Recent Howard Roberts Re-Issues

March 24, 2009

Nicolai Foss

Howard Roberts may not be as well known as Kessel, Pass, Farlow, Smith et al., but for many jazz guitar afficionados he belongs in that league. Roberts combined the drive of Farlow, the earthiness of Kessel, and the technical mastery of Smith. And added his own distinctive touch.

I heard Howard Roberts play in the Montmartre in Copenhagen around 1981-2. If I remember correctly, he played a Gibson L5S (but perhaps it was really the Gibson HR Fusion, which I think must have been out at this time). His technique was absolutely astonishing and I remember some of the local guitarists (I am pretty sure a young Doug Raney was on stage with Howard) literally dropping jaws in awe of his amazing dexterity. HR’s The Real Howard Roberts (currently on sale at Amazon for 60 USD!!!) is among my top-5 jazz guitar albums. For the ultimate HR resource, check Mike Evans’ fabuloussite.

Roberts’ recordings have until recently been difficult to find. Luckily, much material has been re-released within the last decade. I just received my copies of Mr. Roberts Plays Guitar (first released in 1956; re-released in 2008) and Good Pickin’s (released in 1959; re-released in 2006).

I am still digesting these two great albums, but they are clearly distinct. “Mr. Roberts” comes complete with a string quartet on a number of the tracks, and is general much more arranged and polite than “Pickin’s” which has much more straightahead blowing. The distinctive Roberts style with its “funk” was clearly developed already at this early stage of his career (Roberts was 27 when “Mr. Roberts” was recorded but clearly a very mature player). The blues was always a strong force in Roberts’ playing, and the source of that is revealed in the liner notes to Good Pickin’s: Playing the blues, and nothing but the blues, in the 2-3 “negro jazz clubs” of Phoenix in the years immediately after the 2nd World War. Both CDs are terrific and highly recommended.

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