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Interviews

Pete Robbins: Balance Dream

By Published: August 24, 2010
AAJ: "Nothing in excess" seems to be an explicit or implicit dictum for you. You never get caught in a rut, there's a nice balance of light and dark, and as I said, improvisation and composition in your work. Have you had any struggles? You seem to have had straight successes, going to the finest schools—New England Conservatory, Tufts, Philips Andover—were there any struggles along the way or was it as smooth as it appears?

From left: Terry McManus, Tyshawn Sorey, Chris Tordano, Pete Robbins

PR: I think I'm not someone who struggles artistically, creatively, in a way that some other people might, where I'm really having trouble articulating things. I think if there's been a struggle, it's been the lifestyle struggle that people have living in New York...I wouldn't mind doing something non-musical if it were interesting, or lucrative, or both—if there were 35 hours in the day that's what I would do—and take eight hours a day and do the music. But there's not—and that's the struggle, trying to find a balance between feeling like I'm doing something interesting with my hours, feeling like I'm fulfilled artistically and musically I'm where I want to be, and feeling like I have the financial security I feel comfortable with.

AAJ: You seem to have a good business sense. You're good-looking, you're outgoing, you have a sense of what people like. There's—I won't go so far as to say a "smooth" jazz element—but certainly a light jazz element in your work that's in there—you don't take it too far, but it's in there in the mix with all the darker, more complex stuff—

PR: My motivation for doing that is to not get bogged down in having music that's overly complicated for complication's sake. It's more of an effort to connect with listeners, and more of an effort to not feel that I'm not actively disconnecting with listeners.

AAJ: There are a lot of masochistic listeners—I'm one of them—who like Evan Parker
Evan Parker
Evan Parker
b.1944
sax, tenor
and Cecil Taylor
Cecil Taylor
Cecil Taylor
b.1929
piano
—I also like what you do. It's probably something that you don't have, which is just as well because your music is just as valid as theirs.

PR: I love Evan Parker, too. Maybe it's a masochistic part of me that likes him, but it's also a part of me that gets bored hearing so many saxophone players who just want to sound like each other. And hearing someone like Evan Parker, who's such a master of the instrument—obviously, he's been influenced by people, but he really has his own way of approaching it—I find that really compelling, and I could sit there listening to him, especially live, for hours. He's his own person, and a master of the instrument. Cecil Taylor, too. And Anthony Braxton
Anthony Braxton
Anthony Braxton
b.1945
reeds
.

AAJ: You studied at NEC with George Garzone
George Garzone
George Garzone
b.1950
sax, tenor
, Joe Morris
Joe Morris
Joe Morris
b.1955
guitar
, and—

PR: Allan Chase.

AAJ: Yes, of course. One of my favorites. Was it Joe Morris who told you you didn't have to know 200 standards, and you could listen to Ornette Coleman
Ornette Coleman
Ornette Coleman
b.1930
sax, alto
?

PR: I was like coming from that point on my own, I kind of knew that that's what I needed to do—I needed to not be learning standards. I had been listening to Ornette—but I had no one to go to to confirm that that wasn't so. And with Joe—we talked and talked, and that was just what I needed. And Paul Bley
Paul Bley
Paul Bley
b.1932
piano
—we were always talking about—it doesn't matter what other people are doing, what matters is what you want to do. And in fact, my music doesn't sound a lot like Joe Morris' music. He kind of unlocked a door for me.

AAJ: One alto saxophonist who comes to mind is Lee Konitz
Lee Konitz
Lee Konitz
b.1927
sax, alto
, with his balance of free and formal, and the way he was doing bass-less trios in the '50s before that was a big thing. Is he an influence on you?

PR: I never really checked him out until people said to listen to some Lee Konitz. And I did, and I love it, but I wouldn't say that he's influenced me because I came to him later. But I love his playing, and I think he's a beautiful saxophonist.

AAJ: So who were some of your earliest influences. Were they your teachers?

PR: Yeah, Garzone—and a high school teacher, Mark Pinto. He had this beautiful, beautiful alto sound, and even now I'm still trying to sound like him—nice and dark, and warm, and not embellished...I was checking out Cannonball Adderley. Maceo Parker
Maceo Parker
Maceo Parker
b.1943
saxophone
, when I was just first starting out. And then Ornette. And then later in college I got into Tim Berne
Tim Berne
Tim Berne
b.1954
saxophone
, mostly for his writing, but I think I listened to so much that some of it seeped into my system.

I was as much into tenor playing as alto. I got really into John Coltrane
John Coltrane
John Coltrane
1926 - 1967
saxophone
, and really into Wayne Shorter
Wayne Shorter
Wayne Shorter
b.1933
saxophone
, for the way that he would approach a solo from a compositional way. I'm thinking of the Blue Note records, like JuJu (1964) and Speak No Evil (1965). He doesn't have anything to prove technique-wise. He's trying to continue the song.


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