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Phil Robson

Portrait in Extreme

by Ian Mann

June 14, 2022


An album that reflects the broader polarities of Robson’s life, including the musical ‘extremes’ of a musician equally influenced by both jazz and rock.

Phil Robson

“Portrait in Extreme”

(Lyte Records – Digital Release)

Phil Robson – guitars, electronics, electric bass, vocals, David Lyttle – drums, Christine Tobin – voice

Arguably best known for his co-leadership (with reeds player Julian Siegel) of the mighty Partisans guitarist Phil Robson is a highly versatile musician, with roots deep in both jazz and rock. He has featured regularly on the Jazzmann web pages, both as a member of Partisans and also as a solo artist of some stature.

Having established himself on the UK music scene as a member of Partisans Robson commenced his solo career with a couple of trio releases for The Babel label in the early years of the current century. “Impish” appeared in 2002 and featured bassist Dave Whitford and drummer Asaf Sirkis,  with guest pianist John Taylor also appearing on three pieces. The follow up, “Screenwash” (2003), teamed him with the American rhythm pairing of bassist James Genus and drummer Billy Hart. Both of these are excellent albums and highly recommended.

His Six Strings and The Beat project was a combo that successfully combined his guitar with a string quartet plus the bass of Peter Herbert and the drums of Partisans colleague Gene Calderazzo. The album of the same name, released in 2008, is favourably reviewed here;

Robson has also fronted a quintet featuring the acclaimed American saxophonist Mark Turner, this line up recording “The Immeasurable Code” album in 2011. Review here;

In 2015 Robson returned to the trio format, but this time of the organ variety with the guitarist being joined by Hammond specialist Ross Stanley, plus the faithful Calderazzo at the drums. The resultant album, “The Cut Off Point” is reviewed here;

Robson also works closely with his partner, the vocalist Christine Tobin and plays a key role in all of her projects.

As a sideman his list of credits is impressive and he has appeared on albums by saxophonists Rachael Cohen and Paul Booth, pianist Liam Noble, bassists Michael Janisch and Alec Dankworth, drummer Jeff Williams and jazz french horn player Jim Rattigan. Robson has also worked with the great American saxophonist Dave Liebman and has occupied the guitar chair in the BBC Big Band. It’s an impressive and diverse CV.

Originally from Derby Robson subsequently moved to London and graduated from the Guildhall School of Music & Drama. He lived and worked in the capital for many years, establishing himself as a leading presence on the London jazz scene. He and Tobin then lived in Margate for a while before emigrating to New York City in 2015, remaining there until March 2020 and the beginning of the pandemic. The couple then returned to Tobin’s native Ireland, settling in County Roscommon in the Irish Midlands.

During their time in New York Robson and Tobin quickly established themselves on the city’s jazz scene and performed with many of America’s leading jazz musicians. It’s unfortunate that this period of Robson’s career has not been documented on disc, with this digital only release representing Robson’s first solo recording since 2015.

“Portrait in Extreme” was recorded at home during 2021 and represents Robson’s ‘lockdown album’. It was financed by a bursary from the Arts Council of Ireland (An Chomhairle Ealaíon) and appears on Lyte Records, the label owned by the Irish drummer, composer and bandleader David Lyttle.

It’s essentially a genuine solo project with Robson overdubbing himself on guitars, electronics, electric bass and voice. The album was recorded using Ableton Live 11 software and includes contributions from Lyttle on drums and Tobin on vocals.

The title references the differing extremes of life in metropolitan New York and rural Ireland but also reflects the broader polarities of Robson’s life, including the musical ‘extremes’ of a musician equally influenced by both jazz and rock.

In his album notes Robson explains;
 “I’ve often felt strong polarities in my work, life & the world around me. From within this perspective, I now want to draw upon & embrace the elements connecting the ‘extremes’, as my inspiration in my playing & compositions. The Covid era has given me a great deal of time to imagine how I want my music to sound in the future & to reflect on & interpret my experiences. To reference possible polarities again, I love John Zorn’s ‘Naked City’ & Chopin nocturnes, the Curlew mountains & the streets of Hackney, Miles Davis & Black Sabbath! By embracing the fluidity of interconnectedness, I want to focus my outer reaches into something homogeneous & listen to my inner voice without limits.”

