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Phil Robson

The Cut Off Point


by Ian Mann

July 13, 2015


An excellent album that honours the much loved tradition of the organ trio yet still manages to find something fresh to say within the format.

Phil Robson

“The Cut Off Point”

(Whirlwind Recordings WR4672)

The versatile guitarist Phil Robson has appeared frequently on the Jazzmann web pages in a wide variety of musical contexts. A musician capable of combining the sophistication of jazz with the power of rock Robson is probably best known for his co-leadership (with reeds man Julian Siegel) of the much loved jazz-rock titans Partisans but Robson also heads his own groups, among them his Six Strings and The Beat project, a combo that combined his guitar with a string quartet plus the drums of Partisans colleague Gene Calderazzo. He has also fronted a quintet featuring the acclaimed American saxophonist Mark Turner, this line up recording “The Immeasurable Code” album in 2011.

Robson also works closely with vocalist Christine Tobin and plays a key role on all of her projects.
As a sideman his list of credits is impressive and he has appeared on albums by saxophonist Rachael Cohen and Paul Booth, pianist Liam Noble, bassists Michael Janisch and Alec Dankworth and drummer Jeff Williams. Robson has also worked with the great American saxophonist Dave Liebman and occupies the guitar chair in the BBC Big Band. It’s an impressive and diverse CV.

Robson has recorded two trio albums as a leader the first of these, “Impish” appearing on Babel Records in 2002 and featuring bassist Dave Whitford and drummer Asaf Sirkis with guest pianist John Taylor also appearing on three pieces. The follow up, “Screenwash” (Babel, 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 although it’s taken Robson over a decade to record in a trio format again. However “The Cut Off Point” offers something very different, an organ trio recording made with Calderazzo at the drums and Ross Stanley, the UK’s first call jazz organist, on Hammond.

Despite his rock leanings Robson has a thorough grasp and appreciation of the jazz tradition and in a way it comes as something of a surprise to think that he’s never recorded in the classic organ trio format before. Robson acknowledges the combined influences of fellow guitarists Pat Martino, John McLaughlin and the late Wes Montgomery on the new record but there’s also the sense that Robson and his colleagues are trying to bring something new to an old and well established format.
This is encapsulated both by the heavy, rock influenced grooves and the insistence on an all original programme, seven new pieces from the pen of Robson plus the standout composition “Dimi And The Blue Men” by one time collaborator Dave Liebman.

Robson explains the inspiration behind the new album thus; “I’ve always loved the organ trio tradition and wanted to be part of it for many years, but I was waiting for the time, when I felt I could really bring my own thing to it and with the right people. With this band and album I really felt I’d reached that time”. The album certainly validates these thoughts and Peter Bacon’s review of a recent gig by the trio at the Red Lion in Birmingham for The Jazz Breakfast site suggests that their live appearances take things a step further and are highly exciting affairs with the group taking the opportunity to really stretch out.

The album opens with the energetic “Thief” with Robson’s fluent bop inspired soloing underscored by Stanley’s inventive organ chording and the brisk bustle of Calderazzo’s drums. Stanley has recently become the proud owner of an authentic 1961 Hammond B3 (together with an equally authentic Leslie speaker cabinet) and plays the instrument on this album. I was lucky enough to see him playing the beast at a quartet session led by guitarist Nigel Price at Black Mountain Jazz in Abergavenny in October 2014, shortly after this album was recorded. Needless to say it sounds terrific on Stanley’s solo here, and indeed throughout the album.

“Second Thoughts” begins in appropriately pensive fashion with a brooding blues feel allied to a Metheny like sense of melody. Robson’s atmospheric opening solo makes judicious use of his effects pedals and he’s brilliantly shadowed by Calderazzo’s drums, a masterful blend of colour, invention and an underlying subtlety. Once regarded by some as a bit of a “basher” Calderazzo has matured into a superb all round drummer and demonstrates that brilliantly here. This is very much a piece of two halves and things take off with Stanley’s solo as the piece is transformed into an energetic swinger with Robson later contributing a very different kind of solo full of agile, elegant bebop style runs.

Dave Liebman’s “Dimi And The Blue Men” is a tune that Robson and Liebman used to play during their 2008/9 collaboration with bassist Dave Whitford and drummer Jeff Williams. Liebman’s composition was inspired by a trip he made to Mauretania and the composer normally plays the atmospheric intro on wood flute. For this version it’s a freely structured interchange between scratchy, FX enhanced guitar and spacey/churchy organ with Calderazzo’s mallet rumbles and cymbal shimmers circulating around them. Eventually Robson sets up a groove that forms the basis for a powerful solo in which he continues to make intelligent use of his effects. Liebman’s atmospheric, episodic composition is one of his best, a piece that is clearly a favourite of the composer’s and one which he has introduced to a variety of bands.

Robson’s “Vintage Vista” is dedicated to the American guitarist Pat Martino who has often recorded in the organ trio format, his Hammond partners including Joey DeFrancesco, Tony Monaco and others. It’s an energetic, hard driving piece that also owes something to the short lived but much loved Lifetime band led by drummer Tony Williams and featuring McLaughlin on guitar alongside organist Larry Young. Robson’s elegant solo is more in the style of Martino but Stanley and Calderazzo continue to stoke the fires behind him and Stanley’s surging, fleet fingered Hammomd solo is a delight. The piece also includes a typically ebullient drum solo from Calderazzo.

Robson’s liner notes state that the spacey, atmospheric ballad “Astral” was “written with Kenny Wheeler in mind at the time of his passing”. It’s a beautiful tribute, with Robson’s coolly understated, subtly blues inflected, guitar offset by the warm, gospel tinged swell of Stanley’s Hammond as Calderazzo adds sensitive, but never bland, brushed commentary.

The title track sees the trio plunging deeper into Lifetime territory with both Robson and Stanley upping the distortion levels as Calderazzo clatters and thunders around them. Parts of it are relatively freely structured and there are some vigorous exchanges between guitar and organ from which Stanley eventually emerges triumphant to deliver a soaring closing Hammond solo. 

“Berlin” is marginally less frenetic and more deeply rooted in the language of bebop with fluent, beguiling solos from both Robson and Stanley above a crisply propulsive drum track that climaxes with something of a feature for Calderazzo. 

The closing “Ming The Merciless” sees the trio getting deep down and funky with propulsive Hammond grooves and solid, driving drumming. Robson’s solo blends blues simplicity and bebop sophistication and Stanley’s Hammond feature is a gospel infused delight. At the end there’s a joyous whoop from Calderazzo, “Yeah! We got an album!”. Right on, Gene.

“The Cut Off Point” is an excellent album that honours the much loved tradition of the organ trio yet still manages to find something fresh to say within the format. There are many of the conventional, bebop inspired virtues but there is also something of the more contemporary “jam band” approach exemplified by Medeski, Martin & Wood. The fact that the trio have now adopted the moniker Robson, Ross & Ratzo would appear to add credence to this argument. And for this listener the presence of a strong, all original programme also helps with regard to the group’s mission to make the organ trio relevant in the 21st century. 

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