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Robert Irving III: Gaining Momentum

By Published: August 21, 2007

Miles showed me these chord progressions that turned a light bulb on in my head in terms of harmonic possibilities. It changed me forever.

Robert Irving III Robert Irving III is a keyboard player known in different quarters for different things. He played electric, of course, as a young man in the band Miles Davis unveiled when he decided to return to performing in 1980 after his infamous five-year hiatus. He produced albums with Miles, but also Sting, Carlos Santana, Dianne Reeves, Branford Marsalis, Wayne Shorter, Gerald Albright, Grover Washington, John Scofield, David Murray and others. He was musical director for Sister Sledge and has performed with the likes of Oscar Brown Jr., Michael Brecker, Marcus Miller, Wallace Roney, Buster Williams and more.

But Irving (who's known to friends as Baabe, which is pronounced like Bobby) is also an acoustic pianist who loves the sound of the instrument and has been busy for years providing that sound in a variety of settings. He doesn't talk like an electric Miles alumnus. He appreciates all types of music—as evidenced by his broad experiences—and all the things electronics can provide. And he's damn good at it.

But slow down.

"There's no comparison between the two in terms of the technique, the feel, the overtones, says the soft-spoken Irving. "The acoustic piano is such an organic feeling and sounding instrument. It elicits a whole different feeling and approach and response and inspiration for me, because it's so responsive. Fender Rhodes gets close to it, because it's somewhat the same mechanism with the actual tines being struck by a hammer. It has a certain percussiveness.

"That's the thing. Piano is a percussion instrument. But when you play organ or synthesizer, the touch is so light it spoils your technique, in terms of muscle toning and everything for development of technique on piano. I can understand why players like Ramsey Lewis just stopped playing synthesizers completely and focused only on piano. Unless you have a weighted keyboard synthesizer it can disrupt your technical skill.

He says in the last decade, about eighty percent of his work has been focused on acoustic. "David Murray hired me to do primarily piano and Hammond organ. Wallace Roney, starting in '99, hired me to do the same, he says. And he wants to be better-known for that.

His new CD should help change the perception. New Momentum (2007), out on the Sonic Portraits label he started with drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, is an outstanding acoustic trio record. It shows not only the multi-talented Irving's sweet touch on the piano, but his own compositions are noteworthy and his arrangements of a pair of familiar jazz tunes—"Seven Steps to Heaven, associated with Miles, and Wayne Shorter's "Nefertiti —are refreshingly different.

The title, New Momentum, has a meaning, as the pianist moves to push himself and his career in that direction.

"It's sort of like I am a newcomer in a way, or a late bloomer in a sense, in terms of being known as an acoustic player. Although I've been doing it, I've not done it as a leader. Now that I'm out here and doing it, I hope to keep the momentum flowing to the next project. So [the title] does have a twofold meaning, I guess, he says. He also hopes the new recording documents his development as an acoustic player, because "when you're out there on tour, you're only known by the people who are there in the audience. That's why I felt it was important to get back into the studio and start documenting some of this stuff. A lot of bright moments were just going into the ether.

The music is full of lush harmonies and voicings, with superb support from his trio mates. Irving has touch and technique and a real feeling. The disk has to be one of the best trio outings of the year. The drive of the title cut carries the listener on a journey, and then softens for a bit before pushing ahead. Tension and release. The CD has thoughtful expression throughout. "Havila is a stately theme.

RobertIrving is also a painter, like one of his mentors, Miles Davis, and the aural landscapes he presents on New Momentum have beauty of movement and design.

"I always like to throw in the quote that Miles made one day. We were at his place. After he moved from 77th [in New York City] he had a place at the Essex House that he had bought. It was like a condo type of deal. He had five canvasses going at once. Oil painting, which takes a long time to dry. So while one thing was drying, he would work on something else. So he turned to me and said, 'A painting is music you can see, and music is a painting you can hear.' I thought it was a very profound statement. Later on we discussed it and we added cooking and writing to that too. He encouraged me to try to paint, because he said it was relaxing and that it helped to inform the music for him. That's not something that I really got empirically until five years after he passed away. I actually discovered that through my own son, who was an art prodigy at the age of seven. That has helped to form my perspective of the arts.

