Robin Blakeman Interview
Multi-reeds player and arranger Robin Blakeman has recently collaborated with vocalist Tina May. Here he talks about his life in music. [Photo: Robin Blakeman with James Moody]
Tell us how you first got into music.
“I was raised in the Anglo-Catholic religion (though now I have none) and my love for music originates from singing (often as treble soloist) in the choir as a young boy at St. Bartholomew's Church (with which my late mother's family has associations dating back at least 100 years; my parents were married there in 1944) in Brighton in the 1950s, singing Masses by Mozart, Schubert and others, under organist and choirmaster George Austin. [Interestingly, and incredibly, there’s a plaque on the wall in the church commemorating the fact that a previous organist and choirmaster, Henry Madel, apparently never missed even one Sunday in 53 years !] Prior to that, I recall the melody of the song Three Coins In The Fountain becoming an ‘ear worm’ for me when I was very young. After mine and my family's return in late 1958 after a two-year sojourn in Australia (where I had developed a keen interest in aircraft and flying), I rejoined the choir at St. Bart's, but was not such a regular attendee. It was around that time that I took up the violin at school, but I was scratching and scraping around on it, not knowing what I was doing, and so I eventually abandoned the instrument and later gave it to a female cousin, who apparently got on well with it. About three years later, after my voice broke, and my elder brother had introduced me to pop music and jazz, I took up the saxophone, starting on the alto, although I had been inspired initially by the Nashville studio tenorist, Homer ‘Boots’ Randolph, the ‘Yakety Sax Man’, who played the breaks on Brenda Lee's recordings. Musical heroes of mine around that time were the British pop/rock six-piece instrumental band, called Sounds Incorporated, who backed many of the visiting American pop, rock, soul and R & B acts including Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Sam Cooke, Mary Wells, Brenda Lee, Ben E. King (both of whom I came to know), and I even got to be in the ‘wings' on stage behind The Beatles when they played at the Brighton Hippodrome in October, 1964. The Beatles' road manager, Malcolm Evans (later tragically shot dead by police in the USA), used to call me ‘The Seventh Sound’. I think it might be worth mentioning that part of the the reason I took up the saxophone is because of the fact that I've had a life-long stammer – which I've done well to largely overcome, as predicted I would – and so I was seeking a means of fluent, unhindered vocal expression – and as you may know, the saxophone is apparently considered the musical instrument closest in quality to the human voice.”
Tell us a bit about your favourite arrangers and what you like most about them.
“Well, there are mainly three, namely: (Douglas) Clare Fischer, Claus Ogerman (orig. Klaus Ogermann) and Carlos Franzetti, but I've very recently also come to admire Jeremy Lubbock. They are all extremely-gifted musicians, whose natural, genius-level musicality – in both breadth and depth – astounds and inspires me.”
“The late Clare Fischer's name is legendary in jazz, latin jazz and even pop music (Paul McCartney, Prince, etc.); and Claus Ogerman (now 85) is also an incredibly diverse arranger and composer, who abandoned the commercial scene in New York about 20 years ago and returned to Germany to concentrate on his own classical composing; Carlos Franzetti originates from Argentina, but has lived in the USA for many years now, and I first became aware of his enormous talent (as an arranger, composer, pianist and conductor) through two albums of music by Latin American composers including Carlos himself (on the Chesky Records label) with the chamber group Orquesta Nova in the early 1990s – I sought him out in 1995 on my first visit to New York City for nine years (my very first visit was way back in 1967!), to express my admiration; we became friends (and by the way, Carlos' wife, Allison Brewster Franzetti, is a very accomplished classical and ‘cross-over’ pianist); and they very recently jointly won a Latin Grammy (not Carlos' first one) for a collaborative project. I admired the arranging that Don Sebesky did for Creed Taylor's CTI label back in the 1970s, which often featured the great Hubert Laws on flute (my second wind); and of course Henry Mancini (whom I met in Sydney about 40 years ago); among jazz arrangers, I also greatly admired Quincy Jones and the late Oliver Nelson – the latter being another of my favourite saxophone players, perhaps especially on soprano sax. And at this point, I'd like to say something about my favourite saxophone players. Joe Henderson is among my three favourite tenor players among the old masters – the other two being Stan Getz and Stanley Turrentine, all for different reasons. Of course, I've listened to many others down the years, including John Coltrane with his intensely ‘searing’ sound, Wayne Shorter (his tenor playing with Miles' groups and his own back in the mid-60s used to mesmerise me). My favourite contemporary tenor player is the wonderful Bob Mintzer, who has also done a lot of arranging and composing.”
