March 15, 2001

HomeBaked Beats: Hank Roberts

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Every artist approaches his or her work, whatever it may be, with some level of originality. But local musician Hank Roberts takes originality to the extreme, throwing out all conventions as he takes a cello and a voice and uses them in ways never heard before. A true innovator, Roberts has already lived a musical career that could never be fully captured in any biography. He has played in almost every genre of music fathomable, with some of the most acclaimed players in almost every scene. Hank Roberts is a history-maker. He is arguably the most diversely accomplished cellist of all time, and yet he remains one of the most down-to-earth people you will ever meet.

Roberts first picked up the cello when he was ten, because his school only offered lessons in string instruments. His family had a history of music, and this environment led him at an early age to consider music as a way of making a living. Throughout high school, he played in numerous settings, with the trombone as his instrument of choice until 1973. He also taught himself the drums, guitar, and piano. Once his focus shifted to the cello as his chief passion, Roberts was destined to take the instrument crashing through any pre-conceived notions of its place in modern music.

Hank went on to attend the prestigious Berklee School of Music in Boston for a time, and eventually landed in New York City. There he become an integral part of the avant-garde scene that revolved around clubs like the Knitting Factory, and musicians like saxophonist John Zorn and guitarist Arto Lindsay. It was during this time, in the early and mid 80s, that Roberts became in-demand as a session player. His list of collaborations is more than impressive. He has graced the work of such esteemed artists as noted jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, saxophonist Tim Berne, ex-Police member Andy Summers, folk guitarist Martin Simpson, and local act the Sim Redmond Band. He has also played off-Broadway with the Second Hand Dance.

But Hank Roberts is far more than a session player. The more his ingenious creativity is allowed free reign, the more inspiring the results. In the early 90s, he was co-leader of the trip-bop band Miniature and the string-trio Arcado. He also led the group Birds of Prey, and most recently local acts the Hank Roberts Trio and Ti Ti Chickapea. The Hank Roberts Trio released one CD, titled I’ll Always Remember, which contains some of Roberts’ compositions as well as some pure improvisation, all in an undefinable style that falls somewhere between jazz, classical, and progressive rock. Along with his many other kudos, he is a two-time winner of Downbeat Magazine’s International Critic’s Poll.

Bill Frisell has said of Roberts, “When I first heard Hank Roberts’ music more than 22 years ago, he had already found his own way of playing, his own voice. Since then, that voice has been getting stronger, clearer, more powerful, more beautiful, more soulful.” When watching him play, one witnesses a channeling of Roberts’ exciting energy and brilliant imagination through four strings, some wood, and his vocal chords. When he can’t find a certain sound, he will throw down his bow and begin strumming the strings, or he will use the body of the instrument to add percussive touches. His playing falls somewhere between virtuosity and experimentation, equal parts Hendrix and Beethoven.

But perhaps the most fascinating aspect of a Hank Roberts’ performance is his uniquely commanding voice. At times purely improvised, what begins as mantra-like breathing in rhythm with a song, develops into the accompaniment of the voice as another instrument, providing new melodies and harmonies for his already full-bodied pieces. His singing is ethereal and compliments perfectly his paradoxically earthy and eccentric style with the cello.

Hank has lived here in Ithaca since 1989, and has been a prominent fixture on the local scene, playing with a number of I-Town musicians. Your best bet at catching him soon is with the trio Ti Ti Chickapea, in which he plays original and traditional tunes alongside banjo and tenor guitar player Richie Stearns and violist Eric Aceto. This band has released a compelling CD, Change of Worlds, with contributions from each of the members juxtaposed with classics like “Star of the County Down” and “Shenandoah.” Ti Ti will be playing at Maxie’s Supper Club on March 25. Some of Hank’s greatest performances have been at the annual Grassroots Festival in Trumansburg, and he is sure to be on the extensive list of performers this summer. You may also find him playing alone in one of the many local venues. You can even hear Hank’s haunting cello in the recent blockbuster Finding Forrester, in which Bill Frisell’s song “Coffaro’s Theme” is showcased.

Archived article by Ben Kupstas