Irving, 53, said he started playing acoustic piano a lot more in Chicago, his hometown, with bassist Marlene Rosenberg's trio around 1998. "It sort of got me into the mode of developing arrangements a lot of times, including 'Seven Steps to Heaven' and things like that for that trio unit. It was so much fun to play, I decided I may as well do a trio recording. That's how it kind of evolved into that, he says. "As far as the writing, the arrangements of 'Nefertiti' and 'Seven Steps' were things that we were already doing. 'Havilah' is something I had written years ago that we were playing in a different and more complex version. I actually simplified it for this project. Everything else was written for the project.

He had worked with Buster Williams before as well, and decided to use the bassist on some tunes because of his great sound. Rosenberg plays on other selections, and drummer Ernie Adams was part of the Rosenberg trio, and so was a natural choice. They all provide solid work.

All this from someone who didn't even start out playing the piano as a young child interested in music. He liked guitar and sax and trained on horns before ever moving to keyboards.

"I didn't study piano formally, in terms of, like, classical training like Herbie [Hancock] and those guys did. I actually was a horn player. I played bugle in a drum and bugle corps at the age of eleven. And because of my experience in brass, when I got to the undergrad center at DuSable High School, I got drafted to play in the concert band. They immediately put me on brass, says Irving.

He played mellophone, and went from that to cornet, baritone horn, valve trombone and then concentrated on slide trombone. "I never really had a great passion toward brass, because I really wanted to play guitar and saxophone. I actually took guitar lessons and played a little bass too, he says.

His high school band teacher urged horn players to learn the piano "as a way to envision theoretically beyond the linear modality on your horn. I was one of those students that really got the big picture of the music theory lessons. He took me sort of as a private student on the side and really helped me to develop a complete knowledge of music theory and piano theory. I ended up skipping classes and staying in the band room for hours and just working out stuff on piano. For those two years that I was there, I just excelled. I was able to play anything I heard in all twelve keys from that training.

Says Irving, "The first keyboard artists that I actually physically saw was Jesse Dixon, who was a gospel organist in Chicago who was pretty popular within that realm. It was in a church. It was about that time that I knew I wanted to play. It was an organ initially, so Jimmy Smith was, of course, the first one I really got into because of the organ. Then after that, it was an interesting time because there was so much music going on in the mid-to-late '60s. You could turn on the radio and hear R&B, reggae, pop, jazz, classical at any time on one station. It wasn't so segmented. I didn't really focus on just any one player. It was years before I'd get to that point.

Miles "After I started becoming aware of Miles and the legacy with all those great players, then I started focusing in on Herbie [Hancock] and Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea. Then there was Ramsey Lewis with Sun Goddess (Columbia, 1974) on that side, and Joe Sample with the Crusaders at that time.

"But I never went the route of transcribing solos, which they tell you to do, Irving says. "I just sort of organically copped the vibe of what everybody was doing and filtered that through my own mind and it just came out, sort of by osmosis, I guess, and developed what is my own style and sound.

In Chicago, he played in the jazz. His director had a big band called the Moonlighters and some of the horn players that went through that group eventually played with Earth, Wind & Fire, including Louis Satterfield (trombone), Michael Harris (trumpet). Eldee Young (bass) and Red Holt (drums) were also members of that band. "I would be the one that would have to go early to the gigs and set up the music stands. He would let me sit in on a couple numbers on organ or piano. So I got a lot of training. Then I would attend the rehearsals and play trombone. So I got a pretty wide vocabulary in terms of big band music and general jazz repertoire.

North Carolina was where his family moved after his mother died. It was away from the fertile and varied music scene of Chicago, limited to country, gospel and rock. But he took that in stride and continued to listen and develop.

