Orphy Robinson Interview
You’re appearing at Love Supreme Festival this year. Have you performed there before?
“No, funnily enough I’ve been every year, apart from the first year, but always to hang out. I just love the idea of it. I’ve done camping and then going ‘no, that’s a silly idea’, then gone to hotels in Newhaven or Lewes. So I’ve been there every year. Last year, somebody quite high up in the organisation asked me ‘how many times have you played?’. I said that I hadn’t played and they said ‘but we’ve seen you here every year’ and I had to say ‘no, no, no, I’m just hanging out’.
I’m just loving that there’s this vehicle and I can see new, young bands. There’s a small stage run by a local organisation so you see young students and then all the way up to the main stage. I just like the variety. Also, it’s great to have an outdoor festival that covers that type of music, or all those styles of music. Normally if you go and do Latitude or Glastonbury they’ve got a little bit but we want more!
For the last couple of years, as soon as we come back from Love Supreme we book the hotel for the next year. It’s just such fun. I just love the atmosphere, I love everything about it, so to be invited this year was an added bonus. This year I’ve got to concentrate on playing but that’s fine. It’s just the whole thing of being there.”
Tell us about the band that you’re bringing to Love Supreme.
“After Bobby Hutcherson passed away in 2016 I was approached by a promoter in London to do a tribute concert. I’ve always stayed away from doing that sort of thing. I hadn’t really covered any Bobby Hutcherson since the Nineties. My whole music playing, making and creating had shifted very much away from the standards and swing. In fact it had gone right over to lots of free improv and the more sort of avant garde area of stuff, and playing with lots of artists within that field. So this came out of the blue. I thought about it for a little bit and then thought ‘yeah, why not?’. He was one of my top six vibraphone players and edging it at the top.”
“The idea was that I could cherry-pick music from different albums across his career so not just his solo albums but also albums that he’d played on, like with Joe Henderson, Jackie McLean and so on. It was a really interesting moment because normally I do all the arrangements and writing in my studio at the end of the garden but for some reason, for this one, I wrote it all in the kitchen! I’ve no idea why. I wrote it all on a really little keyboard that really made me focus, without all the trappings of all the other toys that you have.”
“I was able then to choose Tony Kofi on alto sax, Rowland Sutherland on flute (I’ve worked with Rowland since the Nineties on the Blue Note records that I did), Byron Wallen on trumpet (a fantastic player) and Robert Mitchell on piano who was a big choice of mine. I’ve known Robert for a very long time, coming through as a promising player through to way more than that as a fantastic musician and writer. There was another young person that I wanted to bring on board which was Nubya Garcia on tenor. She brought a lovely sound and a young, fresh approach that really made the music work well. On drums Mark Mondesir, a fantastic player who plays right across the board, all around the world with lots of high profile people, but we go back to the Courtney Pine band in the 1980s, from his first album. On bass is my co-pilot who is pretty much on everything I do, Dudley Phillips.”
“It was a complete sound that I heard in my head which meant that we could cover lots of different things right across the board. We even had a nod toward doing a Milt Jackson cover, Tahiti, that I know Bobby loved as well. We covered Montara, Little B’s Poem through to the Wayne Shorter album that Bobby played on, Rio. And Gazelloni and Hat and Beard from Out to Lunch. It’s been great to be able to cherry-pick things from right across the board. And also to have these wonderful players who want to play with me as well. It’s one of those moments when I remember the promoter saying ‘but can we get them? We want to do this in the next month’. I said they were all really busy but I’d try. Everyone I called, they were all available. That’s really unusual. Maybe I should do last minute things all the time. Maybe that’s the way to get them.”
“At Love Supreme, unfortunately we’ve been given a morning slot so we’ll miss two of the musicians. Dudley Phillips will be flying back from another gig and unfortunately Nubya Garcia who is also flying back around the same time as Dudley Phillips. We’ll miss Nubya as well. But I’m still looking forward to it.”
