Robi Botos has been hailed as one of the most diverse multi-instrumentalists of this generation.
From the hard-bop style of Bill Evans and Herbie Hancock to the swing of Oscar Peterson and the heartfelt melodic expression of Mulgrew Miller and Cedar Walton, Botos has managed to master the technique of his idols all while showcasing his musical expressions in a voice that is purely his own.
Ahead of his Sound of Jazz concert with Debi Botos on Thursday, Robi joined us to talk about his early years, the next generation in his musical family, and why music is so important to him.
We lost Guido Basso a few weeks ago. You said, “I would not be the same musician today if I had not had him in my life.” Can you talk briefly about him?
I was very young when I started playing with Guido, alongside Dave Young and Brian Barlow. The level of musicianship was one thing, but Guido was like a musical father, in a way. He would have a way of inspiring and teaching you through those notes. He’s one person I know that could not play the wrong note in any situation.
It’s been more than 24 years that you’ve been in Toronto. As a young musician, to come and have that guidance, mentorship and acceptance from this senior guard of the city must have been special.
You know, you’re so young at the time, but as the years go by, I understand more and more each day what a great impact Guido had on my music and my life.
Recently you posted a picture of yourself playing piano on Hungarian television at the age of 15. Tell me about that moment. You must have been well-known as a talented young person. What was that experience like?
At that time, I was really falling in love with music. To me, music was not only a thing I liked to do but something that was essential to me. I was deep into trying to learn, listening to a lot of music. Around that time, I was listening to a lot of Oscar Peterson, Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea — you know, the usual stuff. It was a time in my life when music was probably the most important thing.
Was it validating to be on that TV show, or was it more of an aside?
It was one of my first teenage TV experiences where I got to play jazz. I appeared on TV, funnily enough, with bongos, with my brothers when I was a little kid. So, I was very early to show business. But this was the time when I was actually doing my own type of playing. It was a great thing. Recently, I reconnected with some people and they sent me some pictures. There’s always a “Throwback Thursday,” so I’ll be sharing some more shots and videos from back then.
I know you started on drums, then you pivoted to piano. Your brothers played, too. What was your house like growing up? There must have been music oozing out of the windows and the doors.
My father is a musician, so he was directing us into music. He had it available to us at all times. We would have a room with a couple of drum kits, basses, keyboards, whatever. He was with his bands and we had a bit of a home studio, a jam space. We grew up making a lot of music. A lot of people who were already well-known in the jazz scene, they also came by. In that sense, I was very fortunate. Having older brothers who were already established, listening to all kinds of music… My mom was listening to more classical stuff and my dad would be rehearsing. It was a lot about music, and that’s a very fortunate thing.
I’ve talked to many musicians whose parents guided them away from a career in music, so it’s encouraging to hear your parents were actually steering you right into it.
Yes, but to be honest with you, times were extremely different. All I saw was that my dad was constantly working, and live music was in such a place that you could always find a gig. It was a very different time. I’m understanding of parents who are more cautious about it. But nothing beats music. It’s medicine. It’s mental healing. Art in general is extremely needed in schools today, among the youth. If it’s not pushed as a career, I think it should be part of people’s lives.
That’s a great way of putting it. If you never get on the bandstand in a professional way, pick up a guitar anyway and just play it.
Some of the best moments in life are those moments when somebody ends up singing. They might not be a singer that anyone cares about, but it’s expression. It’s a beautiful thing. I think everybody could benefit way more from it. Music making just brings everybody together, without any borders.
The way you’re talking about music, it’s about feeling, it’s about family, it’s about something bigger. You’re playing our Sound of Jazz concert with Debi Botos, an incredible guitar player. Tell me a bit about her.
Music is deeply rooted in the family, and Debi, in a way, took us all by surprise — a bit of a storm. She really, really got into guitar, and music generally, very quickly. She’s out there playing and writing, and she’s very talented. It’s really great to see that the next generation is also active in music — her brother Norbert, too.
Have you guys played together before?
A lot of casual situations. Obviously, the age difference is a thing. But as they were growing up, we made a lot of music at home and at social events. They’re turning into their own person now, and this will be a bit special in that way. I don’t think we ever performed at any venues together. I think Norbert sat in on some gigs, but we never really did a performance like this. It’s going to be interesting. We’re going to end up playing together, I’m sure.