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"An artist with a clear, heart-felt vision, exquisite taste, and lovely voice that lingers in your ear long after the music has ended." Andy Gilbert, San Francisco Bay Area jazz writer for San Jose Mercury News, Boston Globe and other newspapers
In an art form awash with ingenues and shiny singers newly minted from music school,
Ellen Robinson’s emergence is a breath of fresh air. With her new album Don’t Wait Too
Long, the Oakland jazz vocalist makes a convincing case for the value of life experience as
a template for reimagining American Songbook standards and more contemporary fare.
Displaying impressive skills as a songwriter, she also infuses hard-won wisdom in original
tunes. Like her two previous releases, Don’t Wait Too Long was produced by the sure hand
of drummer and veteran DJ Bud Spangler. It’s the work of a late-blooming artist with a
clear, heartfelt vision, exquisite taste, and lovely voice that lingers in your ear long after
the music has finished.
Recorded live at Freight & Salvage, Berkeley CA, the album captures the vivacious singer
with her highly sympathetic band featuring articulate bassist Sam Bevan, versatile drummer
Dan Foltz, the unabashedly lyrical saxophonist Kristen Strom, and pianist Murray Low, one
of the region’s most sought after accompanists. Focusing on ballads with sinuous
melodies, Robinson sustains a dreamy mood with a deceptively unadorned style,
eschewing vocal acrobatics and scat solos in favor of close attention to melodies and
emotionally insightful phrasing. Exploring a program laden with unexpected treasures, she
distills the essence of each song.
“I have to feel connected to the lyrics,” says Robinson. “I’m not a gymnastic singer. I do like
taking a straight ahead jazz tune or a pop tune and making it my own. I pick songs that
feel inclusive, so that sometimes steers me in a little different direction in terms of my
The album opens with “Dance Only With Me,” a rarely sung gem by Jule Styne, Betty
Comden, and Adolph Greene from the 1958 Broadway comedy Say, Darling about the
making of a Broadway musical. She turns the song into a wistful reverie, far more a
whispered prayer than an imperious demand. Even when Robinson interprets familiar
material, like Lerner and Loewe’s standard “Almost Like Being in Love,” or Johnny Burke
and Jimmy Van Heusen’s “But Beautiful,” she unveils new shades of meaning in the lyrics,
letting the tunes unfold at deliciously languorous tempos.
When Robinson takes liberties with a song, like her slyly re-harmonized version of Irving
Berlin’s “Be Careful It’s My Heart” (from the 1942 Bing Crosby film Holiday Inn, which also
introduced “White Christmas”), she doesn’t so much reinvent it as highlight the tune’s
playfully imploring lyric. She transforms songs of more recent vintage too, like her jazz
appropriation of the mid-60s pop hit “Our Day Will Come,” which she delivers with
righteous conviction. Robinson wisely takes Joni Mitchell’s setting for the Rudyard Kipling
poem “If” as is, dispensing his timeless advice to Mitchell’s gently incantatory melody.
Listening to the album without looking at the credits, one might be very surprised to
discover that Robinson contributes three original songs, so seamlessly do they fit in with
the standards. “Soon” sounds like it was lifted directly from the first act of a classic
Broadway musical, as the tension builds between a couple fated to take the plunge into
romance. And with its lithe, insistently tuneful melody, the briskly swinging “Tick Tock”
offers the kind of wisdom a character achieves in the third act, when busy activity gives
way to reflection (thoughtfulness that’s echoed in Kristen Strom’s beautifully economical
“It’s such a thrill to write a song and bring it to the band,” Robinson says. “I’m very
collaborative. We try different things. I’m really proud of the fact that I write my own
charts, and that I can put my name on some of these songs.”
Born in New Rochelle, New York and raised in Stamford, Conn., Ellen Robinson grew up in a
sylvan setting and spent much of her adolescence climbing trees and enjoying nature. But
after hanging out with a highly musical family that lived nearby she was inspired to explore
the piano at home, and learned the basics from her mother. By high school she was playing
guitar, writing and performing her own songs whenever she got the chance. Realizing that
music was her calling, but with little family support for a career as a performer, she earned
a music education degree from Manhattanville College with a major in piano.
