Surrounded by an animated buzz since its live debut in 2007 at Derby Jazz Week, London-based guitarist Phil Robson's first outing with a string quartet proves to be every bit as exciting as the grapevine promised.
Best known to date for his work with the revved up and riotous Partisans band, which he co-leads with saxophonist Julian Siegel, Robson's credentials as a composer and arranger have already been well establishedboth with the Partisans, of whose Max (Babel, 2005), for instance, he wrote half the pieces, and under his own name. But the sophistication and inventiveness of his writing for a string quartet still comes as a surprise.
On Six Strings & The Beat, Robson has succeeded, where many have failed, in hard-wiring a string quartet into the jazz music surrounding it. The four players are creative members of the larger band, equals alongside double bassist Peter Herbert, Partisans' drummer Gene Calderazzo and Robson himself. Not only do the strings contribute vibrant riffs and counterpoints, their players also include two compelling improvisers: cellist Kate Shortt and violinist Emma Smith.
Robson acknowledges guitarist Bill Frisell as an influencealong with rock and jazz guitarists including Jimi Hendrix, Pat Martino, Barney Kessel and Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelinand the breadth of Six Strings & The Beat is reminiscent of some of Frisell's recent work with strings. Its sweep may not be as kaleidoscopic as Frisell's double-CD suite, History, Mystery (Nonesuch, 2008), and the project's budget was tiny by comparison, but with its shorter length and leaner personnel, Robson's album has reach and punches well above its weight.
Robson touches down in Mali for the desert blues-informed "Songbird," on which Shortt's cello evokes the country's kora music; in New Orleans, for "Louisiana," written in remembrance of Hurricane Katrina and containing some heavily distorted, pain wracked electric guitar; and in Hungary, for the Bela Bartok-inspired "Quick Silver." Elsewhere he conjures up saxophonist Ornette Coleman's full-tilt abandon on "The Mook," and dips into Americana on "Hillbleeoos," on which he alternates between bluesy slide guitar riffs and fast-picked passages derived from bluegrass.
A wonderful album, one of the highlights of British jazz in 2008, and a direction that very much deserves further exploration.
Personnel: Phil Robson: guitar; Emma Smith: violin; Jennymay Logan: violin; Naomi Fairhurst: viola; Naomi Fairhurst: cello; Kate Shortt: cello; Peter Herbert: double bass; Gene Calderazzo: drums; Christine Tobin: voice (4, 7).