe, so very relaxed.  The breathiness of his tone, reminiscent of his mentor Tony Scott, really colors his sound here. This is a study in how to communicate a thought or feeling in the music, his note choices and phrasing truly sublime in this key. He did it again, a simple, beautiful and elegant solo…

Mark Sowlakis
   The clarinet has been forgotten for a long time in jazz. There are only a few great ones left to admire and study; Perry certainly has blazed a path for us. His recorded legacy is amazing, and I hope you will take the time to find some of his music and go on a musical journey with him. He’s opened my eyes to some things on the clarinet and in music that I might have missed  out on had I not followed his path.  Perry Robinson, what a character and what an original.  Thanks Meist……Markos

Funk Dumpling MP3/transcription
Simple Beauty MP3/transcription
Seaside Sanctuary MP3/transcription

Perry Robinson's MySpace page
Perry Robinson on Wikipedia
A Fireside Chat with Perry Robinson @ All About Jazz

Mark Sowlakis' website  

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