Five Questions with Justin Robinson

Justin Robinson
Justin Robinson (Photo credit: B. Mignon)

Alto saxophonist Justin Robinson was born August 14, 1968, in New York, NY. He first picked up a horn at the age of 13, and honed his sound while attending the High School of Music and Arts (LaGuardia High School) in New York.

"Roy Hargrove introduces music to us in many different ways. Sometimes he prefers for us to pick up the songs by ear, or he'll bring in some manuscript paper and write them out, but he really prefers for us to grab them by ear. He always says "if you learn them by ear you will never forget them".  - Justin Robinson
“Roy Hargrove introduces music to us in many different ways. Sometimes he prefers for us to pick up the songs by ear, or he’ll bring in some manuscript paper and write them out, but he really prefers for us to grab them by ear. He always says “if you learn them by ear you will never forget them”.
– Justin Robinson

Robinson developed a passion for the alto sax and, from the influences of Charlie Parker and Jackie McLean, crafted his own distinctive sound. Robinson has collaborated with eminent artists such as the Harper Brothers, Cecil Brooks III, Abbey Lincoln, Diana Ross, Little Jimmy Scott, and the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band, The Dizzy Gillespie All Star Band, and most recently, The Roy Hargrove Big Band in addition to the Roy Hargrove Quintet.

"I started playing alto because of my father. He would always be checking out Charlie Parker, and he was an amateur saxophone player himself." - Justin Robinson
“I started playing alto because of my father. He would always be checking out Charlie Parker, and he was an amateur saxophone player himself.”
– Justin Robinson (Photo credit: B. Mignon)

Justin Robinson wields a hefty portfolio- He joined the Harper Brothers at 18, debuted on Verve at 22, a decade’s-worth of star sideman gigs. All of that hang-time paid off with his 1998 recording The Challenge on Arabesque Records. Penning six of the compositions, selecting an inspired posse of young ringers (Ron Blake, tenor sax; Stephen Scott, piano; Dwayne Burno, bass; Dion Parsons, drums), Robinson also produced the whole shebang. Robinson also released Justin Time as a solo artist in 1991 on Verve. That record was produced by Bobby Watson, who also appears on the recording, in additon to Gary Bartz, on alto saxophones, and includes more heavy hitters: Eddie Henderson – trumpet; Kenny Barron, Stephen Scott – pianos; Peter Washington – bass; Lewis Nash – drums. Justin Robinson lives in New Jersey and is currently touring with trumpeter Roy Hargrove.

"..probably the people I learned the most from on the bandstand I would say was little Jimmy Scott, and Slide Hampton. " - Justin Robinson
“..probably the people I learned the most from on the bandstand I would say was little Jimmy Scott, and Slide Hampton. “
– Justin Robinson

We caught a Roy Hargrove set in DC at Blues Alley a couple years back, and both my hubby and myself agreed that the hottest player that night, hands-down, was Justin. His sound is mature and deep – weaving stories with complete lines and angles, rythymically sophisticated patterns, and honestly beautiful melodies. He leaves it all on the bandstand, withholding nothing. We were so impressed, we had to let him know after the show. Blues Alley being such an intimate venue, there was easy access to the players. (Except Hargrove, who walked upstairs to the dressing room during the last tune.)  Justin was sweet, and appreciative of our praise, seemingly unaffected by his position as one of the very top tier of musicians today.

"I had a chance to hear many of the great jazz musicians growing up in New York frequenting the clubs as early as the age of 15." - Justin Robinson with Roy Hargrove at Chicago Jazz Festival
“I had a chance to hear many of the great jazz musicians growing up in New York frequenting the clubs as early as the age of 15.” – Justin Robinson with Roy Hargrove at Chicago Jazz Festival (Photo credit: Louis Byrd Photography)

Check out Justin’s Spur of the Moment review. from a few years back. This video gives a great example of Justin’s sound, and his power:

Justin is one of the modern gods of music in our day and age. I’m talking about people who spend their waking moments living and breathing music. More spotlight needs to fall onto these unsung heroes, and our children should be watching them to show the way one can make a living in art. Justin’s career, and those like him show clearly that even without being a household name, one can still make a living achieving greatness in one of the finest art forms in the world, jazz.

