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November 2002

Perry Robinson & Florence Wetzel
Perry Robinson: The Traveler

Even in a world where nonconformity is the norm, Perry Robinson is an eccentric. He seems to view life as a quest for the unusual, unexpected and especially, to use his favorite word, “out.” His choice of instrument may even reflect this love of the outré; when he got serious about the clarinet in the ’50s, Tony Scott and Buddy DeFranco were about the only people who believed in its possibilities for modern expression.

Robinson’s name is inextricably linked with the first wave of the free-jazz era, owing to his participation on a handful of seminal records: Henry Grimes’ The Call, Archie Shepp’s Mama Too Tight, Charlie Haden’s Liberation Orchestra and Carla Bley and Paul Haines’ Escalator Over the Hill notable among them. A host of later associations would include Gunter Hampel and Jeanne Lee, Roswell Rudd and the Brubeck clan.

Robinson’s father, Earl, was a well-known songwriter in the folk world of the ’40s and ’50s, whose best-known song, “The House I Live In,” was a significant Sinatra vehicle covered by many jazz artists, Shepp and Sonny Rollins among them. As may be imagined, Robinson grew up among legendary folkie, lefty types, sitting on Leadbelly’s knee, corresponding with Woody Guthrie, rooming with Lee Hays. This quasi-autobiography derives from extensive interviews with Robinson, interspersed with contributions from people who have known him over the years. He is certainly not a bashful subject; anecdotes about his outlandish carryings-on abound, along with candid comments about psychedelic drugs, free love and various people Robinson has known and worked with. Accounts of his involvement with numerology, astrology, magic and the like add appropriately offbeat counterpoint to his musical life story.

Wetzel has done an excellent job assembling a volume that is as unique and hard to characterize as its subject. Robinson comes through as someone dedicated to living outside of all preconceptions about acceptable behavior, sort of a Greenwich Village version of Nazruddin, the mad sage of Islamic legend. This book is recommended not only to the few who know Robinson as a vastly underrated player, but as a unique piece of oral history that will remind those of us who lived through the ’60s what a special time it really was.

The fact that Perry Robinson has never changed the course he’s traveling on is encouraging, even inspiring.

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