CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

Overdue Ovation: Hank Roberts Is Back in the Game

After a long sojourn in upstate New York, the veteran cellist moved to Brooklyn and started recording more music

Hank Roberts (photo: Anna Yatskevich/Courtesy of Newvelle Records)
Hank Roberts (photo: Anna Yatskevich/Courtesy of Newvelle Records)

Cellist Hank Roberts’ recent Newvelle Records release, Congeries of Ethereal Phenomena, his tenth as a leader, springs from his decision in the summer of 2015—after the youngest of his four children turned 21—to relocate 225 miles downstate from Ithaca, New York, to Brooklyn. He’d lived in Ithaca for more than 25 years. Before he moved there in 1989, however, he’d been an essential protagonist in New York City’s so-called “downtown jazz” scene. Tim Berne had deployed Roberts’ distinctive voice on several albums, including two by the collective trio Miniature (with drummer Joey Baron). Roberts had also played on guitarist Bill Frisell’s first three albums, as well as three with bassist Mark Dresser and violinist Mark Feldman in the Arcado String Trio. But he had a wife and young family, and he’d tired of three-hour commutes from Rutherford, New Jersey to Manhattan or Brooklyn when not touring with the aforementioned groups. And so Ithaca it was.

“The move affected the course of my career quite a bit,” he says. “For the first four years, I kept up my schedule. Then we had more kids, and around 1994 I got off the road. Music remained my focus and I put together several bands and did some recording, but a very limited group of people was hearing me. By 2015, I wanted to share.”

After a few months of subletting, Roberts, then 61, rented a room and plunged into Brooklyn’s creative music scene. Old friends like Berne, Mike Formanek, Wayne Horvitz, and Marty Ehrlich brought him into their projects. So did many others, including trombonist Brian Drye, who invited Roberts to play at Ibeam, the respected Gowanus venue that he founded in 2008. Roberts had been writing music for a trio with woodwindist Anna Webber and drummer Tomas Fujiwara, and he coalesced some sketches into a suite tailored to the tonal personalities of a sextet with Drye, pianist Jacob Sacks, drummer Vinnie Sperrazza, violinist Dana Lyn, and woodwindist Mike McGinnis. (A June 2017 recording of the music remains unissued.)

Sacks and Sperrazza join Roberts on Congeries of Ethereal Phenomena too. Recorded in spring 2018, it’s an unfailingly interactive trio encounter for which “chamber jazz” and “trans-genre” are applicable apt descriptors. There’s an abstraction of Thelonious Monk’s “Evidence”; a swinging turn through an “Indiana”/“Donna Lee” medley; and six harmonically intense, detailed originals (among them a cohesive five-part suite) that enable Roberts to bring forth the full arsenal of extended techniques by which he shapeshifts his cello into a sonic analog for the violin, the bass, and the guitar.

“Most cello players are classically trained and learned how to improvise later,” Tim Berne says. “But Hank played everything. If it called for some kind of bass function, he could do that. If it called for incredibly out, sophisticated arco stuff, he did that. For him, the instrument was less the point than his musical point of view. He didn’t separate things into styles, and he was always completely focused on what was going on.”

You can hear what Berne’s talking about on Roberts’ three accomplished, idiosyncratic leader albums released between 1987 and 1992. On his debut, the extravagant Black Pastels, Roberts wrote nine originals for a band with three trombones (Ray Anderson, Robin Eubanks, Dave Taylor) and alto saxophone (Berne), along with Frisell, Dresser, and Baron, to frame and amplify upon his statements on cello, classical 12-string guitar, fiddle, and voice. There followed Birds of Prey, a funk-inflected 1990 program featuring vocalist D.K. Dyson, and Little Motor People (1992), on which Roberts interacted with pianist Django Bates and percussionist Arto Tuncboyaciyan.

This kaleidoscopic sound world gestated in Terre Haute, Indiana, where, as a toddler, Roberts heard his mother—a choir director and music educator—play piano, violin, flute, and harp. “If I wanted to play an instrument, she made sure I had one and that I had proper instruction,” he recalls. After hearing Joe Morello at a Dave Brubeck concert, he started playing drums at nine. He took up cello in fifth grade, when he also “was improvising on the piano and writing naive, simple pieces and playing guitar in a ‘popular music’ band.” In seventh grade, he learned trombone, which, during high school, he would play in a local R&B band, the Soul Messengers, that performed regionally.

