In the second Dirty Harry movie, Magnum Force, the catchphrase of Clint Eastwood's Inspector Callahan is "A man's got to know his limitations. Over the past decade, harpist Carol Robbins has attempted to defy the preconceived limitations of her instrument. She's employed the harpsurely one of the most unwieldy of instrumentsin a jazz setting, despite inherent challenges involved in manipulating its complicated set of pedals on the fly to meet the spontaneous demands of improvisation.
Still, while the harp has its own set of possibilities, it's apparently a relatively limited instrument in terms of dynamics, and so on Jazz Play (Robbins' third release as a leader) she keeps the tone relaxed and elegant. With a sextet featuring some of the West Coast's more capable mainstream playersguitarist Larry Koonse, saxophonist Bob Sheppard, trumpeter Steve Huffsteter, bassist Darek Oles and drummer Tim PleasantRobbins delivers a baker's dozen of tunes that aren't likely to shake anyone's foundations. Still, Jazz Play is an enjoyable if not occasionally innocuous set of straight-ahead jazz that leans towards the Latin side.
If labels like Nine Winds and Cryptogramophone are demonstrating that there's more to West Coast jazz than the cool reputation that's dogged it for more than half a century, Robbins reinforces that reputation as alive and well. Robbins' "Tangier is a samba that's about as heated as things get, and even then, things never exceed a low simmer. Still, with a group of players as seasoned as Robbins' sextet, there's plenty of commitment, focused solo work and subtle interplay. But even when Robbins creates dramatic cascades of sound on her harp, she lacks the power to create a greater sense of animationor is there? To hear the instrument pushed to greater extremes, one need only look to Finish pianist/harpist Iro Haarla's Northbound (ECM, 2006) and her work with the late Finnish drummer/composer Edward Vesala.
There's no question that within the limited purview Robbins has created, she's a capable improviser, and that's no mean feat. Her ability to work lyrically through changes may not appear particularly special on the surface, but when one considers the pedal work involved, then her ability to pianistically self-accompany during her solo on the gently swinging "Buddy's Bite becomes more impressive. Similarly, on "O Grande Amor a pared-down quartet with Koonse, Oles and Pleasantshe manages to melodically thread her way through Jobim's change-per-bar writing.
In some ways the ballads work best, because Robbins' lush tonality lines up perfectly with those pieces' graceful demands. Robbins' "Still Light recalls Bill Evans' "Very Early and features focused solos from Oles and Robbins, with Huffsteter's warm flugelhorn carrying the theme.
It may be true that "A man's got to know his limitations. Still, one also has to work at stretching the boundaries of those limitations. While Robbins isn't as adventurous as Haarla, it's clear from Jazz Play that intrinsic design complexities needn't prevent the harp from being a viable improvisational instrument.
Personnel: Carol Robbins: harp; Larry Koonse: guitar; Bob Shappard: soprano and tenor saxophones; Steve Hufstetter: trumpet and flugal horn; Derek Oles: bass; Tim Pleasant: drums.