“I was also very impressed with Maria Schneider's writing and bought some of her charts, when I was trying to foster a Brighton Jazz Orchestra about 20 years ago, under the baton of (the now late) Don Pashley (who had been my second saxophone teacher, many years ago).”
“I also enjoy playing soprano and alto sax, but prefer the richer, warmer tone of the longer cone of the tenor.”
You’ve done a lot of travelling around the world playing music. What have been your favourite (and least favourite) experiences?
“I have to say that one of my most enjoyable musical experience occurred a decade ago here on home soil in the UK on elatedly, belatedly, finally finding my own ‘composer within’ – after many years of being just an instrumentalist, with absolutely no belief or confidence whatsoever in my own ability to write a worthwhile piece of music. It was when I started to write my first full-blown song, Cuban Fantasy/Fantasia Cubana, and after the melody began to emerge and evolve (and it almost wrote itself), I thought of the perfect subject material, which was a lovely young Cuban woman named Olguita Diaz, whom I met many years ago in romantic Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, while doing my first cruise ship gig, out of Miami. I've said from the very outset that I would love that romantic, lyrical Latin-flavoured melody just as much even if someone else had written it. “The lyrics were originally in English, but with the help of a Portuguese songwriter friend, Anibal Miranda, I translated the song into Spanish, and interestingly, after my having to alter the melody to accommodate all the extra words and syllables in Spanish, it took on even more of a ‘Latin’ flavour, especially if played with the Cuban Danzón and Cha-cha-chá rhythms (historically, the latter evolved from the former). After plucking up the courage to send my original, simple, flute/soprano sax/clarinet demos to Clare Fischer, I was very delighted when his wife, Donna, responded by saying ‘We both found it hauntingly beautiful’. Unfortunately, Clare had stopped writing by then, and so Donna recommended Clare's son, Brent, to write an arrangement for me, the commission for which was dedicated to the memory of my parents, and apparently Clare had some input. I was – and still am – very taken by Clare's arrangement of his famous guajira, Morning, for Holland's wonderful Metropole Orchestra.”
“Another very enjoyable experience occurred in recent years, on finding a very warm rapport with certain musicians whom I met and played with in Panama, namely Eddy Doran (N. American pianist & singer), percussionist Tim Rowley (an expat Geordie), trumpeter Juan Carlos ‘Wichy’ López (a Cuban expatriate), and other members of Roberto Delgado's orchestra who accompany Ruben Blades (they've just won a Latin Grammy for their CD, Son de Panamá); also my dear young friends, pianist Alvis Rodriguez and bassist Victor Alvarado; and I was very flattered when Panamanian saxophonist Carlos Ubarte (who quite recently joined Roberto's/Ruben's band on baritone sax) expressed amazement at what he referred to as the ‘passion’ in my tenor sax playing. My musicianship was admired, appreciated, respected and valued much more in Panama than anywhere else previously, and I felt very much ‘at home’ there.”
