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Michael A. Levy: From Piano to iPad

Michael A. Levy: From Piano to iPad

Courtesy Katerina Richter


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After a learning curve of several weeks I realized I had the tools, literally at my fingertips, to make music I only dreamed of for the fifty years I played prior to discovering digital —and especially iPad— musical production.
—Michael A. Levy
It is a common perception that artists do their most innovative work when they are young and then gradually lose the spark of innovation in favor of a refinement of an already established artistic expression. There are, however, many artists who remain curious all their life and never stop being interested in the interplay between emerging technology and artistic creation. The British painter David Hockney is one such example of an artist who, late in life, discovered the possibilities of the iPad as a tool for painting. In music, pianist and composer Michael A. Levy has been on a similar journey.

Levy has a staggering amount of iPad-created music on his Bandcamp site, but the remarkable thing is not how much music there is, but how good it is. Anyone who thought digitally created jazz meant hollow, supper jazz without lyrical depth, surprise or agility should check out Levy's music. It is music that resides in the borderland between jazz and classical, sometimes moving more into one camp than another, but always with an open, improvising mind towards music.

It is a mindset that pianist, composer and teacher, Connie Crothers, helped develop and Levy has also recorded for the label she founded, New Artists Records. His journey towards becoming an improviser has been long and not without obstacles, but he has arrived at a place where feeling, technology, and individual expression work together and not against each other.

All About Jazz: In your biography for New Artists Records, you talk about discovering the piano through your sister's Baldwin Acrosonic. Could you elaborate on your connection with the piano as an instrument?

Michael A. Levy: Well, I was drawn to the piano because it was there in my home to bang on at age something when I could finally reach the keys. I started lessons at nine. I have a strange collection of musical talents which don't include skills to play any other instrument.

The piano is dimensional, geometric, mathematical, percussive, difficult to break or bend. And, it's a one-man band. I didn't realize how true this was til I started producing music using an electric keyboard—It lacks the capabilities of melodic expression that horns, woodwinds and strings have. That's obvious. What's not so obvious is the depth of expression the piano is able to produce even with a single note melodic line. I didn't discover that until I met my teacher, Connie Crothers in 1973, preceded by hearing what the master, John Lewis, of Modern Jazz Quartet could to either a single note or a linear line. That was my first clue.

The piano's inability to play vibrato and other expressive parameters has always been a shortcoming, though it more than compensates with its musical strengths, notably, its percussive and polyphonic qualities. However, digital technology—of which I'm a huge fan when it comes to sound and music production—has recently overcome most expressive barriers with the implementation of MPE [MIDI Polyphonic Expression], initially using pitch and modulation wheels—old school—, and then more expressive breath controllers and ring, if you don't mind blowing into a tube while playing or waving your finger around, that is.

The biggest recent, expressive, keyboard breakthrough, however, is the newly released ODMOSE by ExpressiveE. This 49 key instrument incorporates the usual expressive parameters in an actual, mechanical, piano key without any additional apparatus. When you wiggle the key of the ODMOSE with your finger you can actually create vibrato, or any of several other assignable expressive characteristics. This is the breakthrough development keyboardists have been waiting for since we envied what horn players can do to a note.

AAJ: Growing up, what kind of music did you listen to and who were the pianists that inspired you and still inspire you today?

MAL: My early musical influences were entirely classical. Primarily Chopin. Actually, my mom taught me my first stride bass tune, "St. Louis Blues." In my teens I started playing in bands and acquired copies of the then "illegal" fake books. The world of standards opened up and I learned lots of them, comping basic chords in my left hand.

Around 15 I became exposed to the jazz genre. Miles [Davis], [Thelonious] Monk, [Dave] Brubeck, Modern Jazz Quartet. Those sounds became my jazz foundation. I tried to improvise but it was unguided and not very adventurous. Of course, I listened to a lot of lesser luminaries, but still great...Horace Silver, Ahmad Jamal, Ravi Shankar, etc.

