Live Jazz: The Carol Robbins Sextet Upstairs at Vitello’s

By Don Heckman

Among the many instruments listed in jazz polls as “miscellaneous,” the harp is surely one of the most rare participants. As unlikely an actual jazz voice as it may seem, however, the instrument has been played in strikingly innovative fashion by the likes of Alice Coltrane, Dorothy Ashby, Corky Hale and Betty Glamann (among a very few others).

Carol Robbins

Add Carol Robbins to that list.

A busy L. A. studio player whose resume embraces everything from film, television and recordings to celebrity weddings, she has also gradually positioned herself as an intriguing jazz harpist, composer and band leader. On Sunday night at Vitello’s, all those skills were on full display in a performance celebrating the release of her new CD, Moraga.

Her six piece ensemble was a congregation of state of the art Southland players including – in addition to Robbins – guitarist Larry Koonse, pianist Billy Childs, saxophonist Rob Lockart, bassist Darek Oles and drummer Dan Schnelle. Childs, Koonse and Oles are on the recording. And most of the evening’s generous, two hour program was devoted to selections from Moraga.

Billy Childs and Larry Koonse

Starting the evening with four original works, Robbins introduced the essence of her style, as composer, player and leader. Each piece was articulately conceived, ranging from crisp jazz lines to lush, floating impressionist harmonies.

Darek Oles and Rob Lockart

Soloing was intrinsic to each work. Childs was the principal soloist in the first two, his far reaching dissonances and surging rhythms providing gripping counterpoint to the layered emotions of Robbins’ writing.

Dan Schnelle

For the balance of the program, the close wedding of composition and improvisation was essential to Robbins’ compositional perspective. And with soloists such as Lockart, Koonse and Oles, strongly supported by Schnelle’s propulsive – but never intrusive, drumming – the music unfolded like the mesmerizing chapters of a much loved novel.

Among the high points: The intimate dueting between Koonse (especially on acoustic guitar) and Robbins, the blending textures of their strings and the lyrical interplay of their solo lines on pieces such as “Dolore” and “Mojave.” Robbins’ exquisite rendering of the Cole Porter classic, “Every Time We Say Goodbye,” her instrumental expressions perfectly recalling the poignant lyrics.

Equally remarkable was the way in which she brought Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Caminhos Cruzados” to life, playing the clustered harmonies of the Joao Gilberto guitar style on her harp. The ease with which she outlined one bebop phrase after another – a seemingly near-impossible task on her large, many-stringed instrument.

Larry Koonse and Carol Robbins

And, perhaps most important of all, the intrinsic blend of rich musicality, inventive soloing and warm creative comradeship that is intrinsic to Robbins’ art.

After hearing her generate an evening of such immensely entertaining music with her harp in the central role, it was hard to imagine anyone ever referring to Carol Robbins’ grand-looking, beautiful-sounding instrument as “miscellaneous.”

All photos by Bonnie Perkinson.

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