The HR Project DVD and CD Review – March 10, 2015

HR_Project_CoverI was one of the lucky ones to attend the very new Guitar Institute of Technology (GIT) right after it started, it was the brainchild of the genius jazz guitarist Howard Roberts (or H.R. to everyone that knew him) with a lot of assistance by Don Mock, who was in the original teaching staff, and Pat Hicks, who was the president of the school. I really knew just a little about Howard’s playing at the time other than what I read in Guitar Player magazine – that he had come to LA from the deserts of Arizona and had broken into the studio screen in a larger than life story of walking in from the rain with a nylon string guitar without a case that he had to empty the rain on the studio floor from, and played the theme from the iconic movie “The Sand Pipers” – AKA, the huge ‘60s hit “The Shadow of your Smile” – in a first take resulting in a standing ovation from the orchestra. But other than whatever hit the radio stations that my parents listened to (HR actually had radio hits in the early 60s) and whatever we had to transcribe in ear training class of Howards, I really had not heard much of his jazz playing other than things like his crazy diminished scale flavored solo over the drag race scene in “Munster Go Home”. Years later I met his son Jay Roberts at music trade shows, who is really just as much of a monster technician on the guitar as his father, so when I found out that Jay was working on a movie on his father, I was pretty excited to see what he would put together. What has resulted is what I think is the finest movie of its’ kind that documents the incredible musical legacy of what I now think to be the finest jazz guitarist of his era, Howard Roberts – aka H.R. Along the way Jay recruited many of HR’s old musical comrades in arms to record a new CD of many the music HR had written or was known for playing, and this review will talk about both the CD and DVD.

Let’s start off with the CD: when I first heard the first track “Whatever’s Fair”, it was obvious to me what Jay was doing – he was trying to recreate the vibe of the early 60s jazz and “boogaloo rock-jazz” scene that Howard was majorly involved in with a fresh, clean contemporary sound, largely using musicians that knew and played with Howard. “Whatever’s Fair” is a longtime old LA studio term that musicians use when asked what they want to be paid by a friend they were working for indicating that they didn’t want to gouge them but wanted to be treated well, and this fat-back blues shuffle has that classic 60s thick and creamy big box jazz guitar sound from moment one. The arrangement changes key for each players solo: Don Mock takes the first guitar solo with his hip bluesy but intervallic lines that he developed from his early days going to HR’s guitar seminars as a young man in Seattle, and Jay plays the burning but funky guitar answers to Russell Ferrante’s piano during the trading section on the way out. The track definitely makes you want to order a martini and do a twist dance with The Dick Van Dyke Show’s Laura Petrie or Ann Margret, it totally hits the period vibe. (Speaking of Ann Margret, check out Howard playing on a screen test for Ann here: )

The other highlights on the CD for me were “The Single On This Side”, something from HR’s rather ahead of it’s time album “Equinox Express Elevator” – when JillRoberts comes in with her “de – do –de- det” vocal around 2:24, you’d think you were listening to a Pat Metheny Group track from the 90’s, and there is a very cool “soli section” with the Jay’s guitar playing unison and octaves with Ernie Watt’s saxophone. “Conqueror Worm” starts with a riff that Howard and Jay used to jam on together as Jay was growing up and Howard was bringing him up as a guitar player, with a main melody from an old Howard tune called “The Road Song”, from Antelope Freeway. Jay wrote a new bridge based on “the Shadow Of Your Smile”, so in essence this is a posthumous collaboration between father and son. “Dirty Old Bossa Nova” is the classic type of rock flavored jazz / bossa that was popular in the early 60s, and Jay Roberts shows that the guitar chops apple did not fall far from the tree on the ending, he flies all over the guitar and plays the classic substitute scales and arpeggios HR was known for like funky clean lightening. “Jillzie” and “Bluesette” do a fantastic job of recreating the sound of the “Guitars Unlimited” guitar little big-band tracks that HR and Tommy Tedesco used to record for Jack Marshall.

Now, on to the DVD: For me, this really is about the best tribute to a guitarist documentary I have seen, in that it is always about putting the music first. There’s so much of what HR recorded with other people before he really hit as a studio guitarist that few people have never heard in this, that it’s just a very important chronicle of the making of a genius of jazz guitar that would not be known nearly as well as he should without this film. It’s divided into his “desert years” as a kid growing up in Arizona, his “studio years” after first coming to Los Angeles, and then his educational years with the founding of Musician’s Institute. There’s also a poignant “in his own words” tribute to HR put together by National Public Radio that’s an incredible overview to who he was as a musician, that includes Howard talking about the how and why that he became a guitarist, that shows you just how much the both the guitar and the music scene has changed over the decades.

The story is told largely “Ken Burns” style, in that very little footage actually exists on Howard, but is a great example of how powerful that type of film story telling can be. The story is largely told by family members and other musicians that worked with him, with gig handbills and band photos and the like, all the whole accompanied by the incredible jazz guitar of HR and snippets of the tracks that Jay Roberts recorded for the CD.

All the lore of how Howard became the reigning studio guitarist from the self taught Arizona desert rat is told amazing well and the pictures and stories take you right back through a series of great pictures and interviews. His first work with Chico Hamilton led him into the Downbeat award and his famous Capitol records as an artist in his own right. His wife Jill fills you in on how they met and had their creative children, and this many guitar player friends tell a lot of the insider studio stories involving the likes of Phil Spector and Brian Wilson, etc. A lot of people don’t realize that before the Beatles hit, Howard had hit records on the radio covering many of the famous radio vocal pop tunes of the day, all done very tastefully with great chops and arrangements. As they say in the movie interviews, you always knew it was Howard Roberts when he played, one of the hardest things to achieve for an instrumentalist.

HR started his love affair with music education in the late 60s and was birthed natural from his efforts at his own education. A man of great intelligence that was not confined to one interest, his intellectual interests extended into other sciences, most notably the science of learning. One of the unique things that he brought to the table at GIT was teaching students HOW to learn things quickly and efficiently, which is vitally important for a studio musician expected to perform and record music that is new to them with sometimes absolutely no run through at all. His first seminars in 1968 were attended by the likes of Lee Ritenour, Tim May, Mitch Holder, and future GIT instructor Don Mock; and they tell the tale of how he used and communicated these concepts on the mountain of material that he would hand out during the weekends he put them on. Guitar Institute was birthed from these seminars, and Don Mock tells the amazing story of the beginnings of what is now the hugely successful Musician’s Institute in Hollywood and Japan as well. There are a few videos with Howard talking at GIT orientation seminars for new students coming in, and they will be heart warming for any of the thousands of students that went through the school over the decades.

Speaking of guitars, besides info on the story of the legendary “black guitar” that HR played on virtually all of his early jazz records, there’s even a bonus feature on the 1952 Fender Telecaster that Howard played on the themes to the Munsters, Twilight Zone, Get Smart, Batman, Bonanza and so many other seminal iconic TV shows. Any guitarist that loves old and rare guitars will be fascinated to see the detail that these instruments are presented in this wonderful tribute to a truly masterful musician. Jay Roberts is today still keeping HR’s music education legacy alive with his Roberts Music Institute in Seattle. For more on that and The HR Project, go to The HR Project DVD and CD are available for a donation price here:

Here are links to two free lead sheets from the CD studio session:

LEADSHEET: Whatever’s Fair

LEADSHEET: The Conqueror Worm

Doug Perkins

March 10, 2015, Los Angeles, CA

(Below: Doug Perkins playing the famous HR “black guitar”, now owned by Wolf Marshall, at the January 2015 “The HR Project” release party at NAMM in Anaheim, CA.)