It wasn't til I found Connie Crothers—a protégé of the great Lennie Tristano—in New York in 1973 that my jazz ears fully opened and real improvisation became a possibility. Bird [Charlie Parker], Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Monk, Charlie Christian, Lester Young, Warne Marsh were the main players I listened to and sang along with. Not much rock influence, however. The Beatles, Doors, Rolling Stones and a few others. Today I listen to everything with open ears.

AAJ:When I read your biography I noticed that you had a sense of improvising when you first touched the piano as a child. Do you feel that getting formal musical training became a hindrance for finding that improvisatory connection again? Because I know from your biography that it has been a long journey for you to become an improvisor.

MAL: I guess the greatest hindrance to loving music and learning to play an instrument are the abundance of bad teachers. My first teacher—at age 9—told my mom after a year "Mrs. Levy, you're wasting your money on Michael." Sadder and less informed words were never spoken. I think he judged me based on a reluctance to practice. He, like so many others, perform a rote service without any insight into musical ability.

My next teacher was the opposite and inculcated in me a love of Chopin and showed empathy and respect for a child's state of mind. He—and my mom, who ignored my first teacher's assessment—saved me from flaming out at age 11. After 65 years of playing and performances at Birdland and The Blue Note I guess I proved the first guy wrong.

Ultimately it was Connie Crothers who showed me what a truly great teacher could do for a willing student. I studied with her for 25 years off and on. Every moment was precious and affirming, and it wasn't just me. She treated everyone that way. Unlike many jazz teachers, she wasn't interested in creating stylistic clones based on the "monkey see monkey do" philosophy—they play a bit, you try to do the same. Rather, she fostered originality and developing note to note musical feeling with seriously profound techniques and exercises. She addressed often ignored aspects of improvising such as non muscular and non judgmental playing. There are other great jazz teachers, but they're rare. The wrong teacher, especially for a jazz musician or even someone who simply wants to play, can destroy decades of potential musical satisfaction.

AAJ: How do you see the connection between finding your own voice on the piano and being an improvisor? Do you feel that these two things are linked together or is it possible to separate them?

MAL: it depends on what you want to get out of playing an instrument. Though I sincerely believe everyone has the potential of an original musical voice, it can't be denied that some players are more gifted in that respect than others.

Originality has not always been a cultural prerequisite. As I understand it, in ancient Egypt, the goal was to make the best copy possible, though I never learned where the originals to be copied came from. Today's musician, similarly, can make a decent living—sometimes—by his/her exactitude in covering popular tunes of specific genres.

If you just want to entertain yourself and friends, originality is not very important as being unique often confuses the listener, especially those who like humming along. In pro classical contexts originality is scrupulously contained and judged. Originals, like Glenn Gould, proceeded at their own risk.

For me, personally, as an improviser, originality is central. The drive to create an evolving vocabulary and approach has kept jazz, and other genres, alive for me over six decades. Without cultivating originality my musical experience would have died a boring and lackluster death almost a half century ago.

AAJ: You have played both jazz and classical music, and still do. How do you see the connection between these two genres and what you try to do musically? What is the strength of each genre?

MAL: The connection between jazz and classical music... enormous when you consider the role of improvisation in both genres. The biggest difference... classical music doesn't swing... . It lacks "sexual" energy as we think of that today.

Jazz stretches to be intellectual—if that's desirable—Jacques Loussier or even the Swingle Singers are examples of that. Jazz stretches to be free and access feeling in its deepest, undefinable, space. Intellectually composed music mostly lacks this deeper, non-emotional feeling, though it can be beautiful, emotional, haunting, because the engine of most classical composers is/was the mind.

Today, composers like Philip Glass epitomize the disconnect between mind and musical feeling. Don't misunderstand me, I absolutely love and relate to minimalist music, especially Philip's. In my opinion, however, it is mind created with the purpose of communicating musical/physical energy apart from true musical feeling... like putting your finger into an electrical socket... it's exhilarating but mathematical. On the other hand, Chopin accesses musical feeling beautifully in a romantic vein... but then he was a supreme improviser in touch with cosmic profundities, and he knew how to get out of his own way.

