Pete Robbins – Pyramid [TrackList follows] – Hate Laugh Music 003, 53:26 [1/28/14] ****:
(Pete Robbins – alto saxophone, clarinet (track 1); Vijay Iyer – piano; Eivind Opsvik – bass; Tyshawn Sorey – drums)
The blueprint for a successful jazz project has often comprised top-notch musicians working together as a singular unit, performing a mixture of memorable originals and noteworthy cover interpretations. Typically, those covers might be either selections from the Great American Songbook or popular songs of the day. Saxophonist Pete Robbins’ seventh album as leader, Pyramid, utilizes a similar combination of stellar virtuosity coupled with material both familiar and new, and proves a winner. Like many of his generation, Robbins picks different standard and/or contemporary tunes to go with his own compositions: here, we get flexible translations of classic rock, alternative rock and pop singles which Robbins grew up listening to, by Guns N’Roses, Nirvana, Leonard Cohen, Stevie Wonder and Jimmy Webb.
Robbins’ quartet has some of the finest musicians which New York City has to offer: pianist Vijay Iyer (a recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, or “Genius Grant”), drummer Tyshawn Sorey (who has previously worked with trumpeter Dave Douglas, saxophonist Steve Coleman and others) and bassist Eivind Opsvik (his credits include Harris Eisenstadt, Jon Irabagon and several more). Together, this foursome shifts through various musical dimensions which encompass complex improvisation, harmonic and melodic progression and an individualistic point of view.
The group commences with two covers. First is Guns N’Roses hard rock classic “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” which Robbins states, “said something to me when I was in grade school that I couldn’t put into words.” Those acquainted with the 1987 smash will recall the unforgettable guitar riff. Robbins says “there’s something objective about that lick: the shape of it and the way it moves with the harmony.” While this track probably is not the first tune jazz fans might think is a productive basis for improvised interpretation, Robbins demonstrates it is. He keeps a recognizable template, but not too obvious, since the meter frequently changes. Robbins employs the signature riff, but gradually hastens the tempo and modifies the music into something more revealing and intrepid. For just this number, Robbins doubles his sax with clarinet, and during the stretched-out finale, the band creatively expands the music into a driving undertaking. The second selection is Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” A score of artists have recorded Cohen’s lyrical poem-song, from John Cale to Rufus Wainwright, and from k.d. lang to Bob Dylan. However, for many (including Robbins) the apex version was done by Jeff Buckley (from his 1994 Grace record), and that’s the foundation for Robbins’ adaptation. Like Buckley, Robbins emphasizes an erotic tinge which has an emotional pull. The quartet unwinds the theme with embracing sax lines, suggestive percussion, tickling piano and tender bass. But unlike Buckley, the momentum never builds to a cathartic climax; rather the band maintains an affectionate impetus. Another ‘90s chart-topper was Nirvana’s alt-rock single “Lithium,” from the 1991 album, Nevermind. Kurt Cobain’s original veered between his calm verses and brash choruses, and Robbins, Iyer, Opsvik and Sorey sustain the same sense of swerve: Sorey’s rhythmic variations provide a varying sonic landscape, while Robbins and Iyer place the harmonic constituents into fascinating areas. Older listeners may know the other covers. The band stresses groove on Wonder’s “Too High,” from his 1973 studio effort, Innvervisions, which was earlier done by Freddie Hubbard and Pat Martino. The group takes some chances on Webb’s “Wichita Lineman,” made famous by Glen Campbell, and also recently redone by John Hollenbeck. Robbins declares the top-40 hit has “classic songwriting architecture. It’s solid enough that you could play with the harmony and meter of it, yet the song remains itself.” And that’s what the quartet does. Robbins’ buoyant inflections elevate the arrangement’s pitch, and the metrical alterations are braced by Sorey’s sharp cadences, Iyer’s erudite chords and Opsvik’s rich bass.
Robbins was determined to make his new work “song-like, with more pure melody and harmony.” That said, his knotty “Vorp” nods to his prior writing style: through-composed with bass ostinato and counterpoint. Robbins’ dramatic sax continuously soars and dips; Iyer supplies an unsettled pace; and Sorey delivers an oblique and authoritative rhythm. “Intravenous” is halfway between the old and the new: the melody is strong and well-stated, but Iyer and Opsvik engage in a harmonic challenge which supports an unpredictable deportment. Sorey somehow preserves a modicum of alignment, although this fast-striding cut incessantly seems on the threshold of bursting the seams, particularly during Sorey’s undiluted solo. Robbins’ artistry shines on “Equipoise,” which starts with Iyer’s single, echoed piano notes, then Robbins’ sax, after which the band runs through Robbins’ open-ended arrangement, with some moody moments and some edgy restlessness. The concluding, title track showcases Robbins’ subtle intricacy, as he turns the harmony into the melody. The behind-the-boards expertise by Mike Marciano, Opsvik (who mixed) and Nathan James (who did the mastering) accentuates Robbins’ intentions and the quartet’s stellar interaction: the live-in-the-studio quality has a warm inclination, while sonic details (like Sorey’s delicate percussive touches or Iyer’s expressive lines) are effectively highlighted.
TrackList: Sweet Child O’ Mine; Hallelujah; Vorp; Wichita Lineman; Intravenous; Lithium; Equipoise; Too High; Pyramid.