May 19 2014
There has always been a pop music element to the excellent melodies that saxophonist Pete Robbins has constructed over his career. He makes it easy for the ear to capture them and hold them tight, and it’s why he triggers a tiny sense of loss when his sax flutters away into a solo and it’s why there’s a satisfying relief when he, inevitably, returns to that melody. There is a sweetness to those melodies that never borders on saccharine, and there is an emotional punch to them that never feels like a blatant grab at the heartstrings. A genuine and well-crafted melody goes a long way, and this is a truism that holds for both pop and jazz artists.
On Robbins’ newest recording, Pyramid, he offers up a side-by-side comparison of how he interacts with his own melodies versus those of others. Original tunes are accompanied by covers of Nirvana, Guns ‘n Roses, Stevie Wonder, Leonard Cohen and Glen Campbell. It makes for an intriguing experiment, and goes a long way to illustrating how truly vast the horizon of jazz improvisation is and how truly difficult it can be to crack open the casing on a strongly constructed pop song.
Your album personnel: Pete Robbins (alto sax), Vijay Iyer (piano), Eivind Opsvik (bass), and Tyshawn Sorey (drums).
From the start, Robbins shows he isn’t going to be shackled to another musician’s composition. Thankfully, the first manifestation of this tactic results in Robbins switching out the abrasively irritating Guns ‘n Roses opening to “Sweet Child O’ Mine” with a sing-song lightness that’s far more inviting. This, followed by a lazy Sunday recitation of the melody, relieves the song of its exceedingly syrupy expressions as originally delivered by Axl Rose’s crew. Vijay Iyer teams up with Tyshawn Sorey for some dramatic bursts of intensity that balances the lightness out nicely, a driving force whose motion doesn’t misshape the song into something other than a construct for the melody. Overall, this was one approach for covering a pop tune… retaining some elements, swapping out others, a puzzle of interchangeable pieces.
The rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” displays a different approach. It necessarily hits upon the melody, but then morphs the song into a different kind of expression, a related but new interpretation of Cohen’s slightly gospel, slightly rebellious song. Robbins provides it with an introspective ambiance, even as it becomes increasingly lively, a melancholia that never disperses.
Of course, Robbins isn’t the first to re-interpret Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” It is one of those songs that has been touched upon by so many different artists that it is easy to forget that Cohen was the first to give the song life. This isn’t the only such song on the album. Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman” continues to show its appeal to musicians across the expanse of music genres. Originally made famous by Glen Campbell, this tune has made it way across many generations and many genres, with John Hollenbeck’s Songs I Like a Lot being a recent jazz cover version of relevance. For the most part, Robbins takes a straight-forward approach to the song, following the natural trajectory imposed by the melody, but there is an intriguing interlude, triggered by Iyer’s piano solo, where the song’s cadence grows increasingly choppy and provides the song a bit of satisfying edginess.
It’s something that would have been helpful on the cover of Nirvana’s “Lithium.” The quartet hangs its hat on the melody, and aside from a brief divergence at the halfway point and conclusion of the song, it doesn’t stray far from the original. Unfortunately, it also doesn’t seem to have much to add to the story… Iyer gets in a brief salvo, but nothing special, and it’s followed by an enjoyable Robbins solo… but the song lacks the edge of the original, which was a necessary counterbalance to a melody that was superficially sweet for exactly that reason.
The Robbins original “Vorp” is a bit of a gloomy tarantella at its core, inciting the motion of dance but with darker tones that wouldn’t fall under the category of “cheerful.” There are some appealing moments when the cycles of rhythm break down into smaller eddies that accentuate the circuitous nature of the song while simultaneously eroding its shape. And it’s no less satisfying when the song coalesces back into a definitive shape and form.
Another Robbins original, “Intravenous,” highlights his signature inflections on alto sax, and the way he develops it into an absorbing cadence. His quick one-twos transition into a fluttering sound, and while that effect isn’t quite as pronounced on this song, performing one of his own compositions allows him to slip some of it in. However, it’s Sorey who provides the biggest highlight here, charging out of the gate after a Robbins refrain and just crashing down like a wave and scattering everywhere.
The quartet thrives on “Equipoise,” a Robbins original that really allows the musicians room to stretch out individually, spacing out far enough to do their own thing while remaining in contact with their bandmates. The effect is that strangely comforting sensation of standing at the edge of a room and listening to the convergence of several conversations occurring simultaneously. That it fades out with an elegant Iyer piano coda caps off a wonderful tune.
Eivind Opsvik gets things started on the rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “Too High,” planting the melody before the quartet immediately sets to leaping off into a very free section, and diverging quite a bit from the original’s groove. It’s the kind of thing one hopes to hear from a jazz cover of a pop song… hitting the melody hard, then taking it to places not envisioned by the original. Opsvik ends the song with a solo, too, but this time leaves the melody behind.
The album ends with the beautiful title-track. Using harmonics as its building blocks, and anchored by Iyer’s piano, the quartet sends the album out on a note that resonates with a quiet, but powerful beauty. It’s an interesting conclusion to end an album that is a lesson in the power of the melody with a song that forgoes it for a different kind of ambiance, and yet it works with remarkable success.
Released on Robbins’ Hate Laugh Music label.
Jazz from the Brooklyn scene.
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