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Pete Robbins: Balance Dream

Gordon Marshall By

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Pete Robbins is all about balance, in temperament and as an artist. He produces a polished sound on his alto saxophone, with a light tone betraying corners of darkness and complexity. Already an accomplished leader at 31, he grafts his sound onto ensembles of varying sizes with aplomb and equanimity. His style as a leader is distinctive. Just as distinctive are the contributions of his disciplined band members, heeding Robbins' swift directives but always sustaining a fine weave of individual voices.

Robbins' works start out cool and cautious, dipping into danger as they go along, playing with fire here and there but always containing it, keeping it under control until the next revel or ritual is called for. Cycles build and dissipate, but the verve is patent and continuous.

All About Jazz: There's a story about your father giving you a kind of tasting menu, where you were trying to decide what instrument to play in the school band. Well, let's start by asking you why you wanted to play in the school band? Was it a social reason?

Pete Robbins: I heard so much jazz around the house that I thought I wanted to play a wind instrument. I had been taking piano lessons since I was six, and for whatever reason I felt that I'd graduate from the piano to a more "difficult" instrument. I was at a point where I did piano, and "piano is what little kids can do," and now that I'm nine, I'm old enough to do one of these and so these must be "harder," it must be this higher level of playing an instrument.

AAJ: I hear a lot of baroque influence in your jazz—hints of counterpoint—does that come from piano study?

PR: Yeah, a lot of my writing works in terms of counterpoint instead of just a melody and chord changes, absolutely. I think that probably has a lot to do with the classical music I was hearing as a kid.

AAJ: There's also a lot of pop and rock influence on your music. At what age did you start listening to that, and what sort of things did you like?

PR: I remember being—gosh, maybe I was seven, and my parents had some show for kids on public radio, and I remember hearing Bruce Springsteen and some other stuff, and I remember carrying the radio around the house and I could not separate myself from it. I thought I was so cool and mature to be listening to Springsteen...I think from there, when I chose to put on music, up until I was 14, it was always some form of rock and roll. First it was Springsteen and then Michael Jackson, and I went through an oldies, doo-wop period when I was about nine. And then when I was about ten or 11 or 12, I went through a classic rock phase. My friend's older brother had a Led Zeppelin box set, and he had all these The Who CDs, and The Rolling Stones.

And I always heard jazz and classical, and I was like "Oh, Mom and Dad, turn that off." I never pursued it until I switched from clarinet to saxophone when I was 13, at a summer camp and I started getting into jazz and someone played me [Miles Davis] Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959). Obviously, my father had already sat me down, but I got really influenced by that. Then I went into this kind of parallel of being influenced by different kinds of jazz, but still being really into popular forms. And even to this day, I'm still into both. One never really overstepped, or "stepped on the toes" of the other.

AAJ: Now I think you've got a great balance of ideas and forces and strains in your music. Is that a hard-won discipline, or are you just a natural—the overall balance you have as a musician and being able to balance the free and the formal, and composition with improvisation?

PR: It's something I just do. I will go in different sort of kicks of, like, feeling I really want to improve my saxophone technique and improve my vocabulary and I won't write tunes for a few months, and I'll just put all of my free time into improving saxophone. And sometimes I'll feel like, maybe I've hit a wall with that or maybe I get a little tired of it or maybe I am motivated for one reason or another to be writing more, and so I'll take some of that time that was used for saxophone and just write music for months on months—it kind of like ebbs and flows and I have to check in with myself and see what I want to do, and whatever I want to do, I just do it.

Oftentimes I get to a point where my band has been playing the same tunes for a while, and that will be a good motivation to sit down and write some more. Or if I had a gig where I felt I couldn't execute that way I wanted to on my saxophone, I had all these ideas that I couldn't for whatever reason get right. Sometimes it's just that I don't have it on a particular day, but other times I'll feel like I'm not where I want to be technically, so I'll put my time into the playing. Whatever I feel like doing.

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.
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