The trumpet may be the instrument most identified with jazz, but between Woody Shaw and Dave Douglas few trumpeters emerged that were original. There are some fine ones—Paul Smoker, Roy Campbell, to name but two—but they are not well known to the jazz public. And it’s especially unfortunate that fans are unaware of Herb Robertson, a great trumpeter who had a major impact on Douglas. Perhaps that will change now that Robertson is a co-leader on three recently released CDs, Knudstock 2000 (Cadence), Brooklyn-Berlin (CIMP) and Ritual (CIMP).
Robertson’s an outstanding improviser who uses extended techniques. He’s got a large vocabulary of timbres and textures, including screams, shakes, rasps, growls and clucks. He blows pure air through his horn and creates unique Harmon and plunger-muted effects, exhibiting a fast right hand in the process.
Born in Plainfield, N.J., in 1951, Robertson attended Berklee from 1969 to 1973, and then worked with jazz and rock bands in Canada in “loud disco places.” He tired of that, though. “I was so frustrated that I was ready to quit music,” he says. “I moved back home in 1975 and got a day job.” However, he continued to play at venues in the Catskills from 1976 into the early 1980s, where he met drummer Herb Fisher. “He turned me on to free jazz records on ESP and the music of modern classical composers like Charles Ives,” said Robertson.
He and Fisher did a lot of free jamming together, which Robertson found liberating. “I came from a hard-bop background, but I was frustrated because I couldn’t find my own voice.” Around 1980, though, Robertson developed an approach of his own that was rooted in the work of Don Cherry and Lester Bowie.
On Knudstock Robertson works in a relatively large ensemble that does a lot of collective improvising. He has more room on the stimulating Brooklyn-Berlin, on which he’s a co-leader with drummer Phil Haynes, and during which reedmen Vinnie Golia and Ned Rothenberg appear. Ritual is a Robertson-Haynes duo CD, on which the trumpeter demonstrates that he can play quietly and poignantly, although there are searing moments here as well.