Give His Piece a Chance: Pete Robbins Jazzes Up National Politics


Feel like facilitating a little regime change? Got an urge for seeing as many voters registered as possible? Then you’re not unlike Pete Robbins. For the last few months, the saxophonist-composer has been fighting the good fight by bringing grassroots political action to the West Village. Curating a series of concerts in the basement performance space of the Cornelia Street Café, Robbins has nudged jazz into the large ring of rockers who are in cahoots with the nonprofit activist organization Music for America (MFA). Fully partisan, the group has declared that the country is headed in the wrong direction, and passivity in this year’s election is tantamount to self-destruction. They’re beating the drums through a series of concerts geared to stimulate ideas that expose the hypocrisies of Republican rhetoric.

Dedicated to some MFA (and fundraising, Robbins has manned the phones and turned out high-vis improvisers such as trumpeter Dave Douglas, drummer Rodney Green, and saxophonist John O’Gallagher; each has shared bills with the alto player’s left-leaning Centric ensemble. Somewhat new in town, Robbins came down from Boston a couple of years ago; his unusual melodic designs and imaginative swing sensibility earned him local notice right away. Centric finds him exchanging horn lines with the dean of New England bent-bop saxophonists, George Garzone. Sharing this evening’s bill is Uri Caine, who has no problem ousting orthodoxy. The intrepid arranger made his mark reimagining the works of Mahler and Bach. He also plays the hell out of any piano placed before him.

Those of us anticipating a Kerry victory in November may do well to put our John Hancock on MFA’s petition to the Dems’ presidential candidate. Its main points call for building a society that works for all, putting people before corporate lobbyists, and being a world leader, not a world bully. If you hear an extremely passionate passage coming from the stage tonight, it’ll be Robbins seconding all of those ideas.

Pete Robbins performs September 24, Cornelia Street Café, 29 Cornelia Street, 212.989.9319.


September 24-25

Jazz Gallery, 290 Hudson Street, 212.242.1063

Powerhouse drummer Tain Watts used to play with powerhouse pianist Kirkland, who died in 1998. The weekend is spent honoring the lost pal’s resounding spirit, and the wildly physical interplay that marks the work of both musicians should summon that spirit accordingly. Watts’s group is one of New York’s finest, and special guests are scheduled.


September 28-October 3

Village Vanguard, 178 Seventh Avenue South, 212.255.4037

The acclaimed pianist has dedicated so much time to trios that other options—save his weak-tea take on electrocoustic pop, Largo—seem remote. This foursome will be defined not only by Mehldau’s rightly heralded romance and rumination, but by Mark Turner’s chessboard tenor maneuvers.


September 29

Sweet Rhythm, 88 Seventh Avenue South, 212.255.3626

Those who monitor the in-town jazz piano realm have had their eye on the pianist for a while now. He’s goosed the action in Don Byron’s outfits and helped take David Sanchez’s outfits to the next level. Simultaneously poised and frisky, his sextet stuff—a debut of sorts (he doesn’t lead often enough)—should be intriguing.


October 1-2

Smoke, 2751 Broadway, 212.864.6662

There’s a pop side to the pianist, but it has nothing to do with covers of Radiohead and Joni Mitchell tunes, as is the wont of some contemporary keyboardists. Instead Alexander turns to Jamaica and reggae. Riddim is primary in his radically agile threesome, and from ska to skank he effects some compelling grooves.


October 5-10

Iridium, 1650 Broadway, 212.582.2121

The master bandleader’s music has proven, as one of his key titles suggests, to be indestructible. This hat tip unites both contemporaries and acolytes, and if they stick to the drummer’s iconic hard-bop book, Jazz Messengers they’ll indeed become. There’ll be no problem in the percussion chair: On alternating nights, Ralph Peterson, Louis Hayes, and Ben Riley will have the clout covered.


October 13

Barbès, 376 9th Street, Brooklyn, 718.965.9177

They’ve often broken bread and chuckled together about politics, but the wry clarinetist and cagey pianist—both respected downtown bandleaders with a yen for radical Jewish culture—haven’t done duets before. This cozy room is celebrating two years as a Brooklyn staple for new jazz; I bet its ambience helps them hit the bull’s-eye.


October 19-24

Jazz Standard, 116 East 27th Street, 212.447.7733

The wily pianist always has a concept up his sleeve, and this six-night stretch with six different partners should be a revealing frame for his stylistic know-how. Exchanges with reed player Michael Moore and trumpeter Dave Douglas might bend a few rules; those with bassist John Patitucci and saxophonist Joel Frahm might show us his dedication to beauty.


October 28-30

Rose Theater, 33 West 60th Street, 212.258.9800

The titular subjects are to be exalted in word and song by celeb orators and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, which will be playing an array of pieces—by Jimmy Heath, Darius Brubeck, and Stevie Wonder among others—commissioned for this affair. Trumpeting “liberty and triumph,” Wynton’s ensemble will acknowledge the victories of real-life superheroes such as MLK, Vaclav Havel, Nelson Mandela, and Eleanor Roosevelt.


November 12-13

Rose Theater, 33 West 60th Street, 212.258.9800

The first African American boxer to win the heavyweight crown, Johnson became a symbol for all sorts of things in the early 19th century. He’s getting the Ken Burns treatment, and Wynton Marsalis’s pieces on the profile’s soundtrack will be performed by his usually red-hot septet while punditry is perpetrated and excerpts are screened.