Alto saxophonist Justin Robinson has been a force on the jazz scene since his late teens. For over three decades he has continuously played and recorded with the top names in jazz, including the Harper Brothers and—as many readers know—the Roy Hargrove Quintet. A bandleader in his own right, Robinson has released five CDs that feature many of his own compositions as well as stellar lineups.
From March 28 through 31, Justin brings his own band to the Jazz Showcase for the first time. We thought it was the perfect opportunity to ask him about the upcoming performance and much more.
1. CJM: Talk about your early exposure to music. Did you grow up in a musical family?
Justin Robinson: Yes, my parents both played instruments. My mom played clarinet and my dad played saxophone. Both were diehard jazz fans so that’s what I primarily heard in my home.
2. CJM: How did you end up playing alto saxophone?
Justin Robinson: Actually I started playing it because my father had one in the house. Through the years I’ve played tenor, baritone, and soprano as well. That being said, my hero is Charlie Parker—so I always gravitate back to the alto because I hear his tone in my head all the time.
3. CJM: Was there a specific event, performance, or artist that sparked your interest in jazz music?
Justin Robinson: I can’t recall specifics in that way because my mom and dad took the family to lots of shows. But one that really stands out is going to see the Modern Jazz Quartet at Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center with my mom and sister when I was in middle school. Hearing vibraphonist Milt Jackson play live for the first time really left a lasting impression on me.
4. CJM: Talk about the scene when you were coming up in the 1980s. What was the musical climate like—who were you playing with and listening to?
Justin Robinson: In terms of playing and touring, the 80s shaped my future. I met trumpeter Philip Harper, who, after hearing me at his jam session, introduced me to his brother, drummer Winard Harper. Winard was looking for someone to replace Don Braden in his band. (Don had left to join Wynton Marsalis’s quintet.) They held a kind of open audition and decided on me. Later that year, the band was signed to Polygram after opening for Betty Carter at Fat Tuesday’s. Also during that time, I met several great saxofonistas and studied with them all including Bobby Watson, Frank Wess, and Charles McPherson. Later on I would continue my studies with George Coleman and pianist Barry Harris. Through it all, Charlie Parker has always been my biggest influence.
5. CJM: You had a remarkably long run with the Roy Hargrove Quintet. How did you first come to meet and play with Roy?
Justin Robinson: I met Roy when he first came to New York in the late ’80s. His manager, Larry Clothier, brought him down to my jam session and we instantly became friends. I officially joined his quintet in August of 2001 although we had played and recorded a lot together before that time.
6. CJM: Over the years you have played with countless groups. Can you talk about one or two artists, other than Roy, with whom you shared the stage, as well as a specific experience that helped shape your playing?
Justin Robinson: I can think of a few musicians that fit into this conversation, but if I had to narrow it down to just one it would be Little Jimmy Scott. His sense of time and phrasing I will never forget. He could command an audience better than almost any musician I’ve been around. But the same can be said about Betty Carter and Abbey Lincoln—honestly, it’s a really hard question to answer!
7. CJM: Your latest release on WJ3 Records is entitled At First Light. How did that recording come about?
Justin Robinson: This CD came about after a gig I did as a presentation for WJ3 Records at APAP in New York. Label owner (and drummer) Willie Jones III asked me to put together a band for this event, so I chose pianist Sharp Radway, bassist Ameen Saleem, and drummer Jeremy Bean Clemons. After the hit Willie was like, “I have to record you with these cats soon!” So, a few months later we went in and laid down the tracks.
8. CJM: Can you describe your writing concepts as well as the process you go through to compose original music?
Justin Robinson: Most of my compositions are written while sitting at the piano. In most instances I already have the melody in my head; I just have to write out the chords and parts. There’s no special concept or process other than me at the piano with a pencil and manuscript paper
9. CJM: You’ll be at the Jazz Showcase March 28–31. Who is in the band, and what kind of music can we expect to hear?
Justin Robinson: I will be joined by a wonderful singer named Renee Nuefville, pianist Richard Johnson, bassist Marlene Rosenberg, and drummer Willie Jones III. The material will consist of jazz standards, some of my originals, some things that might be categorized as R&B, and a few surprises…
10. CJM: What gigs, projects, and/or recordings are on your horizon?
Justin Robinson: Well, before I hit Chicago I’m heading to Israel with drummer Sylvia Cuenca and pianist Tamir Hendelman as part of a Max Roach tribute tour. I’ll be in New York before and after that doing various gigs. Off the top of my head, I’ll be working with drummer Willie Jones III, bassist Santi Debriano, pianist Sharp Radway, and drummer Jason Brown. On March 12 I begin a monthly residency at Small’s in New York. So far, the other dates are April 2, May 7, and June 4. There are a couple unconfirmed projects in the works as well.
Visit www.jazzshowcase.com for tickets and info.