Irving lived in North Carolina for eight years, but kept in touch with folks in the Windy City, including high school chum Gregory Bibb, a producer for Chi-Sound records and a musician. It was that association that led the pianist to meeting Vince Wilburn and Randy Hall. And that entanglement changed his life. Wilburn, a drummer, is the son of Miles Davis' sister, Dorothy.

Irving returned to Chicago and got involved with the young musicians and renewed himself with the scene. The band rehearsed in the basement at the Wilburn home. Miles got word and wanted to listen in. He was getting musically restless.

"We would rehearse in the basement. Miles would listen in to the rehearsal over the phone, recalls Irving. "We would each get on the phone and talk to him. He would get on the phone and make suggestions.

"Eventually, we got taken into the studio by Tom Tom 84, who was the arranger for Earth Wind & Fire. We were able to record whatever we wanted to record. So we recorded some of the things that we were working on. Some fusion stuff, some Earth, Wind & Fire type of vocal things, with the idea that he was going to take this demo to Maurice White for consideration for production. But Miles heard it first. There was a tune on there that I had written called "Space that he kept calling back and asking us to play it on the phone, over and over. He asked if we would be interested in coming to New York to record it. That's what happened in 1979 as he was contemplating his comeback.

"We ended up recording that song and setting up a workshop at his flat on 77th, near West End, and just work-shopping music for a couple of months. My first physical meeting with him after having spoken on the phone with him for months, he invited me by just to talk. I went by there. The rest of the guys were still at the hotel. There was a little small talk. Then he had me go to the piano to play something for him. I don't remember exactly what I played; I think it was some sort of bluesy things. He was like a doctor who diagnosed a musical deficiency. He came around and he showed me these chord progressions that turned a light bulb on in my head in terms of harmonic possibilities. It changed me forever, in terms of my hearing the music and my approach; a lot of harmonic tension and release.

Later that day Irving even shared another of Miles' passions: cooking. He helped prepare a meal for the band. "That sort of established our relationship as a mentor-student relationship that just continued until he died, he says.

Like most people who knew Miles in person, Irving was not struck by the Prince of Darkness persona. "I thought he was extremely funny. He was really quick-witted. He really immersed himself in the art of music. There were always a lot of stories, especially about the days with Billy Eckstine, or "B, as he called him. I guess that was his most impressionable time, being a young man. I think that was one of the reasons why he would give guys like myself a shot, because he wanted to give back and give us the same kind of opportunities as he had.

"Miles as the visual artist, he was very impressionable at that time. He would work starting with sketches and then developing later into serious oil medium work. He was a collector. He would spend sometimes $20,000 on a tour collecting art in Europe just to study and to deal with techniques. He was really serious at times, and just funny the other times. Especially after those years with the drugs. Then he became a lot more mellow and sort of regular.

The band was young and the music they eventually played with Miles—both on The Man With the Horn (Columbia, 1981), the "comeback album, and live—took some harsh criticism. Miles, used to it over the course of his career—and always with the foresight to continue on (which always proved to be right)—was protective of the group from outside interference, while at the same time trying to mold them. While the band changed some, Irving remained playing electric keyboards. He became musical director eventually, and helped produce Decoy (Columbia, 1983) and You're Under Arrest (Columbia, 1985), the latter a project from which the track "Human Nature" received a Grammy Award nomination.

Miles Irving had written some tunes and performed on The Man With the Horn. Later, Miles asked him if I knew how to mix a record. "Of course, I said yes, he says with a laugh. "Once I explained to him what it entailed, he asked if I'd be interested in mixing his next project. I said sure. He said, 'If you have any tunes, bring them.' So I immediately wrote a tune called "Outer Limits, which he changed into "Decoy, which became the title cut. I found myself basically producing this project without a production agreement.

