Composer/Multi-Instrumentalist Troy Roberts Showcases Versatility on ‘Stuff I Heard’ (ALBUM REVIEW)
Prior to Stuff I Heard, most of us thought of composer/multi-instrumentalist/bandleader/sideman Troy Roberts as all those descriptors, except multi-instrumentalist, pegging him as a saxophonist. On this effort he often layers his three saxophones (alto, soprano, tenor) in various combinations but also plays acoustic and electric bass, being accompanied only by his long-time drummer Jimmy MacBride. Yet, it mostly has the sound of an ensemble rather than a duo. This is Roberts’ twelfth album as a leader, taking some elements from his normal touring ensembles NU-JIVE and the Troy Roberts Quartet as well as film score-like pieces compositionally reminiscent of his 2009 release, The XenDen Suite. Most of you likely realize that Roberts is a mainstay in Joey DeFrancesco’s band and that he also plays often with Kurt Elling and Orrin Evans’ Captain Black Big Band.
With some of his previous work as foundations, realize still this is unlike anything Roberts has ever recorded due to his multi-instrumental approach. All nine are his compositions, developed as he explains, “My first compositional rule of thumb is to capture my ideas by singing them into my phone. Every so often, I transcribe and save them to a folder on my hard drive called ‘Stuff I Heard’ for later development. All my albums are essentially the fruits of these seeds.”
They begin with “Little Room,” a mixture of Johann Sebastian Bach put to a Venezuelan rhythm. There is a two-part counterpoint between the electric bass and tenor sax with the bridge featuring layers of saxes as harmonic support, a technique he uses throughout the recording as MacBride’s rhythms hold the tapestry together. “Harry Brown” is Roberts’ tribute to the movie character played by Michael Caine. The tenor carries the melody and emotive solo, harmonized by the other horns with some fine interplay between the acoustic bass and MacBride’s traps.
“Lifeline” is another cinematic well-orchestrated piece beginning with an acoustic bass solo. The single note ostinato theme moves through the composition, emulating a life support system as the tenor holds sway. “Prayer of Hope” is the shortest track, at just over three minutes. As the title suggests, it’s a ballad sung here by the saxophone choir. “ReJekt” follows in a melancholy mood as the saxophones play in counterpoint, at times echoing each other. “Hightail” is the piece most like Roberts’ NU-Jive sound, as Roberts uses the electric bass to drive the funky, heavy groove with MacBride, a real showcase for the drummer, as Roberts’ tenor playing becomes more aggressive, backed by his other horns, which weave in and out, creating an ensemble effect.
”Aeonian” begins so quietly, you may stop to check your player after the fury of “Hightail.” Roberts uses his saxes to create a classical effect that resembles a string quartet. As heavy and funky as the previous track was, this is a statement of refined beauty. “Solar Panels” (a play on words in reference to Miles Davis’ “Solar’) finds Roberts leading with soprano sax and acoustic bass. He and MacBride swing fluidly amidst the rhythmic changes and engage in vigorous, playful dialogue. It’s the only track where Roberts uses just one saxophone on the set’s longest piece, just over nine minutes, a thrilling excursion on the soprano with great spots from MacBride too. The closer, “The Comedian,” is another like “Aeonian,” with beautiful flowing textures in the cinematic vein.
Troy Roberts impresses unlike ever before, and that’s saying something. His ability to layer sounds with his three saxes and play the bass, to create an ensemble effect with just one other partner is remarkable. His writing is even more so.