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Roberts describes his latter teens as “times of revolution and questioning, of embracing other cultural influences outside what we’d been offered as children; I didn’t have room for anything more than four years old in popular music, or much of what my parents enjoyed, except for my mom’s jazz records.” He absorbed contemporaneous “alternative improvisational music”—Improvisations for Cello and Guitar by Dave Holland and Derek Bailey on ECM, John Coltrane’s Om, records by Rahsaan Roland Kirk—and the messages of James Brown, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, and McCoy Tyner. “I’d walk around singing their solos,” he says. “One day I sat at the cello and realized that I could play what I’d been singing. That was a revelation and a turning point.”

He spent the summer of 1973 in Boston at Berklee College of Music. “I’d expected to find some great improvising cellists to teach me, but I was totally an odd duck,” Roberts recalls. “They gave me a cello teacher from Boston Conservatory. I told them I hadn’t come there to study classical music. They hooked me up with Gary Burton, who helped fill in the gaps. It was inspirational to work with someone with that much energy for music.” He returned home for six months, taking lessons at Indiana University with David Baker. Then he moved back to Boston—though not as a student—in spring 1974.

For the next three years, Roberts supported himself as a vegetarian chef at a Berklee dorm, while building relationships with such generational peers as Frisell, Ehrlich, Kenwood Dennard, Anthony Coleman, and Michael Gregory Jackson. He met Berne in New York, where he spent the summer of 1977.

In 1981, after four more years in Indiana, he began to embed himself in the New York metro area. By 1983, he’d taken a job running the kitchen of a popular New Jersey natural-foods restaurant (where he remained until Black Pastels came out in late 1987) and reestablished ties with Berne and Frisell. “Tim and I get this natural flow that feels so open and free, getting high off the music and revelation,” Roberts says. “Playing with Bill, there’s the amazing experience of negotiating and navigating complicated chord changes and harmonies, using my ears to the greatest extent I can, but also being enlightened by him to open up to a lot of beautiful music I’d forgotten about.”

None of the seven Frisell-led albums that have included Roberts since 2002’s Richter 858 so palpably embodies beauty as the fall 2019 release Harmony (Blue Note), on which the intertwined voices of Roberts, baritone guitarist/bassist Luke Bergman, and vocalist Petra Haden frame Frisell’s melodic explorations. It was recorded in March 2019, seven months after Roberts—who was preparing to sublet his Ithaca house to facilitate bringing his wife to New York—broke his left index finger while unloading materials from his car.

“I lost all the work I had for fall 2018—record dates, three or four tours,” Roberts says. “I went pretty much broke. MusiCares and the Musicians Foundation contributed money towards rent, and I got two recording projects at the end of December when I could play a little bit. I’d begun a disciplined study of my vocal work six or seven years ago; when I started singing with Bill’s band, I increased that focus.”

Now fully healed, though temporarily priced out of Brooklyn, Roberts is back in the game, anticipating sojourns with Frisell, Rudy Royston, and his own groups. “I’m interested in being a ‘vibrational musician/scientist,’” he says. “When I was writing for the trio, I was thinking about it from a potentially naive concept of the cosmos and astrophysics, finding the edges of tension in the harmonies and rhythms, and highlighting and working with them organically—thinking about how things just are. In the natural world, one can’t always predict how things will develop or where they’ll take us. Molecules are made of atoms, which are made of electrons; as you break it down, there’s nothing but bundles of energy. I’ve reflected on it a lot. I still reflect on it.”

Ted Panken

Ted Panken writes extensively about jazz and creative music for various publications, and programmed jazz and creative music on WKCR-FM in New York City from 1985 through 2008. He won the 2007 ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for his article “Smalls Universe,” published by DownBeat, and earned the Jazz Journalists’ Association 2016 Lifetime Achievement in Jazz Journalism award. His blog, Today Is The Question, contains over 260 of his articles and verbatim interviews.