Most of guitarist Howard Roberts' recordings through the years (particularly a long string for Capitol in the 1960s) were quite commercial, featuring brief versions of current pop tunes. A versatile studio player, Roberts finally had an opportunity in 1977 to record some no-nonsense, straight-ahead jazz. This set (reissued on CD) matches Roberts in a quartet with pianist Ross Tompkins, bassist Ray Brown, and drummer Jimmie Smith playing some standards (including Herbie Hancock's "Dolphin Dance," "Gone With the Wind," and "Angel Eyes"), Michael Franks' "Lady Wants to Know," and Brown's "Parking Lot Blues." This is one of the few examples of Howard Roberts showing what a strong jazz player he could be.
All Music Guide
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The 'real' Howard Roberts isn't really a puzzling matter. Just check out any track on this record and dig the company he keeps on the session and you'll know his musical lovelife is the jazzlife.
"Frankly, I've never had anyone in the record business come to me and say 'Howard, we just want you to do what you want to do,'" guitarist Roberts recalls with delight. H.R.'s reference to the autonomy on this program of straight ahead jazz is completely comprehensible as he has not often recorded in this musical territory and artistic integrity, soaked with improvisational opportunities. After nearly three decades of hard-edged professional contributions in playing and teaching, his reputation as a master teacher and practitioner of the craft and art of jazz improvisation is an elevated one. His extremely informative monthly columns on this topic in Guitar Player magazine and his Guitar Institute of Technology in Hollywood designed to nurture guitarists to reach professional calibre are evidence of his contributions.
About sixteen years ago I began to get close to Howard's versatility and improvisational scope via his gigs at two jazz spas in the San Francisco Bay Area - The Gold Nugget in Oakland and The Trident in Sausalito, environments in which he played precisely what he wanted to play. Likewise I was witness to his initial sojourn into jazz education festival / clinic-concerts at the University of Pacific several years ago; this was where he literally lifted the multitude of young jazz student players off their seats with his brilliant swinging guitar.
The confident, deep swinging ease and genuine interconnectedness of the quartet on this record is reflected in the warm fulfillment and respect H.R. expresses. "All the guys have the skills and experience to eliminate spelling out anything... when it was time to play it, the music was the language. They immediatly let their total biology loose to respond to the instant, very akin to the martial arts wherein one's energy forces extend beyond the surface of the fingerboard or keyboard to the listeners, real or imagined."
As jazz pros, Ross, Ray and Jimmie carry rich lodes of music to any performance. Ross Tompkins' piano work is superb in so many ways. When he is accompanying, he has a perfect orchestral approach; his musical ideas are wonderful. Together with Ray Brown (personification of the virtue of the swing bass) and drummer Jimmie Smith's super-sensitive, sure-fire follow through, the quartet is like a singing, prancing and peaceful young child enjoying the provocative freedom of its indigenous childhood culture of play and fantasy.
Howard Roberts espouses an eclectic, cross-sectional musical perspective. His aim on this date was to include tunes with reasonably rich harmonies with "certain characteristic style, harmonies, tempos and musical formats." The music indeed matches the harmonic / melodic requirements of the album concept. Herbie Hancock's Dolphin Dance of the mid-sixties is a marvelous number which is very active harmonically and, therefore, a rich resource for improvisation.
The poignant Darn That Dream fits categorically with Gone With The Wind and Matt Dennis' classical Angel Eyes from earlier decades. All have authentic cadence; all have become traditional jazz tunes. The more contemporary Lady Wants To Know has a kind of chord movement characteristic of pop harmonies based on the I chord and IV chord of the key center; it broadly reflects music found in recent pop material, but not breaking the mold of the traditional. And how nice to have Ray Brown's Parking Lot Blues recorded again - a refreshing approach to the basic blues chord progression. Ray's little twist was in preparing each chord with a chromatic treatment.
One of the most gorgeous but grossly neglected songs is Leroy Anderson's Serenata, a theme which has turned me on since its availability. I love it! Cannonball Adderley captured it on one of his records in 1959 and the Art Farmer / Benny Golson Jazztet similarly caught its allure in I960. Howard Roberts is a deep "tune-cat!"
So, who and what is the 'real' Howard Roberts? Gather up the pieces or integers of his personality and the total map tells us what we all have known for years and this record helps to prove it: The Real Howard Roberts is a transparent dirty old swingin' jazz guitar wizard!
- Herb Wong