Justin Robinson (Photo credit: Sari Goodfriend)
Justin Robinson (Photo credit: Sari Goodfriend)

I reached Justin on the road for this interview, out with Roy Hargrove’s band. His answers were typed out on his iPhone. 🙂 (Thanks Justin)

MXO – How did you choose alto? How old were you when you began to play? Where did you practice? How did you practice? Did you have a private lessons teacher? Growing up in New York were you exposed to live music? Who were your idols?

JR- I started playing alto because of my father. He would always be checking out Charlie Parker, and he was an amateur saxophone player himself.  I grew up in Queens New York, and have had many teachers: Bobby Watson, Frank Wess, Charles McPherson, George Coleman, comprised some of my saxophone teachers…But my largest musical influence I would have to say is Barry Harris in terms of teachers that I’ve had. And yes, I had a chance to hear many of the great jazz musicians growing up in New York frequenting the clubs as early as the age of 15.

MXO  Speak about the difference between touring as a front man or a side man? Which do you enjoy more? What is your opinion about the state of the music right now? What’s your opinion of Spotify and other streaming services? Is it harder to make a living today as a musician vs. back in the day, say the 80’s/90’s? How are the clubs today vs. when you started out?

JR- Well there’s a pretty huge difference between traveling as a leader and traveling is a side man. And in most instances I prefer the role as a side man. There’s a lot less stress in terms of the business side of dealing with train tickets, plane tickets, or getting some kind of car arrangement worked out. It’s kind of hard to answer the state of music question, but the one thing I notice that is very different is that the record companies and the promoters seem to gain a lot more control of who you hire as a sideman. My first gigs for example were with Philip and Winard Harper. Philip heard me one night, and introduced me to his brother and then we started to get together and practice and the next thing I know they were calling me for gigs. I think today at least from my experience it may not be as easy to do something like that without the interjection of someone from the front office of a record company or booking agency, at least that’s been my experience. I can give you an example. Stephen Scott and I went to school together and when Benny Green was leaving Betty Carter’s band I mentioned to Winard, who had heard Steven play that he would be available, so he came down and sat in with Betty, and he was in her band immediately then, after Benny left.

MXO – Being on the road as you are, do you practice when you’re out? How does Roy or another member of the group introduce new material to the group while you’re on the road? Do you ever rehearse? What comforts of home do you miss most while you’re out on the road?

JR – Yes on the road I try to practice as much as possible. In particular they give me time to spend with my flute because I can’t practice like I would on saxophone in my hotel room. Roy Hargrove introduces music to us in many different ways. Sometimes he prefers for us to pick up the songs by ear, or he’ll bring in some manuscript paper and write them out, but he really prefers for us to grab them by ear. He always says “if you learn them by ear you will never forget them”. He has a very clear perspective on how he would like to approach the material which makes it very easy for us as sidemen to be able to assimilate his concepts.

MXO – Who are some of your all time favorite artists to play with? (Besides Roy H. 🙂 What artists would you try to catch live if you could? What artists are innovating today? What artists always move you? What new direction are you taking your playing right now?

JR – Answering the question for  the people I probably learned the most from on the bandstand I would say little Jimmy Scott, and Slide Hampton. As far as who I enjoyed working for the most I would say that it’s been pretty even throughout my career. Most of the people I have been employed by either were friends of mine or people I admired so it has made that part of my musical journey very easy.

MXO – Speak of your goals. Recordings coming up? Big performances? What on the horizon for you? Long – term goals? Short-term?

JR – My goals long-term as well as short-term are the same: To constantly keep growing and practicing as a musician, learning from the masters and their recordings. From listening to the interviews of the great musicians, and the ones that I’ve had the privilege of talking to. They were all great students of music so I try to follow that ideal. In terms of recording I just did a project last year for the Criss Cross label (The album is Alana’s Fantasy) and hopefully I will continue my relationship with them in the future.

READ MORE ABOUT JUSTIN ROBINSON

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3/5/15

xo

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