“I wanted to be a composer, and my parents said I would never be able to support myself,
so I got into music education,” Robinson says. “When I got out of college I taught music to
kids and I kept writing my own music, which kept me sane and alive.”
In 1976 Robinson moved to the Bay Area with her partner at the time, and found work
teaching music at private schools in the East Bay. Still intent on developing her craft as a
singer-songwriter, she had started singing without accompanying herself after a mishap
with her guitar. Working various jobs, including floor waxing, to pay the bills, she was
given free rein by a client to explore his record collection. “I grabbed an album by Carmen
McRae, and it totally amazed me,” she recalls. “I didn’t know people sang like that.”
Bitten by the jazz bug, Robinson undertook years of intensive, self-directed study, buying
albums and catching masters like Betty Carter, Etta Jones, and Ella Fitzgerald in concert.
She immersed herself in the music of Carmen McRae, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Irene
Kral, Sheila Jordan, Shirley Horn, Carol Sloane, Dinah Washington, Jo Stafford, and Kay
“I loved piano too, so that was a major thing, listening to Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea,
Keith Jarrett, Monk, and McCoy Tyner,” Robinson says.
Hanging out at the San Francisco jazz spot Storyville she met bassist Scott Steed, and he
offered to play for her students at Oakland’s Beacon Day School. He brought pianist Art
Khu and drummer Bud Spangler to the morning presentation, and she ended up sitting in
with the trio on “Give Me the Simple Life.” The encounter launched an ongoing creative
partnership between Robinson and Spangler, a Grammy Award–nominated producer whose
credits include sessions by Cedar Walton, Mark Levine’s Latin Tinge, Taylor Eigsti, Anton
Schwartz, Mimi Fox, and vocalists Kitty Margolis, Clairdee, Ed Reed, and Nicolas Bearde.
“Bud said, ‘Hey, you’re good, I can help you with that,’” Robinson says. “We chatted up a
storm, and he ended up helping me make a demo tape in 1999 with pianist Paul Nagel and
bassist John Shifflett. Bud was the angel in my life. He’s produced all three CDs. He’s been
my mentor and a dear friend.”
She continued her education, studying at the Stanford Jazz Workshop and JazzCamp West.
By the time she released her debut album, 2001’s On My Way to You, she had emerged as
a stand-out on the Bay Area’s burgeoning jazz vocal scene. Featuring pianist Ben Flint,
bassist John Shifflett, drummer Andrew Eberhard, and reed expert Harvey Wainapel, the
album garnered enthusiastic praise from critics and veteran masters like Carol Sloane, who
wrote, “Hers is a white chocolate sound, intense and pure, swinging and bitter-sweet.
Keep your ears and eyes open for more Ellen Robinson.”
She followed up with 2006’s Mercy!, an album gleaned from performances in Berkeley and
San Francisco between 2001 and 2005. The album documents her with her first band, and
with a later incarnation featuring bassist John Wiitala, drummers Jeff Marrs and Jon Arkin,
and soul-drenched saxophonist Charles McNeal. The album also received rapturous
reviews, like the website AllAboutJazz’s rave, “This singer delivers from the heart. That’s
her forte. . . . Robinson interprets lyrics in such a way that we feel them completely.”
A gifted educator who teaches at the Jazzschool in Berkeley and Community Music Center
in San Francisco, Robinson directs several vocal programs and ensembles, including a
musical theater workshop at Stagebridge, and the Anything Goes Chorus, a community
chorus that gives public performances and free concerts at retirement homes, homeless
shelters, prisons, and halfway houses since the early 1980s.
Robinson’s tireless efforts as an educator and cultural activist were recognized in 2011
with a prestigious Jefferson Award. She doesn’t see much separation between her work in
the classroom or on stage. With Don’t Wait Too Long she offers an object lesson in music’s
transformative power, a power that she both embodies and transmits.
“As a teacher I feel like I’m a performer, and as a performer I feel like a teacher,” Robinson
says. “I want people to be entertained and I want them to feel different after they've heard