Concert Preview: Robin Holcomb and Talking Pictures

Originally published in Earshot Jazz November 2011

Robin Holcomb’s music is not new to Talking Pictures – guitarist Ron Samworth, trumpeter Bill Clark, drummer Dylan van der Schyff, and cellist Peggy Lee. The Vancouver, BC group first convened in 1993, took note of Holcomb’s 1990 recording Larks, They Crazy and soon incorporated some of the material into the ensemble’s repertoire.

Although audiences in Paris, Koln, and Amsterdam have attended their performances, this is the first chance to hear the ensemble live in Seattle.

This concert will feature music from the group’s recent recording The Point of It All with Holcomb and Wayne Horvitz. On the CD, Horvitz’s shimmering Hammond organ camouflages Clark’s muted trumpet. Samworth’s quiet electric guitar swells and feedback rub against Lee’s flickering cello, then both instruments pluck pizzicato arpeggios behind Holcomb’s voice singing Shel Siverstein’s lyrics that resemble a Civil War ballad. An arrangement of Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush” plays with the dual imagery of America’s history seeking shiny minerals in a pan and burning herbs in a bowl. This is music that invites you in to a deep world of human history, emotion, and imagination.

Concert Preview: SWOJO Plays the Music of Robin Holcomb

Earshot Jazz
November 2011 issue

When Robin Holcomb reviewed artists for Seattle’s funding organization Artist Trust, one of her assignments was the Seattle Woman’s Jazz Orchestra (SWOJO). After attending one of their weekly rehearsals, the director, Daniel Barry, heard Holcomb’s big band – the Washington Composers Orchestra (WACO). WACO’s roots are in New York’s downtown scene from the 1980’s where Holcomb and husband Wayne Horvitz wrote for and rehearsed the New York Composers Orchestra (NYCO). This ensemble was a slimmed down big band – five saxophones, three trumpets, two trombones, French horn, and rhythm section.

Impressed by the music, Barry invited Holcomb to write for SWOJO. For this concert, SWOJO will perform selections of Holcomb’s big band music rearranged for the larger ensemble, a piece originally written for the ROVA saxophone quartet, and premier a new work written for this event.

The music library for SWOJO is very deep. Holcomb says, “I think my new piece is number 206 in the book.”

Holcomb’s big band music is a new chapter for SWOJO. With its programmatic terrain, shifting densities between figurative and abstract sections, and room for free improvisation this repertoire will be an interesting adventure for both performers and audience.

Robin Holcomb: Fostering New Music

Originally published in Earshot Jazz November 2011

A very used Steinway upright piano stands against the dining room wall. The ivories on G below middle C, D above middle C, and the highest F keys are missing, exposing the rough wood below. “It’s hard to find the right thickness to replace them,” says Robin Holcomb. From this piano, in the heart of the house, Holcomb works out her song cycles, telling her own version of obscure but vital American historical tales.

She evolves a long tradition of American popular music. Our first national music that transcended regional styles from other countries can be traced back to songs by Stephen Foster in the mid 1800’s and ballads that followed the Civil War. The words were in English, telling stories with classical depth and drama, favoring direct expression over complexity, set to music with undemanding technique for amateurs. Likewise, Holcomb’s music uses English and tells deep and dramatic stories. But the expression balances ideas directly stated with those merely implied. She juxtaposes music with hymn-like harmony next to free jazz exploration by masterful improvisers. The resulting sound is simultaneously old and familiar while remaining fresh and surprising. It feels like drinking from a cool, clear deep well with some unexpected but refreshing flavors, even a few tickly bubbles.