"It was obvious by that time that he had fired Teo Macero (Miles' longtime Columbia producer) and he wanted to take control of the production. He obviously looked at Teo more as a mix engineer than a producer. Which is pretty much what Teo did. He did a lot of editing. He was an excellent recording engineer in terms of mic placement, but his forte was editing. Because a lot of time the tape would just roll from the time Miles walked into the studio until he left. Everything would be captured and then cut up later and placed in various contexts. I think he was ready to shift into a different direction.

"It turns out most of what I did as a producer was pretty much consult with him on arrangements and material, work out arrangements, rehearse the band and record the music without him even being there. He was delegating a lot of stuff to me because he didn't really like to go to the studio. He felt the studio was cold and he liked the responsiveness of an audience. Consequently, I would take the tapes back with the rough mixes every night and he would listen and, I would imagine, develop his own parts and rehearse by himself at home and then come in and overdub. That's the way a lot of that came together.

With You're Under Arrest, Miles was more active. Irving says it was originally conceptualized to be a ballad album, with Gil Evans arranging, ad many meetings with Davis, Evans and Irving proved fortunate. "There were a lot of meetings with Gil and consulting with Gil. I got to spend a lot of time and sort of be mentored by Gil Evans during that time, which is another valuable time.

But the original intent never came to be. Evans was occupied and perhaps not up to it at that point in his career. "I guess Miles just kind of knew that Gil's energy was just not up for that kind of project. Gil was doing his big band thing at Sweet Basil's and Seventh Avenue South. I would go and sit in with the big band, but it was clear that Gil wasn't going to put the time in for this kind of project, says Irving.

"Consequently it turned out Miles was contemplating a move from Columbia to Warner Bros. anyway, and he just wanted to get the project done. Plus we had a fall tour coming up. So we ended up using 'Time After Time' and 'Human Nature' and a couple more things that we did and interspersing those with some live performance tracks, which we went in and he actually played a second trumpet on some of that stuff. That became You're Under Arrest, which was, of course, his last Columbia project.

Irving was also building his own career, and in 1988 recorded his debut for Polygram/Verve Forecast, Midnight Dream. He was still touring the world with Miles—Europe, Hong Kong, Japan, Australia, New Zealand.

"And that year we were scheduled to do South America. It was September and we did The Pier in New York, and we were to do a date at the Wolftrap festival the following day, that Saturday. We got word that Miles was in the hospital. The gig was canceled; we were placed on hold in New York for a few days pending the prognosis. Then we were advised that it was over, that Miles was being told he needed to retire by his doctors. We were kept on retained for another month and that was it.

Miles Irving was asked to produce Terri Lyne Carrington's debut for Verve Forecast, Real Life Story (1989), that included sessions with Wayne Shorter, Grover Washington Jr., Diane Reeves, Patrice Rushen and Carlos Santana. "We had finished the recording and we were about to start a couple overdub sessions and mix in Los Angeles at Chick Corea's studio, Mad Hatter, when I got a call from Miles, actually from the road manager, that Miles was planning to do the fall tour. He was feeling better and he was going to go to Europe for a three-week tour. I couldn't get out of this mix thing. I was the producer. So it was a dilemma for me.

Producing work and promotional work was needed and Irving opted out of Miles' band after being musical director for about five years. "By that time the music had stopped becoming challenging and fun, says Irving," because Miles was into the more minimalist, sort of Prince-style groove things. It was becoming more restrictive. I just decided it was time for me to go out on my own. So that's what I did.

The Carrington CD was nominated for a Grammy. Those experiences launched the pianist deeper into jobs as a producer, which Irving welcomed. "But I found that either you're going to be a performer or a producer because they're both so time-consuming, energy-consuming. Either you're going to be out on the road or in the studio kind of digging it. I try to do a little bit of both. That fact that I didn't live in New York or L.A—being in Chicago was not a major center. So I ended up probably not producing as much as I would have if I'd lived on either coast.

As for Miles the mentor, Irving remained in touch, even up until his hospitalization in 1990. The one Davis did not return from.

