Jazz that's hard to categorize is usually the kind of jazz that's also hard to describe adequately with words but also the kind of jazz I prefer. And if it swings and grooves, so much the better. Alto saxophonist Pete Robbins' music has all those qualities and then some. We delighted in the unpredictable, nearly uncategorizable funk-rock-avant-jazz of his Do The Hate Laugh Shimmy from 2008.
To follow up Hate Laugh, Robbins wanted to capture the immediacy of his music that's missing from studio performances. Robbins explains: Shimmy came out great but it lacked the intensity of our live shows. I thought the next logical step was to record the band live." Combining the best of two dates at NYC's Cornelia Street Cafe in late 2008 and early 2009, Robbins and his band-siLENT Z-rip through eight original tunes that have the spunk that is typical of Robbins, but with the added edge of playing in the moment. The members of siLENT Z, his backing band, have all participated in Shimmy, and function as a well-oiled avant-funk machine: Jesse Neuman plays cornet, Cory Smythe is on piano, Mike Gamble plays guitar, Thomas Morgan handles bass and Tyshawn Sorey mans the drums.
Compared to Hate Laugh, there's a little less attention to textures and more attention to punchiness. Slippery grooves, shifty meters and melodies that are fragmented and reconstructed again. Gamble's expansive guitar holds the tonal center while Robbins, and on some tracks, Neuman, follow their muse through a labyrinth of free-floating harmony: it's not quite Ornette Coleman's Prime Time, but like Ornette's avant minded fusion band, siLENT Z blurs the line between improvisation and carrying out the harmony.
Take the opener Edit/Revise" for instance. Robbins, as usual, has a way of expression that's inviting you to lean in and embrace, not keep you at arm's length and force you to accept his art from afar. I think that has to do with his finding a way to play the theme or the bridge no matter how far off he goes in his improvising; the listener can stay grounded in the song in spite of the song's complexity. When Neuman take his solo, the band softens up to match his more ethereal footprint. His Life, For All Its Waywardness," is mostly a ballad, but not really a jazz ballad. It's folky, with Gamble's shimmering, distant electric six-string leading the way until Robbins takes over and devises some tension building bop lines that eventually leads to release and serenity (temporarily) again.
Cankers And Medallions," first performed on Waits and Measures (2006), is more atmospheric through use of devices like a quavering guitar and an effects-heavy cornet. Gamble steps into a lead roll soloing through a fractured funk beat on Some Southern Anthem." Nueman is replaced by Smythe beginning on Bugle Call," probably the catchiest tune of the record, but even in this case, it's a cagey one that does one thing the the rhythm sometimes seem to do another. Eliotsong" is the closest Robbins presents to being a conventional jazz song, at least at first. Gamble's solo turns from a jazzy tone to a raucous rock din as the whole song builds intensity to set up that ultimate release. But If It's Empty" is a foray deeper into avant-garde, while the closing Improvisation" goes even further as an exercise in total group spontaneity.
No quibbles with the performances, but the engineering is another story. The horns and drums come through fine, the guitar is marginal, but the bass and piano can barely be heard at all. The lack of a firm sonic footprint from these crucial components makes the recording seem almost bootleg quality. All audience noise has been removed, too. I haven't decide if I like it better that way or not, but it's a little strange to hear nothing where you expect the applause.
If you keep your concentration on the group interplay, these shortcomings can be overlooked. Robbins wanted the thrill and fearlessness from a live performance to take precedence in his latest CD, and that's just what he got from siLENT Z Live.
siLENT Z Live was released last May 25 on Robbins' own Hate Laugh Music label. Visit Pete's website here.