Dressed Like a Horse
Ninth World Music 040 CD

Herb Robertson/Mark Solborg


ILK 152 CD

Underappreciated in North America – though he has returned to live in New Jersey – while steadily gigging in Europe, trumpeter Herb Robertson is one of those accomplished improvisers whose public profile doesn’t match his capabilities. This is despite the fact that he’s appeared on more than 100 albums since 1982, as a leader and a valued part of ensembles led by figures ranging from British bassist Barry Guy and Dutch pianist Michiel Braam to American drummer Gerry Hemingway. Here are two more examples of his adaptable craft, both of which also feature Danish musicians.

Dressed Like a Horse finds Robertson as part of a cooperative quartet of musicians of around his own age: saxophonist Lotte Anker, electric bassist Peter Friis Nielsen and percussionist Peter Ole Jørgensen. More compact and even more challenging, [NOD] consists of nine duo improvisations by Robertson and guitarist Mark Solborg, who is approximately 20 years his junior.

With song titles that suggest they were translated phonetically or perhaps with an Internet instant translation service, Dressed Like a Horse is the culmination of two weeks of Scandinavian touring by the quartet. Like many other sessions on which he’s featured however, the six tracks here are weighted in a certain fashion by Friis Nielsen’s robust bass work. On “Lone Krater “for instance, the nearly 19½-minute final track, his ground bass ostinato controls the groove, whether as it at the beginning as glacier-like and stolid, or as it become more lyrical and finally almost microtonal as the tune develops.

Jørgensen like the bassist regularly plays in a group with saxophonist Peter Brötzmann and trombonist Johannes Bauer. With more restrained horn partners, however, he luxuriates in slightly skewed percussive textures as his home-built instruments take on the properties of a xylophone, a tabla, a cimbalom, a doumbek and claves. Anker, whose regular formations include bands with pianist Marilyn Crispell and drummer Gerald Cleaver turns to harsh reed bites and pitch-vibrations, the better to unite in double counterpoint with Robertson’s cascading and echoing trills and fortissimo expansions. Layered and atmospheric, the tune climaxes as metal bar pings bounce against trumpet slurs with the final few notes sliced from this brass-percussion exchange.

Other tracks exhibit constant timbre mixing and extensions. These include sluicing bass runs and thumb pumps from the bassist; didjeridoo-like reverberations, Donald Duck quacks or burbling mouthpiece kisses from the trumpeter; tough split tones from the saxophonist; and Native Indian-styled tom-tom drumming. Whether solidly legato or rotated every which way the themes on which improvisations are based provide not only a note structure, but enough elasticity in the arrangements.

Much the same could be said for [NOD] – named for the poem by Robert Louis Stevenson – but here there are only four strings, three valves, wood and brass available to intuitively mutate, bend and define the sounds. Graduate of Copenhagen’s Rhythmic Conservatory and New York’s New School, Solborg is leader or co-leader of a few Danish ensembles. His imagination and reflexes are extended even more so on these nine tracks which range from less-than-2½ minute intermezzos to 8½- minute nocturnes.

With song titles only a bit less enigmatic than those on Dressed Like a Horse – is a variant of Viking word-play being missed by the rest of the world? – [NOD] too was recorded followed a guest stint by Robertson in Solborg’s quartet. On their own, and flitting from moody, atmospheric exchanges to intricate sonic exploration that border on the solipsistic, the two avoid the florid and the skeletal in equal measures.

“Komplet Komplot”, the most microtonal and dissonant track is focused around hollow friction from the guitarist with what seems to be off-centre frailing against hand-stopped strings. Robertson’s response: bubbling cheek pops, teeth taps and tongue flutters. Restricting himself to the mouthpiece, Robertson’s blurred, megaphone-like cries and staccato blurts confirm that he is confident enough to explore every nook and cranny of his horn, atonal or otherwise. Meanwhile Solborg’s steel-guitar-like resonation and slack-key cleffing and sliding add to the piece’s unprecedented nature. Robertson’s last solo, which faintly suggests “Hava Nagila” not only wraps up the interaction, but also hints at more legato tropes elsewhere.

Two of these are “Fabular” and the should-be-sardonic “Twisted Lip”. The later is descriptively titled as the trumpeter breaks up his Gabriel-like blowing with Harmon-muted, almost pre-modern “talking trumpet” sounds. Appropriate rhythm-guitar-oriented bounces serve as back up. Delicate slurred fingering brush up against floating grace notes on “Fabular”, as the trumpeter curves and arches his tones while Solberg chimes and strums in sympathy. The finale here features Robertson’s pure tones shattering into sharp, high-pitched squeals.

“Crepuscule in the land of Nod” most descriptively encapsulates the tough and tender qualities of the duo’s interpretations. With weightless motion, the distending pitch-sliding guitar intonation initially almost masks indistinct trumpet slurs. After that though, emphasized figure-skater-like circumscribed lines and Solborg’s economical strumming provides a mellow obbligato to Robertson’s sluicing muted tones.

Hard or soft, jagged or flattened, these CDs provide even more instances of Robertson’s unbeatable skills in many musical situations.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Dressed: 1. Dressed Like a Horse 2. Brother Nest 3. Top Gentle Gester 4. In Fine Liner Steps 5. Dreaded 6. Lone Krater

Personnel: Dressed: Herb Robertson (trumpet); Lotte Anker (alto and tenor saxophones); Peter Friis Nielsen (electric bass) and Peter Ole Jørgensen (percussion and home-built instruments)

Track Listing: NOD: 1. N.O.D. 2. At Bart Bok’s Place 3. Celestials 4. Crepuscule in the land of Nod 5. Blisters Burn 6. Komplet Komplot 7. Fabular 8. Twisted Lip 9. Saint

Personnel: NOD: Herb Robertson (trumpet and voice) and Mark Solborg (guitars)