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Maestro Perry Robinson, Rest In Peace 9/17/38-12/2/18

2018 was a very difficult year for me personally, frankly the most difficult of my life. My mom passed away due to complications from heart surgery on June 2nd, 2018. It is only now that I’m starting to fully realize the depth and range of emotions that I have experienced. We collectively also lost, exactly six months to the day later, my friend and THE original free jazz clarinetist, the great jazz icon Perry Robinson. Perry died from, oddly enough, complications from heart surgery as well. Perry truly was my musical and clarinet mentor in a lot of ways. In the coming years I plan to detail and highlight his recorded output in an ongoing series of blog posts. I feel I am uniquely positioned through my friendship with him, and my knowledge and expertise with his music, to shed some new light on his genius. I plan to start with his recordings as a leader and examine them in chronological order, then create posts about his significant recordings as a sideman. A short biography and discography regarding Perry can be found here at his Wikipedia entry…..

Perry was a truly open person, never one to prejudge anyone or anything. He had a gift for melody and an ability to truly improvise and play what he felt in the moment. His was a truly FREE LIFE, and this was reflected in his music. He adapted the Free Jazz innovations of Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor and John Coltrane to the clarinet, and invented a language on the clarinet that is unparalleled in the genre.

I travelled to New York City on January 16th, 2019, and on January 20th, in the midst of a miserable cold spell, Judy and I took the PATH train to Hoboken NJ for the celebration of life for Perry. Aptly entitled Perryganza, the event featured some great video of Perry, and marathon jam sessions that featured many of Perry’s family and musician friends.

There was also spoken word, folk singers, jazz musicians, and steel pan players from Trinidad.It was a true reflection of the diverse influences that permeated his life. Somewhere after the four hour mark I got to play Perry’s composition Mountain Soup with a bunch of the these folks. Here is a shot of Ed Schuller on acoustic bass and myself on clarinet at this point in the proceedings.

I met some wonderful people at Perryganza, and in several ways a new chapter of my dedication to his music began.I feel a strong urge to document his legacy, so in that spirit I will begin with a close look at his first recording, Funk Dumpling.

1959 was a watershed year for jazz.From Dave Brubeck’s smash hit LP Timeout, which featured Take Five (a Paul Desmond tune, by the way) to Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue to Ornette Coleman’s Change Of The Century toDuke Ellington’s Anatomy Of A Murder soundtrack, jazz was at its creative and artistic peak.Perry Robinson turned 21 years old in the Fall of 1959.During the summer of that year the third annual School Of Jazz took place in Lenox, Massachusetts.Perry Robinson attended and was befriended by clarinetist Jimmy Guiffre.

Ornette Coleman was also there, and had a huge impact on the jazz world at large……Part of the story is told in the following blog post. The essence of this linked post is how Ornette shocked and amazed everyone in attendance with his new Free Jazz conception

CIRCA 1959: Jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman poses for a portrait holding his saxophone in circa 1959. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images) Though this article does not mention Perry, he is on record in interviews detailing how this new music influenced his thinking and improvising.He stated to me that early on in his career he wanted to become more “modern” in his conception, and we can be certain that his initial exposure to Ornette and Don Cherry, as well as his later exposure to Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp and John Coltrane’s later free music, became the bedrock foundation that he used to develop his unique free playing.

In fact in his book The Traveler Perry details that this side of his playing developed with a group called the Uni Trio that began in Panama while he was in the Army in 1960 and 1961.

Upon Perry’s discharge from the Army he returned to the New York area, and in 1962 he recorded his first recording as a leader, the under appreciated but thoroughly magnificent Funk Dumpling, on Savoy Records (Savoy CD #SV-0255). The Perry Robinson 4 consisted of Perry on clarinet, a very young pianist by the name of Kenny Barron, the amazing bassist Henry Grimes, and Paul Motian on drums.

Savoy Records was famous for capturing and issuing quite a number of classic Charlie Parker 78 sides from the 1940’s, among them Now’s The Time, Parker’s Mood and Donna Lee. These are the seminal recordings of bebop. Here is a thumbnail sketch of Savoy at Wikipedia……

Perry said that with Funk Dumpling he wanted to highlight his bebop roots. Savoy owner Herman Lubinsky was present at the recording session and wanted young Perry to record something that would have commercial appeal, and he suggested a Dixieland tune called Midnight In Moscow; Lubinsky changed the title to Moon Over Moscow to skirt royalty obligations. The first tune on Funk Dumpling is a rather bebop styled reworking of Moscow. Here is a link to the track…..

On this tune the young Perry displays a relaxed conception, warm sound and a sense of melody that belies his age. His playing is totally recognizable at this point, his unique voice spinning out phrase after phrase of pure golden toned beauty. Spurred by the terrific swinging rhythm section, this one tune is a classic in itself and a great example Perry’s early more “inside” style. I am including a pdf here of this simple tune to make it easier for you to follow his solo…..

Download PDF • 55KB

Sprites Delight by bassist Henry Grimes follows next on Funk Dumpling. You can hear it here…..

Check out how Perry handles the difficult intervallic challenges on this melody, and hear how the rhythm section propels him to a wonderful swinging solo that is more inside the changes than out. He finds some imaginative and creative routes through the changes, and he is completely in command on this solo. After Perry finishes a very young Kenny Barron spins out a great solo. You can just hear these musicians having a lot of fun in the studio on this tune.

Perry’s tune Wahayla is next up. You can hear it here…..

