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Interviews

Robin Holcomb: Distinctive Mysteries

By Published: February 14, 2011
AAJ: Was it Wayne who persuaded you to move to New York? Was that your next step?

RH: We talked about that. He moved a little ahead of me and then I joined him. We actually had a band back then called White Noise, which was all instrumental, with a lot of exuberant improvisation along the lines of The Art Ensemble Of Chicago
Art Ensemble Of Chicago
Art Ensemble Of Chicago

band/orchestra
.



AAJ: Who else was in that?

RH: Dave Sewelson
Dave Sewelson
Dave Sewelson

sax, baritone
, and Carol Lonberg was the saxophonist. She passed away last year. Mark Miller
Mark Miller

vocalist
was the drummer. Dave and I have an ensemble from those early days that we recently revived called The 25 O'Clock Band, and that's a completely instrumental group and we both write for that, and that's been a lot of fun to play that music again.

AAJ: Can you tell us some more about New York? Do you see yourself as part of the "downtown scene"?

RH: I was involved, not at the forefront like Wayne and some others, though. When we moved to New York, together as a band, we rented a rehearsal space, which was the basement of a building on Morton Street and Bleeker, which we called Studio Henry and we put a stage in there and a piano, and it had been a speakeasy during prohibition, but it was underneath a pet store. It was sort of like a precursor to The Knitting Factory. Lots of people played there—John Zorn
John Zorn
John Zorn
b.1953
sax, alto
, Elliott Sharp
Elliott Sharp
Elliott Sharp
b.1951
guitar
, Eugene Chadbourne
Eugene Chadbourne
Eugene Chadbourne
b.1954
guitar
, some of the European improvisers played there. I did my first big band project there; I had poetry readings, all sorts of things. It was eventually shut down because too many people started coming and one of our members liked to do performances that involved fire...

I do have roots in that period of time. I was a prompter for John Zorn
John Zorn
John Zorn
b.1953
sax, alto
's game pieces.

AAJ: I imagine that's an art in itself.

RH: I think so, and I felt like I was the brunt of...

AAJ: You weren't appreciated?

RH: You try to be fair and you try to be musical but people don't always agree with your choices.

AAJ: Now, there's some relation between Butch Morris' conduction and that prompting.

RH: I think they are probably quite interrelated. Morris has more extended language and gestures, and he's more about composing the music in a way, than John's pieces which are about the interaction of the players, and the moves are communicated to the ensemble through the prompter, but the prompter is more of a conduit.

AAJ: Now, was it about 1988 that you left New York for Seattle?

RH: Yes.

AAJ: That was really when what you're known for, your singer-songwriter work, took off.

RH: I had made a demo in New York before leaving. The day after recording a record for Sound Aspects called Larks, They Crazy (1988), I made a demo of five or six songs and that got passed around, and ended up at Nonesuch, and so we recorded that album in Seattle after we had moved. And so it's music I'd started there but recorded here.

When I was on Nonesuch the first records they really promoted were singer-songwriter records at the exclusion of other things I did. I put other kinds of projects on hold, during that period and started doing a wider range of things I was interested in after a few records. So, the most recent record, The Point of It All (Songlines, 2010), has the widest range of types of music that I'm intrigued by.

AAJ: For a number of reasons your move to Seattle brings to mind Kurt Cobain. His lyrics sort of have the fragmentary quality of yours. Did you feel you were in competition with the Grunge movement during that early period, or was there friendship?

RH: No, not necessarily. I am a big fan of his, but it was just happening at the same time. I wouldn't say that the similarities were the result of being in the same place at the same time, they were more cumulative.

AAJ: Anything else you'd like to say about Seattle?

RH: There are a lot of great musicians here, there's a lot of cross-pollination between various scenes which is great, like the jazz players are very interested in other stuff and it's not all one music camp, there's a jazz camp, a grunge camp. And that's nice.

The proximity to Vancouver is wonderful. There's a very strong improvised music scene there, as there is here but some of my favorite players live in Vancouver and it's great to be so close to them. I have several duo projects with cellist Peggy Lee
Peggy Lee
Peggy Lee
1920 - 2002
vocalist
and she's an incredible artist, a great accompanist for songs.

The Talking Pictures that's on this recording; they have a long history together and are all very strong improvisers, so that was really fun to put together. The record has a few songs of mine on it, it has an arrangement of Neil Young
Neil Young
Neil Young
b.1945
composer/conductor
's "After the Gold Rush," it has a number of pieces that are instrumental, with a lot of improvising, and it has a song that Peggy wrote with a poet from Vancouver, and it has a song that our guitarist Ron Samworth wrote. It really has combined the two loves of mine, the instrumental and the songs. It's good living here, though I like to get back to New York as often as I can.


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