Pete Robbins: Balance Dream
AAJ: You could say something similar about your work. Do the Hate Laugh Shimmy (Fresh Sound, 2007)it sort of creeps up on you. It's light in tone, and then it creeps up on you, it's almost like a drug, all these dark corners and complexities, and as you get into it, like half an hour, it becomes very powerful, like a symphony. Where does the darkness come from? You say you're a happy person, and struggle doesn't come to you oftenthere must be some darkness in your life that is a source for this.
PR: That's a good question. I wrote a lot of Shimmy and even Silent Z Live (Hate Laugh, 2009) before I met my wife, and feel like I've been a much happier person since I met her. That's the last five years. So maybe there was less certainty in my life then and it came out that way.
I think maybe part of it has to do with growing up Jewish, not that my family is particularly dark, certainly not even religious. More culturally Jewish. I think it's not a coincidence that the Jewish national anthem, the Israeli nation anthem, is the only one in the world in a minor key. I think it's a little bit cultural, and also just the vocabulary. It's not like a "sad" minor, there's some other feeling about it. And I think that's in my musical language, somewhere. There's a depth to minor keys that I often find them easier to write in. I find that there are many more options. When I teach lessons to aspiring jazz people, a talk a lot about going between major and minor, in a few bars, constantly going back and forth, in and out of minor. To me it's a compelling sense, to not be tied to either one, maybe being a little partial to the minorbut not making it obvious where you're going to end up, or where you're going to go next.
AAJ: You've studied Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. I know something about Nietzsche's belief in Dionysian music, music of passion and abandon. Your music, on the other hand, I would characterize more as Apollonianmusic that is disciplined and serene.
PR: For me, I think it's always a very quick back and forth between the two. I check in with both. That's the base of my process. You know, without the Dionysian I wouldn't be able to write or play anything. I think it all starts there but I think it's constantly like letting your gut push you; and then the Apollonian side, your superego, or however you want to think of it, that's like the steering wheel for the car. You can't drive anywhere without the id, but you certainly don't want to drive without the steering wheel!
AAJ: Going back to the Jewish issue: I don't think you can escape things like the Holocaust. That will always be a part of your people. There will always be that cry as part of the minor key, or sad element of the music.
PR: Things like that, or things that either happen to anyone, or things that are part of your unconscious, that's like gas for your engine, that sort of moves the Dionysian side, moves the id.
AAJ: You were involved in the 2004 political race, supporting John Kerry at The Cornelia Street Café, and highlighting the follies of George W. Bush. Do you think that music inherently can be political? We were talking about highs and lows: can these be taken to the point of being a political or ethical force in music?
PR: It certainly can. Bob Dylan comes to mind. But I think with instrumental music it's harder because it has to have some greater contextpeople have to be able to associate it with something.
AAJ: An obvious example would be free jazz representing the freedom movements of the '60s, but I think there' a lot of other unpacking to do on that subject.
PR: I think of that Abbey Lincoln/Max Roach record [We Insist: Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite (Candid, 1960)] Obviously, jazz is laden with political and historical contexts. But I think now, I don't see jazz being that so much...In 2004, it was more about community. There was such a wave of anti-Bush feeling. I just dropped Dave Douglas an e-mail. I didn't even know him at the time, and we ended up having this giant concert at Cornelia Street. So it was really palpable. And it was the music that brought people together and raised money.
AAJ: A musician told me that an artist's first allegiance is to his or her own community. I see that as, if nothing else, music can be a community building force because you have to be together to play.
There are bound to be leaders, as a rule. What are your qualities as a leader? In a large ensemble, how do you maintain order?
PR: That's hard. It's something I'm always trying to be aware of, and tinker with. Musically, I try to write music as clearly as I can, and as specifically as I can, and in an affirming, positive way make sure the guys really play it the way it's on the page. And from there, once the material is mastered, I don't do any more dictating of terms after that. A lot of things happen at different times. Different band members take initiative in different ways. I'm all for that. And I think the best way to have a lot of positive moments like that during a set is to make sure you're creating a positive environment for the group. And it's my responsibility as a leader to make sure the guys have that. So I do my best to do that.