He also quotes the author Kurt Vonnegut, a significant influence for Robson and for other musicians;
 “I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can’t see from the center.” 

At around half an hour in duration it’s debatable whether “Portrait in Extreme” constitutes an EP or a full length album. I’ll go with the latter, given that there are eight separate pieces featuring an appropriately broad (‘extreme’) range of music, with influences including jazz, rock, folk, hip hop, ambient, electronica and more. The album cover features Robson standing in what appears to be a wintry Irish landscape with the New York skyline projected behind him. It’s an accurate visual depiction of what the listener can hear in the music.

The album commences with the dystopian electronic soundscapes of “Rumour Abounds, Energy Persists”, with Tobin’s breathy, whispered wordless vocals almost subsumed in the electronic soundwash. Towards the close the jagged, angry shards of guitar crash in like a metallic meteor shower. An intriguing and unsettling start.

“Callow Freeway” finds Robson adopting a more orthodox jazz guitar sound as he solos fluently above Lyttle’s skittering drum accompaniment. Reading the album notes one gets the impression that Lyttle’s drums were recorded in isolation and looped. Regardless of the mechanics the overall effect is reminiscent of Robson’s early trio albums, “Impish” and “Screenwash” and of “Bright Size Life” era Pat Metheny.

“So Many Bees” begins as a solo guitar meditation, unfolding gently, slowly and organically at first, before being hijacked by electronically generated noises simulating the sounds of windchimes and of a swarm of angry bees.

Electronics combine with more conventional guitar sounds on “Straight Story”, which also includes a contribution from Lyttle at the drums. Initially it’s upbeat, almost samba like, but once again the waters are muddied by the introduction of sampled sounds, in this case those of angry birds, possibly seagulls, possibly corvids.

“I’ve Got This” combines the sounds of guitars with heavily processed hip-hop style beats, these again courtesy of Lyttle. It’s a piece that seems to hark back to Robson’s Brooklyn days.

The introduction to the aptly titled “New Turf” features the sound of acoustic guitars, the folkish quality of the music enhanced by Tobin’s beautiful wordless vocals. But again the rural Irish idyll is punctured by the intrusion of electronically generated beats and the siren like wail of an electric guitar. As on several other pieces the memories of Robson’s urban life seem to intrude on his now bucolic existence in rural Ireland. Or maybe it’s just a case of loving both lifestyles, as his liner notes suggest, making it perfectly logical for both to be depicted within the course of a single composition - “Portrait in Extreme” indeed.

That said “Re-Valley” focusses on a single mood courtesy of a lush arrangement that features the warm, syrupy, Metheny-like sound of Robson’s guitar above a backdrop of sampled strings and Lyttles’s softly brushed drums. Robson seems to have found peace at last – but wait…

The final track, “The Masters”, is an obvious Black Sabbath homage, even the title referencing that of “Master of Reality”, arguably the Sabs’ heaviest ever album. Robson cranks up his guitars to deliver a highly convincing Tony Iommi impression, and he’s pretty good as Geezer too on electric bass. Lyttle fills the Bill Ward role and Phil even steps into Ozzy’s shoes to deliver the four line lyric reproduced below;

“Sitting on my throne, I am the master, of everything you see and hear
Everything I say you must believe now, united in a state of fear
And now, you must follow, my plan, you little man
Everything is fake, so you must come and take, your place now, Oh yeah”

It’s all great fun, but there’s a serious message within that brief stanza that says so much about the state of the modern world.

As Robson’s first solo release for seven years “Portrait in Extreme” represents a very welcome addition to his catalogue. Hopefully it will act as a spur and as the world begins to return to normal he and Tobin can begin collaborating and recording with other musicians in a band situation again - assuming that they wish to do so. Let’s hope it’s not such a long wait until we hear from Robson on record again.

A confession – Phil actually alerted me to the release of this music in March and it’s taken me a long time to get round to writing about it, so my apologies to him for that. But I’d urge readers to check out this intriguing set of new music which is available via;

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