As a bandleader and award-winning composer, saxophonist Pete Robbins never stands still, crafting each album using some different dimension. Pyramid — coming out on January 28 — is a album of several dimensions even as he maintains some common threads with prior projects.
This time the composer ventures back to songs that shaped his love for music while still a kid, before he studied at the New England Conservatory and became a jazz musician and noted educator as the managing director of the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music. The rock and pop that connected with him then stayed with him and he channeled his inner child into some creative takes on five of these tunes.
If that’s not compelling enough, he enlisted the help from the very best of his generation: Tyshawn Sorey on drums, Eivind Opsvik on standup bass and Vijay Iyer on piano, himself a damned fine interpreter of late-20th century pop tunes.
Beginning an acoustic jazz album with a Guns ‘n’ Roses cover might turn a few heads, but Robbins correctly recognized that the strong melody on “Sweet Child O’ Mine” is fertile ground for improvised interpretation. For just this track, he doubles his sax with a clarinet, and makes the song recognizable but not too obvious because the cadence is constantly shifting. For the extended coda, he creatively plays Slash’s signature riff found at the start of the original, gradually speeding up tempo that eventually reveals what he’s up to.
As the lead voice, Robbins plays the main melody of “Wichita Lineman” straight (after a knotty, original intro), but Iyer slides in a competing harmony as Opsvik and Sorey propels the tune with a tight, funky rhythm. Nirvana’s “Lithium” becomes convincing as a jazz tune, maybe even more so than Herbie Hancock’s take on “All Apologies,” as Sorey becomes the source for the song’s frequent releases while Robbins and Iyer again put the harmonic components together in an interesting way.
Of course, the opposing currents Robbins inserts in these covers are already built-in with his own compositions, and like the electrified Do The Hate Laugh Shimmy record he made back in oh-eight, he brought — as we mentioned then — “a rock intensity of his pre-jazz days to the intricacies of his current passion for the avant garde and bop.” That’s why his own compositions nestle aside these covers so comfortably.
On “Vorp,” Sorey carries out an elliptical rhythm with authority, and Iyer follows Robbins’ expressive sax with an example of his signature variable-speed gait. There’s a lot of complexity to be discovered in “Intravenous”: Robbins’ melody and Iyer’s and Opsvik’s underlying harmony joust with each other and the task of reconciling the two currents falls on Sorey. Later, Robbins plays a related figure at a slower pace, then Sorey solos like he needed that release since he’s been on the verge of exploding for seemingly the entire album. A repeating figures mated to a dynamic rhythm dominates “Equipoise,” with Opsvik and Iyer forming the middle. An adventurous, mostly right-hand solo by Iyer and a charged solo by Robbins liven up the song even further.
The consistency of Pete Robbins’ art shines through no matter what kind of record he chooses to make. If Pyramid teaches us anything more about him, it’s that his art is informed more by straightforward pop tunes more than the creative complexity of his performances would suggest.
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Pyramid will be available via Robbins’ own Hate Laugh Music label. Visit his website for more info.
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