You do a lot of other things. Last month I interviewed Carleen Anderson and she said a lot of nice things about you.
“There’s a period now when I seem to be called upon to do producing so I produced the Cage Street Memorial album with Carleen and then toured with her as her MD. She’s coming to Gibraltar with me as I’m the Artistic Director of the Gibraltar World Music Festival this year. So I’ve got people like Carleen, Christine Tobin, Cleveland Watkiss, Omar Puente, lots of fantastic, great bands. I’m taking a 16-piece band which we’ve called the Voicestra Polyphonic Collective, which is a bit of a mouthful.”
“And with the Gibraltar festival, I’m part of the music festival side but there’s also a film festival side and a kind of TED Talk Seminar side of the festival as well, as well as running a lot of education projects. I tend to do a lot of in-community education projects. Last year I was invited to look at the festival and see how they could take it to the next level and do something different. I noticed that there wasn’t much education provision. That’s obviously how you get your next level of supporters of music. It doesn’t matter if they’re players or not, they could be people who encourage other people to buy music or support things or become the new admin, promoters, journalists, all of that side. It’s just about getting people into that love and appreciation of music. Last year they managed to get 30 youngsters for education workshops. I’ve re-jigged the whole thing and this year we’ve had to stop at 250 students. So it’s a bit of an improvement and people like Tony Remy and Rowland Sutherland are coming over to teach.”
“On the production side, I’ve just finished co-producing the new Nigel Kennedy album Kennedy Meets Gershwin and I’ve just produced a new EP for Brazilian vocalist Monica Vasconcelos.”
“Alya Al-Sultani who runs the Two Rivers record label has a new project called Collective X which I’ve just produced as well. I’m ending up in the chair nowadays rather than playing, as my other half says, ‘it’s time for the comfy slippers and sitting in front of the fireside’. But let’s see.”
“I tend to do lots of different things. There’s my Black Top project which is a more avant garde project with Pat Thomas the electronics and keyboard genius. Last year we did the Basquiat at The Barbican as part of the London Jazz Festival. A new album is coming out with William Parker and Hamid Drake, who are more known on the free side of things.”
“For some reason I seem to have lots of different things going at the same time, which is always exciting and interesting for me as well. And I should say that I’m just producing Black Top with Marshall Allen. I’ve just got to finish off the mixes and things. We’ve done an album together as well. That will come out next year or later this year. We’ve probably got something like 20 albums in the can, we need to pull our fingers out and release them.”
You’ve worked with quite a lot of big-name American players. Are there any favourites?
“There are so many. I’m very honoured to be around Wadada Leo Smith. All of those experiences are really wonderful. Playing the vibes, a kind of art deco tea trolley, it’s been fantastic to be able to move into different areas but also to meet some of your musical heroes as well, and play music with them. And there are some where you haven’t even got to the bit where you’ve played. You’ve just got to know them very, very well and shared musical experiences but maybe at some stage that will transpire into something like an album or concerts.”
“Someone like Gregory Porter who has been a friend for quite a while. The first gigs when he came to the UK, I was there. It got to a certain point and I thought it’s bound to take off for him, and look what’s happened. It really has taken off for him. It’s been brilliant. Funnily enough last year at Love Supreme I was at the back of the stage watching him when he was performing to the audience and that was amazing to watch and see how that developed. It was absolutely fantastic and so well deserved, for both Gregory and the band, who are absolutely awesome as well.”
“Also in the UK there’s Evan Parker, Lol Coxhill, Jean Toussaint. There’s wonderful people that I’ve been very fortunate to do music with. I still have a hit list. John Surman. I got him to produce my first album on Blue Note and I was just so honoured because he was somebody that I really looked up to. It was great to be working with him so closely. We put that album together but we still haven’t played on stage together. We keep saying it but it just hasn’t happened.”
