Pete Robbins’s Unnamed Quartet

Live in Brooklyn
NotTwo MW 845-2

By Ken Waxman

Setting himself and his unnamed quartet a major challenge, alto saxophonist Pete Robbins recorded this program of completely improvised music at a Brooklyn bar a couple of years ago. While the end product is slightly unpolished, this CD demonstrates that the right combination of players and circumstances can invest cerebral and technical experiments with emotion and dexterity.

It helps that Andover, Mass.-native Robbins, who has been New York for about a decade performing with everyone from John Zorn to Melvin Sparks, surrounds himself with some of the city’s most accomplished younger players. Trumpeter Nate Wooley’s abilities have been equally stirring in minimalist chamber excursions as in free jazz settings. The same can be said for cellist Daniel Levin, who here utilizes both his instrument’s rhythm section and front-line identities. As he does elsewhere, drummer Jeff Davis provides the ballast for free-flowing soloing.

That doesn’t mean Davis has a heavy foot however. A track such as “Improvisation 2” is built on measured rim clanks and backwards rolls. Later that piece moves from double-stopping from Levin and note-slurring from Wooley to reconstitute itself into a freebop showcase underlined by the drummer’s paradiddles and rebounds. By the finale, Robbins reed bites and stuttering curves intertwine in stop-time motion with the trumpeter’s elevated triplets.

Balanced on spiccato strums from Levin and Davis’ ruffs, other improvisations contrast the horn men’s approaches. Wooley masterfully uses staccato whinnies, whistles and rippling grace notes to challenge or complement the saxman’s constant note-stretching solos that are firmly in the Sonny (Rollins and Stitt) tradition.

“Improvisation 3” is the most characteristic tune with horn lines stacked and cello asides stretched angularly for distinctive disparity. Before Levin’s thick bowing helps direct the final variant into an almost harmonized and somewhat legato section, Wooley’s aggressive braying has cut across Robbins’ splattered glissandi, leading to a pleasurable finale of uncorked pressure.

With each quartet member a bandleader in his own right, this ensemble may not reconvene that frequently. But this live session proves the band doesn’t have to be unnamed for much longer.

Tracks: Improvisation 1; Improvisation 1; Improvisation 2; Improvisation 3; Improvisation 4; Improvisation 5

Personnel: Nate Wooley: trumpet; Pete Robbins: alto saxophone; Daniel Levin: cello; Jeff Davis: drums

—For New York City Jazz Record January 2012