When I improvise classical music it doesn't swing, though I access the creative energy from the same source, which is nonjudgmental and melody centric.. I can't explain how I switch channels from jazz to classical. Melody is always center stage. I guess with classical I am tapping a style represented by all the classical listening and playing I have done. This is true for jazz, too, of course, but I feel freer with jazz. No conscious constraints, no matter how subliminal, for it to sound like something else. When I play jazz my originality is in charge. When I play in a classical style it can't help but be more limited... otherwise it doesn't sound like "classical" music.

Here are links to my jazz and classical improvisations. It's easy to hear the difference:

AAJ: Like many artists on the New Artists label, you studied with Connie Crothers. How did she help you on your own musical path and how would you describe her as a pianist and artist?

MAL: Wow, Connie Crothers! This whole interview could be about the influence she has had on scores of improvisers and her unique teaching style. When I was looking for a jazz teacher I asked a Juilliard graduate in 1973 who was a professional percussionist. I, frankly, didn't have anyone else to ask. Without skipping a beat he said "Lennie Tristano." How he knew about a somewhat obscure jazz musician I didn't think to ask, but I immediately contacted Lennie.

I visited Lennie in Jamaica Queens and he was exactly what I imagined for my Yoda, He met me in a bathrobe, cigarette dangling from his mouth, blind, grizzled, alcoholic end genius. He listened to me and said he'd take me on but he was completely booked. I could wait till he had an opening or I could begin with his student, Connie Crothers, and he'd let me know when he had an opening.

Connie was the anti Yoda. Californian, beautiful, a Marilyn Monroe voice, a wonderful smile. Honestly, I wanted to date her! I did ask her out some months later but she said she didn't date her students. At that point I could have quit and asked her out or continue to learn how to improvise. I chose the learning as she probably wouldn't have gone out with me anyway. It was the right decision!

I should add that I initially sought out a jazz teacher as my own efforts to improvise had crashed and burned. After I had gotten past the initial euphoria of making stuff up on the spur of the moment I found a big roadblock in front of me. I would start to improvise and after thirty seconds one of two things would happen. Either I would think "This sucks" and I was stopped... or, I'd think "Hey, this sounds pretty good!" and then... I stopped. It was always the same. I needed help.

As Connie laid out her technique to me, which included how to use your hands and arms in a non-muscular way, I was stunned to see those principles of movement she espoused to be exactly the same as I was learning, concurrently, in my study of tai chi. Connie had never heard of it—this was the 70s, don't forget—but, somehow, she had learned, or intuited the fundamental and profound concepts of using chi energy instead of muscular force. Unfortunately, too many musicians are unaware of the dangers of using muscular force to play which results in quick fatigue and even physical injury of the hands, neck and shoulder.

The next major concept she delivered was her point of view that it is easiest—and best—to get on the path to original and effortless improvisation by focusing on melody and not chords. Many jazz teachers stress chord voicings and chord progressions as the key to the improvisational lock... along with jazz scales, of course.

Though I did plenty of chord and scale work, Connie always expressed the central importance of using melody to develop note to note feeling which is, inarguably, the most important aspect of improvising on any instrument. It is the quality of being fully present at the moment of creating each note. You can tell a great player by this quality no matter what genre. Listening to a cat playing fast runs can sound impressive, but unless he/she is evoking each note individually they are not 100% there. I learned this by playing Bird at 16 1/2 rpm. Slowed to half speed you could hear the miraculous. He just about never missed, slurred, glossed over a note. Slowing down other "great" improvisers often showed their lack of note to note presence.

So, thanks to Connie, I learned jazz standards as straight melody in both my right and left hands. I even played scales as though they were melodies. Now my melodic improvisation is so strong it almost doesn't matter what I play in my left hand. It will generally sound cohesive. Once the melody was deeply ingrained in my consciousness I was taught to improvise on that melody by running the exact melody, like a tape recording, through my mind as I played different stuff on the keyboard. Always single handedly, both in right and left hands. Additionally I sang with recordings of greats like Billie Holiday, Bird and [Louis] Armstrong. Singing their brilliant self expression informed my own.

