Listening to some of the adaptations of pop rock tunes on Pyramid, the latest album from saxophonist Pete Robbins, is bound to make you wonder why most jazz musicians have ignored a cache of music that may at times be a gold mine. Sure, a so-called serious musician may not want to associate himself with what he might consider a lesser art form, but many a so-called serious musician might feel the same way about jazz. And if that sort of prig is clearly wrong about the latter, it is just as likely he is wrong about the former as well. If the five covers of the likes of Nirvana, Stevie Wonder, and lord help us, Guns N’ Roses, are any indication, such thinking is not only wrong, it is silly. There is gold to be mined in the hills of rock. Pete Robbins and his quartet are undoubtedly the men for the job.
While he does include four of his own original compositions—Robbins is an acclaimed composer—it is his handling of the adaptations that is the hook on this album. And that’s a good thing. Not because there’s anything wrong with his own work, which in fact is harmonically and rhythmically inventive, but because a vibrant cover of a beast like “Sweet Child O’ Mine” is likely to attract some new listeners to the delights of jazz. His own “Vorp” may mean little to a new audience, despite the almost fugue-like interplay between Robbins’ sax and the piano of the unsurpassed Vijay Iyer. On the other hand, if his arrangement of “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” with its dynamite piano solo and roaring climax, gets someone to listen to “Vorp” (even if the adaptation itself isn’t enough), that is surely something to be grateful for.
The covers are all tunes that made what seems to have been an indelible impression on the saxophonist in his youth. Among the additional adaptions are “Lithium” and “Too High”, which ironically closes with the bass of Elvind Opsvik. A sweet, fairly straightforward version of “Wichita Lineman” has Robbins taking the opening melody, after Iyer’s introduction, and then pushes it into new directions with some dynamic drumming from the last member of the ensemble, Tyshawn Sorey. Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” gets a more imaginative adaptation.
Besides the through-composed “Vorp,” the other Robbins’ originals include the title tune, a shorter piece in which the harmony becomes the melody, which closes the set. “Equipoise” is a harmonic rhythmic dialogue bookended by haunting piano solos. “Intravenous” is an adventure in swing pushed along by Sorey’s continual dynamism.
Pyramid is an album filled with fine music played with commitment by four very talented jazz musicians. If it doesn’t whet your appetite, I don’t know what will.