"Right before that I'd seen him in Europe at the North Sea Festival that summer. He looked fine. Every time I saw him he'd ask me if I was coming back to the band, Irving recalls with a chuckle. "I said, 'Well, I'll think about it.' Then he asked me how I liked the new group; there were some new players. Right after that, he was in Chicago at an outdoor festival and I actually didn't go, because I had just seen him and I said: I'll catch him next time. There was one more gig after that, and then he went into the hospital. I stayed in touch with him while he was in the hospital. We gave messages back and forth through Vince and through the road manager. He would ask about me. I still didn't know how severe it was. It's hard to imagine that he wouldn't always be there. It was a huge shock and a void that was there.

Miles claimed during his life that he had premonitions of things, and at times communicated with old friends who had passed away, like Gil Evans and Bird and Coltrane. Some observers said he could often tell who was at the door before a knock, or who was on the phone when it rang. He visited a psychic on occasion. Irving says his dreams have sometimes involved Miles.

"Since that time, I've dreamed about him at least twice a year. The dreams would always be backstage before a performance. He would always want to see me before we went on. Actually, to see what I was wearing. We were kind of competitive in terms of the fashion thing on stage. The dreams would be sort of that, back stage but never performing. Until right before New Momentum. Then we actually did a gig in a hall that looked like a shopping mall atrium, with plants and everything. It had no end. It just went forever. And it was an acoustic gig, which is something I'd never done with him. So it was sort of like a sign for me, a green light, to do New Momentum.

So Irving's career has gone on, performing with notable musicians and now trying to get gigs with his won trio to support his stellar new recording. He also just produced another Carrington album, this one on their Sonic Portraits label. "It's actually a sequel to Real Life Story. It's sort of patterned after that project in terms of song selection and the guest artists, with Nancy Wilson and George Duke and Patrice Rushen, Everette Harp, the bassist Jimmy Haslip from the Yellowjackets; just a long list of great players.

Irving also still paints (his New Momentum CD sleeve contains a portrait of Miles Davis entitled "Seven Steps to Heaven," converged with his painting entitled "Bitches Brew.") His work has been exhibited in New York and Chicago. He also finds time to write and arrange music. He's written songs for other people's projects, like Ramsey Lewis. He has produced movie scores, including 1987's Street Smart, starring Christopher Reeves, on which Miles played trumpet. It seems he's constantly creating.

Robert Irving III "That's real important to me. The creative part of it is really what I live for, he says.

"I share the same jack-of-all-trades master-of-none thing. I call myself an interdisciplinary arts entrepreneur. After high school I went to college for business administration and was in the insurance business for about three years. I approach all of the arts as being interrelated-painting, I write for a magazine, I teach, I have private students and I do a mentorship program for the Jazz Institute of Chicago. I don't look at those as disparate items. I look at them as being cohesive, sort of one blend of artistic endeavor and expression.

Besides moving on with his trio and creative acoustic piano, the ever-motivated Irving is already looking ahead.

"My next project is going to be a sextet project, and then I'm going to move into larger ensemble work, which is inspired by my work with Gil Evans."

Somewhere in there Baabe likely finds time for sleep. Exactly when might be the mystery.

Selected Discography

Robert Irving III, New Momentum (Sonic Portraits, 2007)
Miles Davis, Complete Miles Davis at Montreux 1973-1991 (Warner Bros., 2002)
Wallace Roney, Village (Warner Bros., 1997)
David Murray, Dark Star: The Music of The Grateful Dead (Astor Place, 1996)
Miles Davis, Live Around the World (Warner Bros., 1996)
Robert Irving III, Midnight Dreams (Polygram, 1988)
Miles Davis, You're Under Arrest (Columbia, 1985)
Miles Davis, Decoy (Columbia, 1983)
Miles Davis, Man With the Horn (Columbia, 1981)

Photo Credits
Top Photo: Tracy Love, courtesy of Sonic Portraits
Bottom Photo: Courtesy of Sonic Portraits

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