With the album Pyramid, saxophonist Pete Robbins explores a different sort of standard – classic rock and pop tracks that were formative for him as a youth: Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child of Mine,” Nirvana’s “Lithium,” Stevie Wonder’s “Too High,” Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” by way of Jeff Buckley, even Glenn Campbell’s Jimmy Webb-penned hit “Wichita Lineman.” The Brooklyn-based Robbins turns these tunes inside out with a quartet featuring some of New York’s most abundantly talented musicians: pianist Vijay Iyer, double-bassist Eivind Opsvik and drummer Tyshawn Sorey. Robbins and company not only re-invent classic songs in an utterly individual and jazz-wise way; they dig into a batch of the saxophonist’s originals, playing with the pithy, catchy spirit of the covers in mind. Pyramid – to be released Jan. 28, 2014, via Robbins’ own Hate Laugh Music label – is the saxophonist’s seventh album as a leader. About Do the Hate Laugh Shimmy, his electric 2008 release, The New York Times offered a description that could apply equally as well to the new Pyramid: “complex but welcoming, and ultimately light on its feet… Mr. Robbins plays with coolness as well as confidence.”
For Robbins, born in 1978 and raised in Massachusetts, the songs of Guns N’Roses, Nirvana, et al represent “emotional memories.” He says: “These are songs that struck me at that age when music can mean so much to you, with an intense, life-changing edge. I wanted to rediscover these songs in a way, to give them new meaning for me now in my life as a jazz musician.” Robbins, who is also managing director of the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, adds: “Being a music educator as I am, cultivating an audience for good music is important to me. And how people listen to music when they’re young – when it’s such a time of discovery – that’s something I think about a lot.”
About the covers on Pyramid, Robbins says: “The guitar riff of ‘Sweet Child of Mine’ said something to me when I was in grade school that I couldn’t put into words. There’s something objective about that lick that can get you – the shape of it and the way it moves with the harmony, I suppose – but I didn’t think about that then. I just thought it rocked and that it was in a style that was a bit beyond me, challenging in a good way. It was ‘older brother’ music, as jazz would become. With ‘Lithium,’ I was in middle school by then, and it was that time when I was discovering my own music with my peers. It was appealing on a lot of levels: It was new-sounding, heavy, and my parents hated it. Kurt Cobain’s music still really holds up for me – his harmonic choices weren’t the obvious ones. I first heard ‘Hallelujah’ on Jeff Buckley’s Grace album. He made that song his own through the sheer sincerity of his interpretation – he owned the emotional content. ‘Wichita Lineman’ has this classic songwriting architecture, with bones that you can really hang something on. It’s solid enough that you could play with the harmony and meter of it, yet the song remains itself. Stevie Wonder’s ‘Too High’ is a classic groove tune – you can do all sorts of things to it and the song still grooves. I’ve changed these songs around to make them more substantive from a jazz point of view, reharmonizing them, using mixed meters, irregularizing the melodic line. But the players in this band have a warmth and a drive that keeps the music true to its original spirit.”
As for the four originals on the album, Robbins – who has received multiple Chamber Music America grants for composition – explains that they represent a departure from his previous work. “My earlier music was often about counterpoint – melody and counter-melody, commingling lines,” he says. “But with Pyramid, I wanted the music to be song-like, with more pure melody and harmony. That said, ‘VORP’ is a nod to my previous writing style – through-composed, with bass ostinati and counterpoint, not really based on chordal changes. ‘Intravenous’ is a blend of my previous style and the new, more song-like approach. ‘Equipoise’ is an open-ended vehicle for improvisation, with the melody and harmony bouncing off each other rhythmically. ‘Pyramid’ is all harmony without a melody – or, rather, where the harmony becomes the melody.”
The sound of Pyramid is also the sound of rapport, with Robbins having worked extensively with Tyshawn Sorey, the extraordinary drummer who was part of the saxophonist’s electric, atmospheric band siLENT Z. Robbins also played in Sorey’s Oblique project. About Sorey, Robbins says: “He’s an amazing musician, with incredible technical virtuosity but also a pure musicality no matter what environment you put him in. There’s nothing he can’t do musically – from straight-ahead jazz to avant-garde to klezmer music.” As for superstar Vijay Iyer – a recent recipient of a MacArthur “Genius” Grant – Pyramid represents the first musical meeting between the pianist and Robbins. But Iyer has collaborated closely with Sorey, including in the collective Fieldwork. Robbins explains: “I wanted Vijay’s percussive vibe as a pianist, so the music would have real rhythmic drive. The covers especially had to have a punchy, driving energy in keeping with the originals, and the solos had to be incisive. And Eivind Opsvik is a bassist whose sound isn’t percussive – he’s a beautifully subtle player who sounds wonderful set against someone like Vijay. Eivind has a composer’s attention to detail – and he mixed the album, too, doing a great job.”
As for Robbins the saxophonist, he set himself the goal of playing solos with a clear musical path, never with complexity for complexity’s sake. “I didn’t want the music to sound hard to play, even though it is,” he says. “The notes have to have a compositional reason for being there. I don’t want there to be a lot of notes just because this is jazz and that’s what you do. I don’t make records just to impress people – I try to make records that people want to play again and again. I aimed for Pyramid to be lucid and immediate, but with multiple layers, so you can dig the music on a number of levels and always hear something new.”
Robbins’ previous studio release was Do the Hate Laugh Shimmy, an album of electric lyricism featuring a virtuoso cast with Sorey, keyboardist Craig Taborn and guitarist Ben Monder, among others (Fresh Sound New Talent, 2008). Preceding that was Waits and Measures, with tenor saxophonist Sam Sadigursky, keyboardist Eliot Krimsky, bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Dan Weiss (Playscape, 2006); and his debut, Centric, with tenor saxist George Garzone, guitarist Mike Gamble, bassist Chris Van Voorst and drummer Pete Zimmer (Telepathy, 2002). Robbins has also released three live albums: the tune-rich Live in Basel by his Trans-Atlantic Quartet featuring guitarist Mikkel Ploug, bassist Simon Jermyn and drummer Kevin Brow (Hate Laugh Music, 2012); the fully improvised Live in Brooklyn with trumpeter Nate Wooley, cellist Daniel Levin and drummer Jeff Davis (Not Two, 2010); and siLENT Z Live by the eponymous band with Gamble, Morgan and Sorey plus cornetist Jesse Neuman and pianist Cory Smythe (Hate Laugh Music, 2009). Beyond the studio, Robbins has performed with a who’s who of the New York creative jazz scene, including John Zorn, John Hollenbeck, Mark Dresser and Mario Pavone.
Village Voice jazz critic Jim Macnie has praised Robbins as both saxophonist and composer, writing about how his pieces are “teeming with broad, catchy melodies. That’s at odds with the very intricate lines thread together to create such themes, and this dynamic is why his music is so intriguing… And as a horn player, Robbins has liquid timbre that can remind one just how pretty modern jazz can be.”