Portraits, A New Album by The John Robson Jazz Project

 

A few years ago I decided it was time to explore some new musical territory, both as a listener and as a player. You can read the back story leading to this decision here. One of the new courses I set out on was a journey into the world of that much maligned genre, jazz.

Having cut my teeth as a musician playing blues, it wasn’t a great stretch to adapt to the requirements of this new style of playing. I leaned a few jazz standards, and even recorded some of these tunes. It didn’t scratch the itch properly, though, until I’d written something in this vein. One thing led to another, and before I knew it, I was half way through a set of tunes which looked like they could just be a complete album. Here, then, is the story of that album as I recorded it track by track:

 

This is the tune which kicked it all off. As is often the case with my music, the chord progression came first. When it came to the melody, I wanted something which sounded “warm” and “welcoming”. I improvised a few different ideas over a rough version of the chord progression, and amalgamated the best parts into the finished melody you hear. Throw in a few key changes as the tune progresses and it was finished in under a day. The title is a dedication to my wife, Jackie, who has been through a lot in recent years. This tune is my way of thanking her for everything and letting her know I love her more than ever.

 

One of the artists I discovered when I first got curious about jazz was Kenny Burrell. His 1963 album “Midnight Blue” is utterly superb, and well worth checking out. When I started this album I knew I had to include something “Burrell-esque”, so I did what I often do when I want to write a tune reminiscent of another piece… purposefully not listen to the reference material (in this case the title track of Midnight Blue) for a good few weeks. This ensures that I have only a sketchy memory to work from, and (hopefully) prevents me plagiarising. As it turns out, my memory was sketchier than I thought, as my tune is considerably slower in tempo than Kenny’s. Still, I’m happy enough with the end product.

 

This was just an experiment. I’d never played anything remotely “Latin” in flavour before, and wanted to see if I could pull it off. I did some research on how this kind of music worked, rhythmically, and came up with the drum pattern you hear at the start of the track. From there, it was just a collection on blues ideas (fans of Freddie King may recognise the 16 bar verse chord sequence I “borrowed” from “The Stumble”) and a melody based, once again, on improvising my way around the notes present in the chords. The title is a reference to Palace FM, a radio station I used to work at & have many happy memories of.

 

Every Friday morning I set out to do the weeks grocery shopping. This involves a walk through town along a main thoroughfare called West Dyke Road. This particular Friday I was just finishing the final mix to Palace Mambo, and as I headed out to the supermarket I was contemplating what sort of tune would I’d be doing next. A car drove past with the windows open and music playing. I only caught a couple of bars of whatever song was being played, but the melody (or that part of it that I heard, anyway) stuck in my head and I developed it, mentally as I walked along. I even used the voice recorder on my phone to record myself humming a basic outline. As soon as I got home I listened to what I’d got & tried my best to find the melody I had in me head with my fingers on the guitar. The resulting tune is what you hear. One of the few occasions where the melody came before I had a chord sequence.

 

I don’t know if I succeeded with this, but my aim here was to do something in the vein of John Coltrane, especially when he would play a beautiful, lyrical ballad. As I set about recording this, I was thinking about tunes like “Naima”, “I’m Old Fashioned”, and “Blue Train”. Wonderful, heart-wrenching melodic playing which transcends any genre classification in my book. This is my humble attempt to tap into that same rich seam of melodic jazz.

 

One of my favourite George Benson albums is his 1966 work “The George Benson Cookbook”. For me, his playing has never surpassed what he did on this album. It was this whole collection of tunes I had in mind when I set about writing this tune. Again, I purposefully didn’t listen to anything from this record while working on the tune. I wanted to create something reminiscent of what George did without copying him in any way. Musically the tune is basically a 12 bar blues with a few twists and turns.

 

I wanted a tune with a big riff at the beginning. My inspirations were tunes like Cannonball Adderley’s “Work Song” and Art Blakey’s “Moanin’”. I also wanted something up-tempo which wasn’t just another walking bass-line swing tune. Hence the funky feel on this one. Plenty of dominant 7th chord bluesiness here too – see if you can spot the little Chuck Berry reference in the solo. The final addition to this were the tubular bells in the chorus section. I tried piano, Hammond organ & a string section, but nothing I tried gave it the “lift” I felt it needed when coming out of the verse. I don’t know what made me think of tubular bells… actually, I had been listening to a lot of Mike Oldfield so maybe that sparked something in my sub-conscious. Whatever the reason, I added them to the mix & it worked (to my mind, any way) perfectly.

 

Again, a chord sequence that had been knocking around in my head for many a year. I tried doing this as a chord-melody piece, much like Tal Farlow or Joe Pass, but it became apparent that my guitar skills in this style weren’t anywhere near either of those two giants. I then tried a rhythm guitar plus lead guitar part, which was closer to what I wanted, I knew I didn’t want a “full band” track here, so I scrubbed the accompaniment guitar part and replaced it with a piano. After a few tweaks, including giving the piano a solo of it’s own, the track was complete.

 

All of the tunes up to this point had been driven to some extent by a chord progression, and here I wanted to do something more modal. I suppose the best example of a tune in this vein is Miles Davis’s “So What”. I also wanted a looser feel on this with much more improvisation and an overall feel of a band jamming on a groove. Most of the solos on this track are first takes, which inevitably makes me wish I’d done “this bit differently” or “if only I’d played that part a bit cleaner”, but overall, I’m happy with the sense of spontaneity.

 

So there you have it, a track by track run down of my new album “Portraits”. If you like the tracks you’ve heard, the album is available from my Bandcamp page.

 

Thanks for listening & until next time, have fun 🙂

The John Robson Jazz Project

John Robson Guitar Tuition

 

 

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3 Comments

  1. Hi John, great stuff !! superb guitar playing throughout, love the funky feel to “Turbulence” lots of interesting ideas included there ! speaking of Kenny Burrell, picked up a copy of his mid-late 60’s album on verve called “Blues – The common ground” awesome stuff !! anyway ……keep up the good work mate.
    Darren

  2. Hi John, great stuff !! superb guitar playing throughout, love the funky feel to “Turbulence” lots of interesting ideas included there ! speaking of Kenny Burrell , i picked up a copy of his mid-late 60’s album on verve called “Blues – The common ground” awesome stuff !! anyway …..keep up the good work mate.
    Darren

    • Thanks Darren… I’ll keep a look out for that album, mate. I’ve got a collaboration he did with John Coltrane which is pretty good stuff too 🙂

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