Jazz aficionados have always tended towards a kind of reflexive distrust of the recording studio. Their feeling is that the real deal is the stuff that happens on the bandstand, that the best records are always live records, and that the most authentic studio albums are the ones that faithfully reproduce the way the band sounds onstage. The self-consciously artificial overdubbing and multi-tracking techniques pioneered by early adopters like Les Paul and Lennie Tristano are often (still) viewed with a certain skepticism, as if that approach represented something inauthentic, maybe even something antithetical to the spirit of jazz. Cut to today, where digital sonic manipulation is so easy and pervasive that even records that sound like spontaneous in-studio jam sessions can be — and are — spliced, micro-edited, tempo-adjusted, and auto-tuned to within an inch of their lives.
The thing is, people can try to use ProTools as a performance-enhancing drug all they like, but if the music isn’t happening to begin with, no amount of studio wizardry will resuscitate it. And really, there is nothing wrong with artists taking full advantage of technology in order to create — it shouldn’t matter whether the fruits of their labors in the studio can be reproduced live, just whether the music speaks to us. That said, at a time when pristine digital perfection is the order of the day, there’s a very pure, very intense pleasure that comes from listening to a raw unedited two-microphones-and-a-tape-deck (well, okay, hard drive) recording of a freewheeling live show.
Or, in this case, shows. We have cuts from two different nights here, recorded a few months apart in the downstairs space at the Cornelia Street Café in Greenwich Village. Fixing to put out a live record, Robbins recorded a string of siLENT Z gigs, but was immediately drawn to these two: “I knew what would go on the record even before listening back to the recordings. Listening back just confirmed it.” Great live recordings have the feeling of bottled lightning, and this disc faithfully captures the band’s loose-limbed dynamism as they spark and course their way through Robbins’ multi-directional compositions.
The first thing that hits you about Robbins is his sound: light, flexible, tartly lyrical, worlds away from the buzzsaw attack favored by many of his modernistically-minded alto saxophone peers. Pete can wail with the best of them, and he spits plenty of fire here, but his voice also has a genuine intimacy to it, a kind of gruff-edged vulnerability. Some musicians seem to want you to admire their playing from a distance; Robbins invites you in.
His cohorts in siLENT Z are all longtime collaborators; they also happen to be among the most sought-after youngbloods on the New York scene. “I feel lucky that my band is filled with such amazing musicians,” says Robbins, “and I have them there so that they can do, for the most part, what they’re inclined to do.” Though he refers to himself, half-jokingly, as a “control freak,” he’s hardly a tyrannical bandleader: “For instance, with Gamble, I’m not going to get the Mikeness that I like if I make him do it in this un-Mike way. Which he could do. But I try to tailor my instructions to a situation where I know he’s gonna fly. Jesse, I’ve just always been impressed with the stuff he does with his electronic effects. He has a good sense of taste and subtlety and variation and appropriateness — he’s just really, really melodic. Thomas… if Thomas can’t play it, it’s not playable. Tyshawn has more musical gifts than maybe anyone else I’ve ever met. He can play any style at any time and make it sound genuine. Cory is another phenomenal musician, he’s incredibly busy with contemporary classical work, and he’s played with Thomas and Tyshawn quite a bit, which adds a level of comfort and ease of musical communication.”
This is a band that deals in stark contrasts — Neuman’s otherwordly processed cornet and Gamble’s effects-driven guitar jut up against the natural earthiness of Morgan’s acoustic bass and Robbins’ crisp alto. Sorey’s drumming moves fluidly between heavy backbeats and skittery abstraction, and Smythe’s piano is equally capable of grounding the harmony or obscuring it completely. Pete’s writing often has a certain dialectic vibe to it as well, juxtaposing harmonic density with melodic straightforwardness, or rhythmic difficulty with a ragged swagger. “I think I used to make more of a conscious effort to be less melodic, more complex,” he explains. “And as I get a little bit older, I feel like I have less to prove — I’m allowing myself to write things that I think are still interesting, that aren’t going to get boring to listen to, but are simpler.”
The opening cut, “Edit/Revise,” features an intricate, Autechre-inspired bass line that slips through the gaps in a rhythmically fractured melody. The odd-meter hook in the bridge section also pulls double-duty as an interlude between solos. “His Life, For All Its Waywardness” opens with spacious, unaccompanied guitar, which sustains a hazy high plains vibe well into the tune, right up to the sudden arrival of Sorey’s crisp snare-based groove. “Cankers and Medallions” is a long-fuse ballad which originally appeared on Robbins’ 2006 Waits and Measures (Playscape). Here, the brief central rock-out is framed by foreboding guitar tremolos and delay-drenched cornet. “Some Southern Anthem” is a title borrowed from alt-folk singer-songwriter Sam Beam (who records under the name Iron & Wine) — the drawn-out opening melody has something of Beam’s hushed intimacy, at least up until the point where Gamble jumps in with a skronking solo.
Robbins describes “Bugle Call” as “a trumpet melody,” though Jesse Neuman is actually AWOL here (he is replaced by pianist Cory Smythe on tracks 5-8). This is another purloined title, inspired by a lyric from Deerhoof’s “The Eyebright Buglar” — though any further resemblance seems deeply buried. Essentially, “Bugle Call” is an unapologetically catchy tune, framed by Morgan’s pensive solo intro and some incendiary blowing from Robbins, Smythe, and Gamble. “Eliotsong” is a shout-out to another of Robbins’ frequent collaborators, pianist Eliot Cardinaux. Harmonically, it’s constructed almost entirely of major seventh chord cycles — the first minor sonorities don’t intrude until after the guitar solo, almost five minutes into the six-minute tune. “But If It’s Empty” opens with pointed, angular imitative counterpoint between alto and guitar, before releasing into an anthemic backbeat-driven half-time chorus. The piece seems built around the tension between these opposing forces, and Robbins seems to have a foot in both camps. The album closes with an unscripted five-way improvisation that’s a testament to the kind of symbiotic rapport siLENT Z have developed over the past several years.
siLENT Z Live is a document of the real deal. Not because it’s a live record — although there’s an undeniable thrill in hearing this music the way it actually went down in performance — but because it’s a real band, a working group with sympathetic goals and a common language developed over several years of playing together. While they may embrace contrast, they transcend contradiction, effortlessly blending intellect and intuition, often in a single gesture. “I get bored when I listen to music that doesn’t have a lot of compositional substance, or a band that doesn’t have a dynamic rapport, so those two things are a must,” says Robbins. “But in addition to that, it’s gotta be music that feels compelling, in your gut.” Attention Stephen Colbert: truthiness is the new musical virtue.