“I should have made the move from neighbouring Costa Rica to Panama much earlier than I did, instead of wasting so much time and money in CR, nobly but naively trying to help to change for the better the lives of certain people whom I met there, and getting very badly ripped-off in the process, leaving me very depleted and depressed, and feeling that my kindness, generosity and trust were very badly betrayed. It could be said that I lived the (Latin) ‘jazz life’ in CR – albeit sadly, with little chance to play. However, I like to think that some (if not much) good could still come of my very costly sojourn in CR, as I also met some very nice people – both gringos and ticos (Costa Ricans) – who have remained loyal friends of mine, especially David ‘The Dude’ Richardson, now based in Nashua, New Hampshire. Also, I learned quite a lot of Spanish while there in CR and Panama, and on brief side trips to Nicaragua, Colombia and Cuba. Interestingly and ironically, despite the afore-mentioned life-long stammer (unusually, quite deeply entrenched in my mother's side of the family), I have a flair for foreign languages, with French being my best subject at school many years ago, coming very naturally to me, but alas, I haven't spent much time in France – if I had, I would probably be speaking French almost like a Frenchman!”
What do you find most interesting about Antonio Carlos Jobim’s music?
“Well, I first heard the amazingly lyrical Desafinado on the very warm-sounding Jazz Samba LP by Stan Getz and guitarist Charlie Byrd in the early 1960s; and then in the mid-60s, my brother hipped me to Jobim's album The Composer of 'Desafinado' Plays, which was Jobim's first collaboration with Claus Ogerman, and produced for Verve Records by Creed Taylor, and recorded in NYC in May 1963. That album possesses tireless, timeless elegance, and remains to this day one of my all-time favourites (and my brother's, as he said today), with its pathos and paradoxical simple sophistication, and resigned ‘happy sadness’. Of course, most of the musicians involved in those sessions, including trombonist Jimmy Cleveland, flutist Leo Wright and of course Tom Jobim himself, are no longer with us (but nothing is forever – except eternity!). As far as I know, Claus Ogerman and Creed Taylor, are still ‘hangin in’, both now being in their mid-80s.”
“When I went back to Australia for my second sojourn in the early 1970s, I shared a house overlooking the surf at the beachside suburb of Bronte in Sydney's Eastern Suburbs, with my brother and a few others, and it was there that my brother (who kindly gave me my first flute) introduced me to Jobim's Wave (1967, arr. & cond. by Claus Ogerman) and Tide (1970, arr. & cond. by Eumir Deodato). Listening to that romantic, supremely melodic, wistful, very rhythmic and harmonically sophisticated music while watching the surf roll in was a very magical experience, and I loved the use of alto and bass flutes, also on the Stone Flower album (1970, arr. & cond. by Deodato). My all-time favourite Tom Jobim song is Once I Loved, and my favourite jazz version of it is the ‘burning' one that Joe Henderson recorded way back in 1967 when he was a young man and still playing with ‘fire in his belly’; after the great pianist Kenny Barron's solo, Joe came back for a second bite. I love it!”
Tell us about your collaborations with Tina May.
“Well, working with the lovely Tina has also been one of my most enjoyable musical experiences in recent years. ‘La Tina’ (as I sometimes call her) and I first met at least a dozen years ago, at one of the regular musical soirees held in Brighton (and Hove, actually!) at the home of our mutual friend, the late great Scottish expatriate, Eddie Shirkie, who was a good mate and an all-round good guy. Coincidentally, Tina and I share the same birthday (though not the same year), and I like to think there's some cosmic significance in that fact. I'd been suggesting to her for quite some time that we collaborate on a Jobim project. I had previously done one here in Brighton in 2004 to mark the 10th anniversary of Jobim's sudden death (in New York while undergoing surgery for bladder cancer), with locally-based musicians including the fantastic Latin guitarist Paul Richards.”
