Guitarist Phil Robson is back on this side of the Atlantic. After five years living in New York – in Jersey City, across the Hudson River from Lower Manhattan – he and partner Christine Tobin moved back in March 2020, and are currently based in County Roscommon in Ireland, where he is both enjoying and participating in the country’s “wonderfully creative arts scene”. He has a new EP/Album called ‘Portrait in Extreme’, to be released on Lyte Records on 25th March, 2022. Here he reflects on his time in New York, explains some of the background to the new album, and looks forward to touring with saxophonist Jed Levy. Email interview by Sebastian Scotney.
LondonJazz News: You have described your new EP as “a fun snapshot of aspects of my life between Feb 2020 and the autumn of 2021.” What can that possibly mean?!
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Phil Robson: Ha, yes, that’s a good question, which deserves some clarification! What I meant by that is, although that time was very tough for me, as it was for most people, in my desire to reflect some of the crazy extremes of the pandemic era through the music, my intention was to do so with an element of humour plus a sense of detachment. I really hope the result is both entertaining, exciting and moving for the listener. I had been thrown into the unknown, in an environment that was the polar opposite of where I’d come from, plus a lot of the world events which happened throughout that period were very serious and sad. Despite that, there were also many moments of beauty, re-connecting with nature, peacefulness and fun, as well as other positive aspects, so that is why I called it ‘Portrait in Extreme’.
LJN: We know you as a guitarist but you have FIVE credits here…including vocals?!
PR: That’s right. I do play a lot of different types of guitar stuff here, including some folky acoustic on one track, as well as lots of varied electric styles, but on the recording I also play the electric bass (borrowed from Eddie Lee of Sligo Jazz), plus I used electronic software as a big part of the sound world, as well as singing my own lyrics in a Black Sabbath pastiche/homage for the last track. I wrote all the music and it all tells a story, even if that was simply about re-visiting a lot of music which had influenced me over the years as a listener, which I certainly did many times, during the pandemic.
I also designed the cover…and made this promo video:
LJN: And you’ve been getting to grips with some new technology – what’s the background there?
PR: Yes I learned to use Ableton Live 11 Suite software, as well as recording programs such as Reaper, and downloading various plugins etc, which were all new to me, although I’ve always wanted to get into this area more. At the end of the second big lockdown, (which were very strict in Ireland), I was incredibly grateful to be awarded a grant from the Arts Council of Ireland, called a music bursary which was to enable me to expand my practice. I chose to use this to buy the software, take some lessons and it basically got me back into thinking about music and sound at a crucial time. Prior to that, I was beginning to disconnect from my own music more and more, but having a project quickly got me back to hearing music in my head again, practicing guitar and writing music as well as experimenting with the software and sonic possibilities. My technical mentor was Alex Bonney who pointed me in the right direction with Ableton in a couple of online sessions, as well as giving me great recording advice. I mixed the album myself, but Alex did the final master, which he did a wonderful job of. He’s also a very fine trumpet player and old friend.
LJN: Can you reflect on your time in New York..
PR: New York was a great experience and I’d been a long term visitor since the late 90s, so it was something I’d always wanted to do and be part of, at some stage in my life. I intend to continue building upon all the great work I did in NY in the future and to continue to play there as often as possible, whilst living where I do. Both myself and Christine also made very strong friendships and musical partnerships there, such as the one I have with master saxophonist/composer Jed Levy. The co-led band we put together to play our own compositions, regularly played major NY venues such as Birdland, Smalls, the 55 Bar etc with as well as touring California and Europe and we intend to continue this into the future. We will be playing in the UK, Ireland, Italy and other places in Europe this September 2022 and beyond.
LJN: Were there some musical highlights, either playing or hearing musical legends, moments when your jaw truly dropped?
PR: There were many, magical moments there in NY and we took full advantage of the music scene. The world is a much smaller place than it used to be, so a lot of it is not so much about who we saw, but more about being able to see these artists in very intimate and informal clubs/settings, in way that is largely unique to NY. I tend to prefer watching bands playing specially written material, so I have very fond memories of seeing the Renee Rosnes band at the Vanguard (with Chris Potter, Peter Washington Lenny White), John Scofield at the Bluenote, Billy Childs ‘Map to the Treasure’ at the Jazz Standard (featuring Steve Wilson, Adam Rogers, Alicia Olatuja etc), Billy Hart Quartet on many occasions and other friends such as Wayne Krantz, whom we dropped in to see nearly every week at one stage when we first moved there.
I also loved being able to casually see such star players as Joe Lovano, Roy Hargrove, Victor Lewis, Buster Williams, Peter Bernstein, Lew Tabackin, the late great Pat Martino… and the list is endless. Other times I’d see equally inspiring music from pianist friend Jon Davis and many more, and I was a huge fan of master guitarist Vic Juris, who is sadly no longer with us. I watched his wonderful trio with Adam Nussbaum and Jay Anderson on many nights at the 55 Bar and yes, my jaw dropped at things he could do!
Needless to say, I played with any of these people I could, including an informal session with Lee Konitz in his apartment, which I’ll never forget! Outside of the jazz world, I saw Thomas Ades’s ‘The Exterminating Angel’ opera at the NY Met, which is one of the best things I ever saw in my life, plus I enjoyed all the great NYC cinemas, punk gigs, electronica, heavy metal and all sorts of interesting places and things I saw. I could, of course, equally wax lyrically about all the amazing things I saw/heard in London over the years, but I’ll stop now!
LJN: And more generally – how has the time in NY changed you ….or is it too early to say?
PR: I think it’s always hard to say those things about yourself and I think we all grow from new and intense experiences. It’s particularly hard to comment on this right now, because the world of musicians and live music which I described in the last answer, pretty much ground to a halt for a full two years. We are all still getting back on our feet, and there are some very unpleasant things going on in the world as I write this, but I’m very optimistic about the future, and I’m hoping we see an incredible burst of creativity around the world when we get through this. There is a wonderfully creative arts scene in Ireland and I look forward to meeting more and more people within that too, as well as forming new projects etc such as the duo I already have with drummer David Lyttle. He is also the owner of Lyte Records which is the label ‘Portrait in Extreme’ will be released on.
Thanks for your great questions! Hope to see you all soon.
Portrait in Extreme is released on Lyte Records 25 March 2022
LINKS Phil Robson on Bandcamp,