Wednesday, April 18, 2012

CD Review: Pete Robbins Transatlantic Quartet - Live In Basel

Pete Robbins Transatlantic Quartet
Live in Basel
(Hate Laugh Music)

In the first track of Live in Basel Pete Robbins' alto has that "dry as a martini" tone. Not that he's a Paul Desmond disciple, but he has that no-nonsense sound that doesn't hide behind any sweet vibrato. He uses an adventurous vocabulary that keeps your surprised. It's not exactly the Steve Coleman-esque mathematical complexity, but he probably appreciates that style as well as a Desmond attack.

Still, he's going somewhere else with his own work.

This album seems to be something of a digression for the New York-based saxophonist, as he typically plays in the freer Unnamed Quartet and siLENT Z, and has hung with the likes of John Zorn, Craig Taborn and Mark Dresser. The Transatlantic Quartet includes guitarist Mikkel Ploug, bassist Simon Jermyn and drummer Kevin Brow, a mix of Europeans living in the U.S. and Americans living abroad.

Not knowing Robbins' back story, this set - recorded at the end of a 2010 tour in Switzerland - comes off a bit like a band wrestling with edgy arrangements and the urge to smooth things out. Ploug's guitar sounds clean with a little bit of bite one moment, then chorus-y and a little too devoted to atmospheric a few tracks later. "Hope Tober" which closes the album, relies a little too much on a simple rhythmic displacement as a hook that plays over an anthemic progression.

However, deeper investigation proves that the shortcomings might just be due to the way the band was recorded (i.e. just a tad too far on the clean side). The quartet has a lot of spark under the surface. "Eliotsong" starts things off with a kick, mainly due to the way Brow adds an extra shuffle to the beat he plays on the snare. Jermyn takes the first solo here, an unusual start which works and sets the scene for Ploug and Robbins. "There There" almost feels like a ballad but the group keeps kicking up a gentle storm, Robbins especially as he throws all kinds of moving lines into his solo. Jermyn's intro sounds especially fluid on this track, tossing off cascades of notes with the ease of a guitar. And when Ploug enters, their instruments blend beautifully.

Live in Basel might front-loaded with stronger material, but the energy never wavers and keeps you coming back. It makes these ears want to hear more of this alto player and wonder why I haven't yet.

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