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Robert Irving III: Gaining Momentum

By Published: August 21, 2007

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.

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