“So, I started writing some demo arrangements for the new project 3 years ago, put them on a CD and sent it to Tina, who was seemingly very impressed, clearly hearing the influence of Claus Ogerman. We called that group the Luiz Bonfá Society, slightly tongue-in-cheek (cf. the local Lewes Bonfire Society), but Bonfá was another Brazilian guitarist and composer who was a contemporary of and collaborator with Jobim in Brazil back in the late 1950s, when the ‘cool’ Bossa Nova style was distilled from the more frenetic, traditional samba by Tom Jobim, Luiz Bonfá, João Gilberto, and a few others. Our first concert was at St. Bart's Church here, opening with an instrumental, Look To The Sky, which is among my favourites from all the glistening gems in the vast Jobim songbook. Our finale was Wave, which received rapturous applause and a standing ovation. I've now written more than 100 arrangements, mostly of standards and songs from the Great American Songbook, and it's been a life-changing if not a life-saving experience, helping to take my mind off of feeling unwell, especially last year, early in which I suffered two major shocks which triggered physical symptoms that had me thinking it was the beginning of the end, as in ‘game over’! I'm very pleased to say that those symptoms eventually settled down, but alas I haven't felt what I would call ‘well’ for too long now, partly because of loneliness, together with musical and personal isolation (despite my having so-called ‘family’ here). Anyway, if the quality of my arrangements has been a pleasant surprise to a number of people, including Tina, then that number must also include my own self, with no false modesty. My approach has been based more on intuition than knowledge and ‘rules’, as the latter can restrict creativity. I can recall Mike Gibbs – whom I've known since my Berklee days many moons ago – saying that he has made a career out of breaking the ‘rules’. It was very nice to receive an ‘unprompted’ e-mail from Tina when she was in Paris in May of last year, expressing her love for my arrangements; and I was very heartened when, after a concert just over a year ago, she expressed her love for my tenor sound, and asked for ‘more’.”
“I've been writing for a chamber group including woodwind doubles (mostly myself; I even used to dabble on vibes after having lessons with Gary Burton at Berklee) and french horn (my favourite brass), viola, cello, piano, guitar and bass. Earlier this year, I settled on a core sound of alto flute and french horn (which blend beautifully together, especially the top of the horn range with alto flute in its extra low fourth), with tenor sax doubling bass clarinet.”
What are your future plans?
“Well, in my current situation, I find it quite difficult to make plans, partly because of the variable factors, including my currently less than robust health, but I do hope to get away very early in January to the Jazz Education Network Conference in Louisville, Kentucky (I was a regular attendee for several years at the IAJE Conferences in the U$A), and the Panama Jazz Festival the following week. I'm long overdue for a much-needed break and change of scene, after not having been away for at least two and-a-half years, apart from three weeks in Old Shoreham with Eddie Shirkie's kind daughter, Justine and her family, in their lovely old farmhouse in May, 2013.”
“I've had several other projects in mind for some time now, including a Latin Jazz Sextet Plus, with flexible instrumentation and optional voice, and including some of Joe Henderson and Wayne Shorter's music. Steve Swallow's ‘quirky’ music is another project I'd like to pursue. I also hope that Tina and I will regroup and relaunch in the spring as ‘The Tina May Jazz Chamber Group’, with what I've suggested we call ‘The Tina May Spring Collection’, including such gems as Spring Is Here and Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most (what an absolute gem of a song!) and Up Jumped Spring. I also want to do a Bob Mintzer project, also playing some of Stanley Turrentine's bluesy tunes; and maybe even a Yellowjackets project. Another one is a Salon Music project involving the romantic music of Cape Verde-born composer, Amandio Cabral.”
“In terms of music education, after displaying musicality from a young age, I regret that I was not encouraged by my parents to learn to play the upright piano that was in the shack that we rented on the outskirts of Brisbane in the late 1950s. I'm sure that learning to play piano back then would have made an enormous difference to the development of my inherent musicality. Also, I've come to the realisation after all these years, that apart from vocal and/or instrumental technique, the most important aspect is aural training – and the ancient system of ‘sol-fa’ really does work, by associating syllables with pitch relationships! It should be practised every day.”
“Wives (two of my own and a few others') and lovers have come and gone, but music has been a constant, faithful companion for most of my life, and I find it enduringly fascinating. If only it could cure this very sick planet!”
“Well, there you have it, my spin on the ups and downs of a musical life! §”