MIXED STRAINS World-jazz fusion trio Surface to Air draw on electric Miles Davis and film music for
inspiration — with a dash of Sigur Ros.
It all comes from somewhere. That's something you can say about any "new" music. Some artists work more consciously within a given tradition, others try to extend the vocabulary of what's already there. The trick is to find your singular voice and expression. Two acts coming to town over the next week have taken different paths into the past in order to find what's new for them.
The guitarist and vocalist Duke Robillard is an old-school traditionalist. He founded the revered Rhode Island outfit Roomful of Blues in 1967, dedicated to jump blues and swing. Since then he's become a celebrated solo artist and sideman, playing with everyone from Bob Dylan and Tom Waits to Dr. John and the Fabulous Thunderbirds.
Robillard's new Wobble Walkin' (Blue Duchess) focuses specficially on straightahead jazz swing. Credited to the Duke Robillard Jazz Trio, it features his regular rhythm team of bassist Brad Hallen and Mark Teixeira. Yes, there's plenty of blues here, but also Tin Pan Alley standards like "I Can't Believe that You're In Love with Me," Cole Porter's "You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To," and the Swing era-flagwaver "Back Home Again, In Indiana," plus a handful of originals. But there are no Robillard vocals, and only one guest vocal, by Mickey Freeman on "Gee Baby, Ain't I Good to You."
"I wanted to showcase the trio, the interplay between the musicians, and my real guitar voice in a jazz context," Robillard tells me over the phone from Pawtucket. "I stick with one tone — a straight, amplified, mellow jazz-guitar tone." Which doesn't mean he didn't want a variety of sounds, but the idea was "to get the sounds out of my fingers."
Robillard's fingers conjure a wealth of detail in his little bends and grace notes, and his phrasing always swings hard, even at slow tempos. Robillard says that his biggest influences were horn players like Louis Armstrong, Lester Young, and Ben Webster, and that his biggest guitar influence was Les Paul. Robillard's emphasis on the album, he says, is not on bebop-like chord changes, but on "the original melodic range of the tune. . . . I'm still a fan of music from the '20s, '30s, and '40s, and I'm trying to keep that sound alive." Robillard regular keyboardist Bruce Bears will join the band at the Regattabar on June 29 for a set he says will draw from his full repertoire.
On their new homonymous LP from NCM East Records, the acoustic trio Surface to Air go back to the world-jazz fusions of trumpeter Don Cherry, multi-instrumentalist Collin Walcott, and guitarist Naná Vasconcelos of the late-'70s/early-'80s band Codona. That band drew on Brazil, India, and Ornette Coleman. Surface to Air take off from their own sources — tabla player Rohin Khemani has a solid training in Indian classical music, whereas guitarist Jonathan Goldberger and bassist Jonti Siman are jazz players whose association goes back to the Boulder, Colorado, jazz scene and the '90s jam band Fat Mama.