Sydney Morning Herald JANUARY 7, 2013 - by John Shand


Fifty years on, Robert Wyatt's unique music continues to entertain and impress and has been given new life by Daniel Yvinec of France's Orchestre National de Jazz.

Were Robert Wyatt your only source of Robert Wyatt information, you would conclude he was the most useless scrub ever to presume to make records. Repeatedly during our hour-long telephone chat he refers to himself as "rubbish", insists how little he knows about music, or deflects questions by discussing someone else.

Yet Wyatt is that rarest of musical creatures: a mould-breaker who continues to crack them nearly fifty years on. Perhaps his nearest equivalent is Tom Waits, but where Waits has used theatricality as another instrument, Wyatt has always been charmingly homespun.

That term is especially apt for his recent output, made layer by layer in the Lincolnshire home he shares with his wife, artist Alfie Benge.

Wyatt's albums allow his deep appreciation of pop, jazz and twentieth-century classical music to mingle gently and unselfconsciously. That same unselfconsciousness was present when Wyatt played in arguably the first band to meld rock and jazz, The Wilde Flowers, which became the ground-breaking Soft Machine in 1966. Wyatt dismisses the innovation as just an awareness of musical possibilities.

Having failed to rise to parental and teacher expectations on violin or trumpet in his teens, he attempted suicide. "It wasn't some tragic thing," he scoffs. "I just thought, 'I'm never going to be able to do that grown-up stuff, so I'm not even going to bother to prepare for it'."

He overdosed on pills but was discovered. "The headmaster came to meet my parents and said: 'I think Robert may be unhappy about something!"' He chortles at the understatement.

The upshot was exit school and enter art college, where he was also "rubbish", so took to nude modelling and drumming in The Wilde Flowers.

Singing was soon added, Wyatt's voice being unique, rather like a muted trumpet.

Having left Soft Machine to form the even more remarkable Matching Mole, Wyatt fell out of an upper-floor window at a party and was paralysed from the waist down, ending his career as a kit-drummer. He responded with the near-masterpiece that is Rock Bottom (1974).

Since then, he has continued making splendidly artless albums (singing and playing keyboards, percussion and trumpet), while "guesting" occasionally on discs by the likes of Brian Eno, Nick Mason, Björk and David Gilmour.

"I don't want to rely on other people," he says of his record-making practices. "That's to do partly with being unable to do much, being disabled, and trying to prove to myself that I can take things on and make myself do things." But the work is only occasional. "I do as little as possible," he chimes. "There's no shortage of people churning stuff out."

To Wyatt's surprise, Daniel Yvinec of France's Orchestre National de Jazz suggested recording 2009's Around Robert Wyatt (to be performed live in Melbourne this month and for the Sydney Festival). Sceptical at first, Wyatt was thrilled by the results. "I think I cried, actually," he says. "I was so moved that anybody would bother to do this... I was as moved as I was when I had a first grandchild."

Having abandoned live performance and its attendant applause long ago, Wyatt has lost his confidence out in the headlong musical world. "I feel like a bloke on a bicycle in a fast-moving motorway," he says, "ready to pull into a siding at any opportunity - along with the rabbits and the other things that shouldn't really be there!"

Thank the stars he is. Just not on stage.

The Orchestre National de Jazz will perform Around Robert Wyatt at Sydney's City Recital Hall on January 15 and at the Concourse, Chatswood, on January 16 for the Sydney Festival. They will also perform at the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, Melbourne Recital Centre, on January 19.