BILLY ROBINSON & THE REFERENCE 4 with KATHRYN MOSES and DJ JOHN KONG as part of Do Right!'s Ready Or Not CD release party and ALL OVER THE MAP: A FEAST OF GLOBAL SOUNDS at Harbourfront Centre's Brigantine Room, Saturday (July 16), 11 pm. Free. 416-973-4000. Rating: NNNNN
The low Southern accent on the other end of the phone is that of Billy Robinson. It's coming from Ottawa, where the tenor saxophonist is quietly teaching, studying, writing and living in nearly as much obscurity as his recording, The Family, once did.
That warm song is just one of many gorgeous exhumed works from the CBC's unruly archive of top-notch 60s and 70s improvised jazz sessions being re-released by Do Right! on its new collection, Ready Or Not.
Robinson honed his chops in the Fort Worth, Texas, jazz scene. His first gig? Playing around town in his house clothes with blues boss "Big" Joe Turner. Not bad for 16. From then, under the influence of a jazz-obsessed uncle with a titanic record collection who knew Dizzy Gillespie from the army, Robinson found himself embroiled in the circuit until 1969, when another big name came calling.
"My uncle knew (Charles) Mingus," he says. "He was looking for a tenor saxophone player, so my uncle told him he had a nephew who played tenor, and Mingus said, 'I don't know - can he play?' And he said, 'Why don't you just check him out?'"
That one audition begat rehearsals that turned into a busy gigging schedule playing alongside Mingus "every night except Mondays" in New York City clubs. At that time, he shared the stage with everyone you could think of. Sonny Rollins, Woody Shaw and Eddie Henderson are the first that come to his mind.
He remembers Mingus's precise ear.
"Sometimes we'd be playing a song and he'd stop the song and say, 'No - you move over here, you move over there.' He was that kind of a cat."
He also remembers Mingus as a hungry guy who could eat two chickens or a block and a half of Breyer's in one sitting.
So with his experience and network in mind, why isn't Robinson better known? Well, after the Mingus days, he quit playing clubs. After all, he'd been doing that since 16. He turned his mind to spiritual and psychological studies, becoming a Muslim and writing about music and the mind.
His two books, Audioneural Musichiatry (his musical therapeutic system) and Jazz Improvisation And The Art Of Self Expression, will be coming out in the fall, he says. Same with an as yet untitled new record that will hopefully help the somewhat stagnant contempo jazz scene get back on course again. The potential is still there, says Robinson.
"It hasn't all been done - that's actually impossible. But I think guys have fallen in a rut; there's no innovative leadership. I find that people are playing a lot of interesting things, but not school-building things, you know what I mean?"