LONGTIME ITHACA RESIDENT Hank Roberts is the foremost avant-garde cellist in the music-making world. He also happens to be immensely modest – he is what journalists tend to call plainspoken. But a glance at his itinerary for the last calendar year has included:
• A fall European tour with Bill Frisell’s blues, bop and country hybrid the 858 Quartet, which was followed by a weeklong stint at New York City’s The Village Vanguard to a resounding chorus of critical praise.
• An untitled recording project focusing on Hunter S. Thompson’s seminal piece of gonzo journalism “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.” Also with 858, the session included Dr. John, the actor Tim Robins and the illustrator Ralph Steadman.
• A European tour last winter with Buffalo Collision, Roberts’ project with two-thirds of the Bad Plus (pianist Ethan Iverson and drummer Dave King) and saxophonist Tim Berne. The quartet also hit the Walker Art Museum in Minneapolis and the Monterey Jazz Festival last year.
• A set with John Zorn at New York’s The Stone last month, and a solo show earlier this month.
• A gig at Carnegie Hall with the Irish songwriter Gavin Friday, with an ensemble that included Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed, Shane MacGowan of the Pogues, Lydia Lunch, Scarlet Johansson, Courtney Love, Rufus Wainwright, members of U2 and Lady Gaga.
“I guess I got pretty busy traveling,” Roberts said in a characteristic understatement. “I had a little bit of time home back in April, but have been busy working outside of Ithaca.”
In fact, Roberts has been so busy that he hasn’t performed in Ithaca at all during the entire year. On Wednesday, June 30, Roberts will return to a local stage after a long absence, visiting the Carraige House Café Hayloft for an 8 p.m. set with a new trio. Including the world-renowned improvisational musicians John Stetch and Jim Black, the group will present its world premier concert before traveling to Europe later this year. Tickets to the show are $10.
Jim Black’s appearance in Ithaca for this concert is indeed a special and rare occasion. Black played on Roberts’ last record, 2008’s “Green.” Released on the prestigious German imprint Winter & Winter, the album received wide praise from critics including Ben Ratliff of the New York Times.
At the forefront of a new generation of musicians bringing Jazz into the 21st century, Black is a virtuosic and highly unique drummer, and his aesthetic has expanded to include Balkan rhythms, rock songcraft and laptop soundscapes. Although he is revered worldwide for his limitless technique and highly creative approach, many listeners treasure the relentless feeling of joy and invention that he brings to performances.
Stetch, too, is at the forefront of his field. After earning his music degree in Montreal, Stetch began touring and recording across Canada and soon had several Juno Award nominations. He won the Prix du Jazz at the Montreal International Festival in 1998, and has been frequently recorded by the CBC. After relocating to New York City in 1993 he became a decade-long sideman with Rufus Reid, and has performed around the world at some of the most prestigious jazz venues. He has subsequently returned to Ithaca to live and perform.
“Ever since John’s moved here, I’ve wanted him to try out my music,” Roberts said. “I’m really liking what he brings to the music; he’s an incredible performer, a virtuosic player.” The program Wednesday will include material from “Green” as well as some newer work.
After this one-off, Roberts will be back on the road. In July, he will join trumpet player Dave Douglas in Merano, Italy, for a weeklong residency. As a result of his busy schedule, Roberts hasn’t been able to perform with Wingnut as much as he’d like. “I go to Canada, and then I’m home for a minute and then I go to Italy with Dave Douglas. So it seems that I’m really busy with projects this summer.”
In fact, Roberts is so busy he won’t have a weekend at home the entire season. “It’s the most realistic thing to do when you are who I am. I’ve been doing some cool things, some fun things, and I’ve been getting down to New York more; I’ve been down there three times in the last month.”
He continued: “But I always love playing here at home. I have a great feeling about this group. The timbre of the cello works so well with John, and it’s always good to get together with Jim.” Ithaca is thankful to still be on Roberts’ itinerary.