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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 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.

AAJ: There are a lot of masochistic listeners—I'm one of them—who like Evan Parker and Cecil Taylor—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.

AAJ: You studied at NEC with George Garzone, Joe Morris, 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?

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—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, 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, when I was just first starting out. And then Ornette. And then later in college I got into Tim Berne, 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, and really into Wayne Shorter, 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.

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 often—there 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 minor—but 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 Apollonian—music 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 context—people 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.

Selected Discography

Pete Robbins, Silent Z Live (Hate Laugh, 2009)

Pete Robbins, Do the Hate Laugh Shimmy (Fresh Sound, 2007)

Pete Robbins, Waits & Measures (Playscape, 2006)

Pete Robbins, Centric (Telepathy, 2001)

Photo Credits

Page 1: Wilco 1954

Page 2: New York Times/Hiroyuki Ito

Page 3: Cornelia Street Cafe

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