“People like Dave Holland are on the wish list as well. We’ve spoken about it but who knows. It might happen. He’s a lovely bloke. We were teaching together last summer at the NYJC, they run summer schools and one of them is at The Purcell School, not far from where I live. So that was great for me because it meant teaching locally which never happens. Usually teaching somewhere means it’s three hours away so it’s so good to do that.
With education, there are so many places where I’ve been fortunate to work with youngsters and to see them go on and do their own thing. Not necessarily jazz, as I don’t always teach that, it’s always about music. I used to teach Rock School at The Roundhouse on Saturday mornings which was absolutely awesome. We had something like 70 students every Saturday coming for ‘Live Jam’. We would look at all sorts of things, Led Zep, all kinds of music.”
“Another thing I did last year was Robert Plant, with Nigel Kennedy at The Royal Albert Hall with full orchestra.”
“There are those very wonderful people that you meet and Dave Holland is definitely one of those. Obviously, we all know lots about the history and the person but just to speak with him. It gives you a great insight into the person as well.”
You’re obviously involved in a lot of music projects, in different roles as a composer, producer, performer and educator. Is there anything that you do that isn’t music, such as a hobby?
“Good question. Up until about three years ago, I was an avid rollerskater. This sounds crazy but it’s an amazing way to keep fit. It’s not boring and you can listen to music while you’re doing it. Many years ago I owned, with an old friend, a roller disco company. We would put on lots of roller disco events all around the UK. I even ran a huge tent at Glastonbury Festival one year. I owned something like 600 roller skates and with a full crew of staff to teach you. We were connected to the British Roller Sports Federation as well.”
“I used to take skates with me on tour absolutely everywhere, so that I could skate around the streets and see things in a different way.”
“I don’t know why but it just came to a stop. I really need to do something. You can’t just not do anything at all. It’s a great way to keep fit.”
“My number one love was always sports like cricket and football. I used to play quite a lot of football. One of my young sons is quite a good footballer in an academy. I love all sports.”
“And travel. Travelling without going to a gig. That can be such fun. When I joined Courtney Pine’s band in the Eighties. There was a period when we did something like 76 flights in 6 months, and I used to dream about being in a band that just went up and down the M1 and that’s it. How did I get into this whole thing of airports and all of that.”
Is there anything else you’d like to talk about?
“I haven’t played in Brighton and around there for ages and it would be great to play there with other projects. I do the Astral Weeks project which is doing very well. That’s with John Etheridge. That’s going down a storm. We’re out this year with Zara McFarlane, and Sarah Jane Morris joining us at different times. I absolutely love that because obviously that’s such an amazing album, and 50 years of it as well. At the moment, we’ve been invited to go to Belfast and Dublin and places like that. It’s fantastic to go there with Van Morrison music. It’ll be absolutely amazing. Funnily enough, I got into doing that from someone who came to the Bobby Hutcherson tribute. This person had spoken about it and had tried to find people interested in doing it for three years: creating an album and doing concerts. On that day he came to the Bobby Hutcherson concert, he enjoyed what we’d done with it and asked if we’d be interested in doing Astral Weeks. I told him that I’d have to really immerse myself in the album again. I’d listened to it as a listener, as we all do, but when you’re going to actually work on it and re-create it, then that’s a different way of listening. Fortunately, I really got taken by it and I put together a band and we’re picking up a real head of steam. We’re doing the London Jazz Festival at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in November and it’s one of the first concerts that was picked up and it will be great to do Dublin and Belfast as well. It would be great to have Van Morrison come and see it. He knows about the project, so I’ve been told, so it would be interesting if he did come along. Hopefully he’d enjoy what we’ve done with it.”
“Tim Garland told me that Tina May had called the vibraphone ‘the haunted milk float’. That’s the best one I’ve heard in ages.”
Orphy Robinson performs at Love Supreme Festival on Saturday 30th June, 2018 in The Big Top at 11:45am.