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Robert Irving III: Gaining Momentum

By Published: August 21, 2007

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.

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