The Legend of the Missing Link
Splasc (H) CDH 827.2

Consciously or not Herb Robertson picked an appropriate title for this exceptional disc of his compositions for a septet and a quintet.

For in many ways the 51-year-old New Jersey-born trumpeter and cornettist, while scarcely legendary in any real sense, is the authentic link between the visionary trumpeters of the 1960s, such as Lester Bowie and Don Cherry and today's experimental brassmen like Axel Dörner and Cuong Vu. Although he's been recording as a leader since 1985, and worked with musicians as prominent as altoist Tim Berne and drummers Bobby Previte and Gerry Hemingway on the American side and is part of British bassist Barry Guy's all-star European New Orchestra, he's unjustly unknown to many jazzers.

Robertson, you see, had the misfortunate to become a mature at a time when innovation was being downplayed throughout the music, especially for trumpeters where the proper role models were seen to be facile re-creators like Wynton Marsalis, Roy Hargrove and on down.

Despite basing himself in Berlin for a while to easily gig in more hospitable Europe, the trumpeter still worked regularly in North America and recently moved back to the States. It seems, though, that the freedom to turn out discs of his own compositions like this one is still a European experience. He's helped not a little here by the broad playing history he's has since the early 1990s with Italian percussionist Tiziano Tononi, and the rapport he developed with many of the players he met on Tononi's massive Rahsaan Roland Kirk salute in 1999.

As a further indication of the respect with which Robertson is held overseas, septet saxophonist Danielle Cavallanti, and the quintet's multi-instrumentalist Renato Geremia are, with the percussionist, members of the country's most acclaimed jazz export, the Italian Instabile Orchestra. The other sidemen are respected younger players.

Within the six longish tunes that make up the more than 71 minutes of this CD, Robertson proves he's an equal opportunity leader by spreading the work around, often breaking up the groups into different duos and trios as well as soloists.

That's why as early as the first track Beppe Caruso can assert himself with an impressive, modernistic take on the vocalized plunger trombone tradition. At the same time, not only does Tononi show off his mastery of such ancillary noise makers as the triangle, marimba and steel drum, but when the cornettist introduces (Don) Aylerian screeches and whines, he begins a multi-drum dialogue with him, simultaneously controlling the beat and showing how cross sticking has evolved since the New Thing days.

No one seems to be following anyone else blindly on "The Lemmings", the longest track, which struts along with a New Orleans feel reinforced by Caruso's tuba ostinato and the slap bass of Tito Mangialajo. Achille Succi's clear alto — or is it tiptop bass clarinet? — lines add to the Dixieland feel, which should be old hat to someone like the saxist who has been part of Dane Pierre Dørge's New Jungle Orchestra. Not mired in a Trad Jazz revival, the second line soon changes course as Tononi's two beat tempo changes into press rolls. Calvallanti's tenor goes off on a protracted Booker Ervin-like harp bop honk-fest, accompanied by key clip from pianist Alberto Tacchini, another longtime Tononi associate. Asserting himself, the pianist works out a feature that begins with staccatissimo Cecil Taylor-like emphasized runs then slows down to darker, more meditative lines reminiscent of Lennie Tristano. Finally, when some waterfall style glissandos ebb from his keys, he's met by a woody bass clarinet line and trumpet trills.

Unexpectedly Tacchini also unveils some decidedly non-bluesy ejaculations on the organ on "Edible Insex" just after baritone saxophone multiphonics and Rashied Ali-style drumming has made it appear as if the tune was heading in another direction. But then Tononi switches to a boogaloo rhythm, Robertson injects some squeaky, half-valve cornet tones and Succi cuts the air with stabbing alto lines. When the tempo gets faster and funkier the muted trombone lines trade off with double-keyboard consonance until the end.

It might appear that proceedings are less diffuse on the final four tunes when

Renato Geremia takes the place of three other horn players. But considering that the wily veteran plays soprano, alto and tenor saxophones plus clarinet, flute and violin you may not notice the difference. On "Chain of Command," for instance Geremia unleashes as ferocious a shower of pointed, multi-inflected tenor saxophone split tones as Trane or Ayler (Albert) ever envisioned. He's met in kind with a speedy Tayloresque circle of single notes from Tacchini, archer's reach up and down the strings from bassist Mangialajo and a retaliatory battery of snares, cymbals and miscellaneous percussion from Tononi. Meanwhile the trumpeter proves his mastery producing a moist rumble of underwater tones halfway between Bubber Miley and Ayler (Don).

Then "Holarchial Malarkey" allows Geremia to stretch out his violin strings, which mix expertly into the miasma of buzzing bass lines, often behind the bridge; strums and pulls on piano strings, sometimes on the keys; reverberating percussion to pick up string resonations; and hand-muted circling brass lines. Vocalized mouthpiece sounds provide the coda.

A masterful job by all concerned. Praise for it is coupled with the hope that eventually the Americentric jazz scene will hear Robertson as more of a strong link than a missing one.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Missing Links+ 2. The Lemmings+ 3. Edible Insex+ 4. The Primordial Sea^ 5. Chain of Command^ 6. Holarchial Malarkey^

Personnel: Herb Robertson (trumpet, cornet); Beppe Caruso (trombone, tuba); Achille Succi (alto saxophone, bass clarinet)+; Renato Geremia (soprano, alto and tenor saxophones, clarinet, flute, violin)^; Danielle Calvallanti (tenor and baritone saxophones); Alberto Tacchini (piano, organ); Tito Mangialajo (bass); Tiziano Tononi (drums, gong, percussion)