Pete Donnelly’s new jazz/classical/pop album “Phases of the Moon” leads listeners on surprising detours, until we consider the phases of his career: well-loved
rock songs with The Figgs, omni-pop with NRBQ, pub-rock behind Graham Parker, and big crunch with Tommy Stinson and his own pop-rock solo albums.
The Saratoga Springs native, who earned a music degree from Skidmore after a 25-year break, roams even wider on “Phases.” He plays Caffe Lena (47 Phila St., Saratoga Springs) Thursday night (Jan. 31) with a versatile new combo.
“The Cafe is a legendary place, but more importantly it’s where much of it all began for me,” said Donnelly from his New Jersey home near Philadelphia. “Open mic nights were a routine in my early teens,” he added. “The stage there is a familiar place and I’m honored to be returning to it.”
Donnelly, Guy Lyons and Mike Gent founded The Figgs (as the Sonic Undertones — I still have their cassette) before graduating from Saratoga High School, Donnelly in 1990, a year after Lyons and Gent. Pete Hayes replaced Lyons after meeting Donnelly on campus at Skidmore, where both were students. Hayes graduated in 1991; Donnelly would have graduated in 1994 or ’95. “After deferring enrollment, I went for two and a half years before hitting the road full time with the Figgs in ’93,” he said. His hiatus bests “Tonight Show” host Jimmy Fallon, who started at The College of Saint Rose in 1992 and earned his degree in 2009.
Skidmore’s independent study options gave Donnelly credit for making “Phases of the Moon.”
“I have always identified heavily with jazz and concert music, and saw this as an opportunity to explore that affinity,” he said. “I’ve never really given myself the challenge of poring over scores and practicing piano, so this was a perfect catalyst for that. Over the years, I’ve collected manuscripts of stuff I dig, and finally I gave myself a reason to actually learn it. In the process, I wrote a bunch of music as well.”
The result is an imaginative, accomplished exploration from French impressionists Erik Satie and Claude Debussy through Thelonious Monk bebop into originals spanning, well, everything. “I’m afraid it chose me,” said Donnelly of the album’s variety. He said NRBQ pianist Terry Adams’ rollicking Monk renditions encouraged him. “Playing with Terry [Donnelly played bass in NRBQ] really gave me more confidence to explore this music that I love so much.”
Making “Phases,” Donnelly worked mostly alone, overdubbing parts.
“I’ll start with a piano or a guitar and vocal, and work backwards into rhythm section stuff,” he said. “Mostly it’s me playing all the instruments on the record.” He said, “As I was finishing the record … if I feel I need something, I’ll go write it.” Donnelly explained, “The song ‘Dr. Richard’ was about the last thing done for ‘Phases’ because I felt the record was lacking a straight-ahead pop tune.”
Expect more straight-ahead pop and crunchy rock from The Figgs: This summer they release “Shady Grove” and hit the road. Donnelly said, “It’s the end of a trilogy … and it’s a triple album, believe it or not.” He mused, “Sometimes I wish there was a routine in my life. But the reality is, I really thrive in this multiverse of music. Everywhere I go, everyone I play with offers me something to carry on to the next venture. I love it.”
Building a band to play “Phases” (and more) live, Donnelly offered freedom. “I always have ideas about the feel of a piece of music, but I like to let the music come to life on its own,” he said. “The less talk, the better, usually, or the less control from me. … If I ask someone to play, then I should let them play.”
With his band — Fred Berman, drums; Ray Long, bass, piano and trombone; and John Cunningham, guitar — Donnelly plans a wide path at Caffé Lena tonight.
“I generally play a good mix of new and old songs of mine,” he explained. “Often it’s keys, feels and tempos that dictate how songs should fit together in a set. … I will do some framework of a set list for the band with the intention of reacting in the moment and calling out whatever feels right.”
Donnelly said, “I see songs as living outside of the band they may have been created for. Any song is fair game.”
7 p.m. $18 advance, $20 door, $10 students and children. 518-583-0022www.caffelena.org