Since her arrival from the East Coast in the late 1970s, Ellen Robinson
has established herself as a protean figure on the active San Francisco Bay Area vocal scene. She’s made her mark as an educator, choral director, dynamic performer, and—over the last ten years—recording artist.
Her first two albums, On My Way to You
(2001) and Mercy!
(2006), earned her fans beyond the Bay, including vocal master Carol Sloane who memorably wrote that “Hers is a white chocolate sound, intense and pure, swinging and bitter-sweet.” Robinson’s momentum is sure to continue with the release on October 16 of Don’t Wait Too Long
(EMR Music), a live date recorded before a packed house at the Freight & Salvage in Berkeley with the singer’s simpatico band of Kristen Strom (soprano and tenor saxophone), Murray Low (piano), Sam Bevan (bass), and Dan Foltz (drums). Also on hand was her indispensable producer and longtime friend, Bud Spangler.
“I’ve had the great pleasure of working with Ellen as her drummer and producer for well over a decade,” says Spangler, who’s also produced sessions for Taylor Eigsti, vocalist Ed Reed, and Mark Levine’s Grammy-nominated Latin Tinge, among many others. “I know that she never sings a song unless she understands its message thoroughly and also embraces its meaning entirely. Each song is a fully realized story. As you listen to these performances, let yourself feel what they’re telling you. Ellen always does.”
“I have to feel connected to the lyrics,” Robinson affirms. “I’m not a gymnastic singer. I do like taking a straight-ahead jazz tune or a pop tune and making it my own. I pick songs that feel inclusive, so that sometimes steers me in a little different direction in terms of my repertoire.”
Focusing on ballads with sinuous melodies, Robinson sustains a dreamy mood with a deceptively unadorned style on Don’t Wait Too Long. From rarely sung Songbook items such as the album opener “Dance Only With Me,” by Jule Styne, Betty Comden, and Adolph Greene, and Irving Berlin’s “Be Careful It’s My Heart,” to Joni Mitchell’s “If” (Rudyard Kipling’s poem) and the recent-vintage title track, composed by Jesse Harris, Larry Klein, and Madeline Peyroux, Robinson distills the essence of each song. She also contributes three originals (“Soon,” “Tick Tock,” “The Storm”) that fit seamlessly into the sophisticated program.
Growing up in Stamford, Connecticut, Robinson realized by the time she was in high school that music was her calling, but her family offered little support for her dreams of a career as performer or composer. She earned a music education degree at Manhattanville College with a major in piano, and once she was out of college she taught music to kids but “kept writing my own music, which kept me sane and alive.”
After relocating to the Bay Area in 1976, Robinson continued to teach music at private schools and at the same time to develop her craft as a singer-songwriter. She happened upon an album by Carmen McRae and was floored: “I didn’t know people sang like that.”
Years of intensive, self-directed study followed as Robinson immersed herself in the music of McRae as well as Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Betty Carter, Sheila Jordan, Shirley Horn, Carol Sloane, and many other vocal geniuses.
Meeting drummer Bud Spangler at the San Francisco jazz spot Storyville launched an ongoing creative partnership between Robinson and Spangler. “Bud was the angel in my life,” says the singer.
A gifted educator who teaches at the Jazzschool in Berkeley and Community Music Center in San Francisco, Robinson directs several vocal programs and ensembles, including a musical theater workshop at Stagebridge, and the Anything Goes Chorus, a community chorus that gives public performances and free concerts at retirement homes, homeless shelters, prisons, and halfway houses since the early 1980s.
She doesn’t see much separation between her work in the classroom or on stage. With Don’t Wait Too Long
she offers an object lesson in music’s transformative power, a power that she both embodies and transmits. “As a teacher I feel like I’m a performer, and as a performer I feel like a teacher,” Robinson says. “I want people to be entertained and I want them to feel different after they’ve heard my music.”
Ellen Robinson and her band (Kristen Strom, Murray Low, Sam Bevan, Dan Foltz) will celebrate the release of Don’t Wait Too Long
at the Freight & Salvage (2020 Addison Street, Berkeley) on Sunday, 10/21 at 8:00 pm. Tickets are $20.50 in advance, $22.50 at the door.