Here it is folks, a masterpiece of a tune that is so evocative and gorgeous that it just rips your heart out. I love the tone quality that comes out of Perry’s horn here, a touch of melancholy and a sweetness that is so incredibly unique. I have been learning this tune and playing it on some gigs. Here are pdf’s of both the clarinet part that I wrote out, and the concert chart that Ed Schuller wrote out…..

Download PDF • 417KB

Download PDF • 520KB

Farmer Alfalfa, another Henry Grimes composition, is next. You can hear it here…..

Perry dispatches the tricky melody in fine fashion and then lays out a solo that incorporates some interesting inside and outside elements.Notice the tune doesn’t really have any definite chord changes, which frees Perry up to take the tune a bit “out.”

Download PDF • 248KB

Perry’s ability to “straddle the line”, to play both inside and outside the changes in the same solo, is demonstrated here. This characteristic and solo is proof positive that even at this early stage of his development he was digesting this new musical language and finding a way to express himself in this fashion. Compared to how Kenny Barron lays it down in his solo in a very inside manner, you get a very obvious comparison of this new conception with this track.

The next track is Margareta, a Perry Robinson original. This tune has always interested me. You can find it here on Youtube….

Here are my clarinet charts and the Concert chart that Eddie Schuller wrote out to Margareta. There are some slight differences in the way these are notated, by the way. Ed I believe wrote these out from memory from his time in Perry’s band, while mine are a more direct transcription of this recording.

Download PDF • 484KB

Download PDF • 393KB

Download PDF • 279KB

The Margareta melody is so simple yet very logical, and they way it transitions into 3/4 time in the bridge is a very interesting rhythmic modulation. I love how Perry is so relaxed and swinging on this straight ahead groove, his solo is an extension of the simple melodic line of his melody. Notice that during the solo section the band does not transition into 3/4 time on the bridge but continues the straight ahead 4/4 swing grove. This particular solo is a great introduction to learning Perry’s solos by ear. Generally his solos are not easy to learn by ear, nor are they easy to write out. As his style begins to transition into more free improvisations it becomes nearly impossible to learn his solos, although much can be learned from sampling his phrases and his unique set of improvisational material. However I did learn this solo pretty quickly by ear and did not have to slow it down. I feel that is a function of the great melodic material that Perry uses to fashion this solo, and would put this solo at the very top of his more “inside” solos, it has a lot of his “ism’s” in it and shows in detail how advanced he was at this point in his short career. Perry, in spite of all the “out” things he played and recorded, had a fantastic gift for melody, there is no question about that.

The next tune is again a Henry Grimes original, and what a classic tune it is. Funk Dumpling, in all its glory, shows young Perry at his finest. Check it out here…..

There is a lot to take in here. After a very interesting melody in E flat on the clarinet, which is not easy to play at this tempo, Perry fires off seven choruses of blues in this key. I have learned and played this solo hundreds of times, and it has influenced my thinking deeply. There is such a great sense of melody in this solo, yet it bends ever so slightly outward throughout its development. You can see what I mean if you look carefully at my transcription. I feel this solo is the pivotal point on Funk Dumpling, bringing together many of the elements of Perry’s style at this point into a very unified whole.

Download PDF • 61KB

The final tune on Funk Dumpling is Perry’s compostion Home Is Where The Hearth Is. Hear it here…

This slow ballad has a riveting tenderness to it and provides a wonderful contrast to the more up tempo tracks heard previously. I don’t know that over the course of Perry’s fifty plus years of recording he ever managed to record anything quite so elegant and timeless as this piece of music. A fitting slow finale to a jazz clarinet masterpiece that makes to my mind Funk Dumpling a watershed recording, and a perfect end to a recording that would become the jumping off point for a career that could never be duplicated.

In The Traveler, Funk Dumpling is described in detail by Perry himself. This book is an invaluable resource for Perry’s life and music. Cowritten with Florence Wetzel, it is an amazing document and certainly worthy of multiple reads if you are interested in learning about all things Perry Robinson. You can purchase your own copy at the amazon link above. On Page 92 he says, “I consider Funk Dumpling based on bebop, particularly bebop saxophone playing, and that’s the point of the record. I had been working hard on bebop for many years; my development went through Bird, Buddy DeFranco and Tony Scott, but then as I said I was also influenced by Gerry Mulligan and the whole cool school, as well as Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and the Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet. I was very happy with Funk Dumpling because I was trying to do bebop as well as use my other influences, and I felt I succeeded……Funk Dumpling was just effortless to make; something wonderful definitely happened, everybody thought so, which I guess is why it’s still known.”

Funk Dumpling was the first Perry Robinson recording I ever heard. I found a used copy in a record store sometime in the early 1990’s. I had heard about Perry when I was in New York in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, but I never did run across his music or the man himself until a bit later. Not only did this recording change my conception about jazz with respect to the clarinet, little did I know how important a document it would become to me nor how influential Perry would later become in my life and music. Funk Dumpling is one of the great clarinet recordings in jazz. It is the jumping off point for a man that took many of the previous elements of jazz clarinet and forged them into his own signature style. It is the true convergence of bebop and freer jazz forms that would emerge in bolder detail in the mid 1960’s. Perry was truly on top of the modern clarinet style in 1962.

In retrospect now I realize how lucky I am to have a connection with Perry Robinson and his music, and I am determined to carry forward his legacy as best I can. I have much more to share regarding Perry and look forward to delving deeper into his life, legacy, and recordings. Please stay tuned for those future blog posts, and I hope you’ve enjoyed this introduction to the man we call Maestro! I love to remember how Perry used to tip his head back and say…….”Woooooooowwwwww.”

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