This release, dedicated to jazz promoter, producer and late founder of the German label bearing his name, Nagel Heyer, should come as a pleasant surprise to the fans of tenor saxophonist Spike Robinson. It had seemed almost certain that The CTS Session (Hep, 2005) was the final chapter in the story of this musician from Kenosha, Wisconsin who decided to become a full-time jazz musician at the age of 56 (a decision practically requiring that he remain an ex-patriot).
The advantage of hearing Robinson in 1979, midway between his careers as an engineer and a musician, is that he's at full strength, with ample breath reserves for spinning out those expansive, seemingly endless melodic lines that characterized his "Four Brothers" approach to improvising. Like tenor saxophonists Stan Getz, Zoot Sims and Al Cohn, Robinson owed to Lester Young his pellucid, unforced, warm yet bracing sound and his commitment to melody over "running the changes." But his breathless, singing lines (which would shorten considerably as smoking caught up with him in the 1990s) are what set him apart from his peers, a command of phrasing derived as much from Sinatra as Prez.
The session captures Robinson in the company of a receptive audience and a strong rhythm section, perhaps assembled just for the occasion. Although the support is tight and responsive, greater sensitivity to dynamics (even Art Blakey didn't rely exclusively on sticks and ride cymbal) would bring some welcome fresh air and light to the proceedings. And nowadays, one might question the use of electric piano throughout.
In 1979 electronic keyboards, like so many lurid sirens, were luring many musicians to near shipwreck, or at least anachronistic, "period piece" statements. The keyboard on this occasion (most likely a Fender Rhodes being processed through a phase-shifter box) comes close to impersonating the smarmy, "cheesy" sound of Yamaha FM synthesis. Unfortunate, because the pianist is definitely superior to his instrument, even incorporating a stride chorus (a la recent Keith Jarrett) on Fats Waller's "Honeysuckle Rose." (Who knows? Maybe Fats would have gotten a chuckle out of this underwater-sounding "Honeysuckle.")
Nonetheless, the featured soloist is in excellent form, laying down almost 80 minutes of exquisite melody-making. Whether the vehicle is the Harry Warren title song, standards like Jerome Kern's "They Didn't Believe Me" or Frank Loesser's "Slow Boat to China," Rudolph Friml's near-operatic "You're a Rose," or a 12-bar blues, he shows why he was one of the horn's last and best bel canto "singers." Listeners unfamiliar with this unique voice on the tenor should start with Spike Robinson Plays Harry Warren (Hep, 2004), which includes a stellar rhythm section of bassist Ray Brown, pianist Victor Feldman, and drummer John Guerin. If that meeting leads to another, such as this one in Dublin, be assured you're not the first to embark on what could be a lasting, beautiful friendship.
Personnel: Spike Robinson: tenor saxophone; Jim Doherty: keyboard; Dave Fleming: bass; John Wadham: drums.