If there’s a variable attrition rate for music, then Willard Robison’s songs have landed somewhere off the chart. Robison wrote strange, pastoral tunes in the mid-1920s. He recorded them himself, singing at the piano and later with orchestral accompaniment, but you won’t find his original music on LP, on CD or in digital form. There’s virtually no demand for a reissue. Jazz musicians have carried what remains, often through interpretations of the Robison gems “A Cottage for Sale” and “Old Folks.” Guitarist Matt Munisteri aims to buck that trend with Still Runnin’ Round in the Wilderness: The Lost Music of Willard Robison Volume One.
Munisteri has been collecting and recording Robison songs for nearly a decade, and he’s finally come to terms with his own versions. “These songs have a back-porch quality and homey intimacy, but they also have this wildly sophisticated harmonic and musical language,” Munisteri said during a recent interview for WBGO’s The Checkout. “They have melodies that resolve in places you would never expect. They’re kind of amazing, because they were written when jazz and popular song were just becoming codified after ragtime and New Orleans music. The rules weren’t fully established yet on how to write a pop song.”
There’s enough of an Americana vibe here to confuse categorists. Robison tunes like “We’ll Have a New Home in the Morning” is a barn-raising party tune with chug-a-lug syncopation and chord changes ripe for improvising. “Little High Chairman” is a cutesy kids’ tune that spins off to an introspective guitar lullaby. “A June of Long Ago” is a cornfield waltz with trumpet and clarinet verses. Then, singer Rachelle Garniez enters like a singing saw, inducing goosebumps with her otherworldly vocalizing.
Make no mistake, you’re hearing jazz. “After I learned this music as close to Robison’s pianistic versions as I could figure out, I then go off on my own without meaning to do so,” Munisteri says. “I just play the tunes, think about them and sing them. It’s like that game of telephone, except the person whispering in my ear is just me. So things eventually come out a little twisted.”
Maybe Willard Robison, like some Van Dyke Parks of yore, wanted it so. His own voice was unconventional for its time — strange half-whispers led to occasional croons and pronounced lisps. Matt Munisteri looks at these old songs with a jazz disposition, and his choices seep into their extrapolations. Still Runnin’ Round in the Wilderness: The Lost Music of Willard Robison Volume One shows us that these songs were never really lost. They were just waiting for the right person to discover them.
“One of the things I’ve loved over the years was finding all this music,” Munisteri says. “It used to be that things were not readily available. Sometimes you had to pay for them. Other times youcouldn’t pay for them. You had to rip off a cassette copy from someone. This Robison music wasn’t available. The hunt for it and the endless eBay searching, weird friendships and cloak-and-dagger exchanges… I can’t reveal who my Deep Throats were, but it made the whole thing a lot more fun than had it been just downloading and file-sharing.”