The biggest breakthrough, however, was learning how to put my judgmental mind off to the side. Once again, Connie incorporated a lot of unwitting zen principles on how to quiet the overactive mind, She taught me not to eliminate the judgmental thoughts but, rather, to let the mind chatter away and totally ignore the superfluous and distracting thoughts, both positive and negative. When I learned to do that my improvisational roadblock crumbled.

One of Connie's greatest attributes was her genuine and steady affirmation of a student's playing. She truly understood how to impart helpful energy to the person she was teaching. When I played at my lessons it was always the best playing I did. Often I would have breakthroughs or deep insights at those times. I am certain this was because of the positive environment Connie provided, the intensity in which she always listened, and the creative energy she freely shared with her students. This was a great and unique gift she offered everyone she taught. Ironically, she always downplayed her role as teacher. She would say we were both students. That was humble and, in a way, truthful, but it did not change the fact that she was a consummate and empathetic educator who knew how to bring out the best in a sincere student. In her latter years she lectured on jazz at Juilliard, unstintingly sharing her love of the art form.

Lastly, unlike so many teachers, she was uninterested in creating stylistic clones of the "Connie Crothers school of music." She was devoted to helping each student find his/ her original voice. I am forever grateful she transmitted the art of improvisation to me. And to complete the story, when Lennie informed me, through Connie, that I could come study with him, it took exactly one second to say "Thanks, but no thanks." Connie was exactly the teacher I had been searching for.

As to her playing—and this goes for her teacher, Lennie Tristano, too—it must be heard firsthand. You can hear Connie's music—and mine, too—on New Artists Records—a label she founded with Max Roach—as well as YouTube.

Here are the links for my essays on non-muscular and non-judgmental playing.

AAJ: When did you make your first record and how did it happen?

MAL: My first CD was Michael Levy At Greenwich House (New Artists Records, 1990) recorded live in Greenwich Village circa 1985. Connie had encouraged me to do the concert as an important next step in my musical evolution. As a jazz musician I had only played a couple of times at Lennie Tristano's "scenes" in Jamaica, Queens.

I was not very confident about this leap of faith... two sets of improvised music including free stretches and jazz standards. I lived in Brooklyn then. My mom was staying with us at the time. As my wife drove us into Manhattan that Saturday night, she and my mom chattered in the front while I was lying down across the back seat nauseated. As I said, it was a leap for me... into midair.

AAJ: What do you recall about recording it?

MAL: Ultimately, as I began playing, the jitters departed, and the force of hooking into the feeling took over. There was nothing, of course, to think about. I had a short list of tunes to play and I played them, intermingling the free stretches. I didn't say much, but I did do a shout out to my mom when I played "St. Louis Blues," a tune she taught me—my first—, stride bass style, when I was around 10. Connie was there, of course, projecting massive positive vibes. It all worked out. I got a great review from Cadence Magazine and I produced the CD which involved going into a studio to mix the master, hiring an illustrator—whom I actually represented—and paying for a run of 1000 CDs. It took around two months and cost around $5000 in today's dollars.

Today I record, orchestrate, mix, master an album in two weeks and make the artwork myself in an hour. Cost: Zero. And, of course, I can instantly publish it on over twenty online platforms and stores. Again, with relatively no cost. That's the difference 40 years make in an exponentially growing technological milieu.

AAJ: You have recorded for New Artists Records, including a project with saxophonist Charley Krachy, You Don't Know What Love is (New Artists Records, 2022). Could you talk about the aesthetic and vision of the label and the records you have made for it?

MAL: I have eight releases on New Artists Records, five CDs and three iOS-produced downloads. I strongly recommend checking out Connie Crothers' releases there as well as Liz Gorrill/Kazzrie Jaxsen. Both monster improvisers, and both taught by Lennie Tristano. I also recommend listening to the music of tenor saxophonist Charley Krachy, a student of Connie's as well. Additionally, i recorded a fascinating album, KOO-KOO, with vocalist Dori Levine on NA. She is a total original who was also taught by Connie.

As to the conception behind New Artists Records, here's the blurb from the website: New Artists Records, an independent label run by a collective of jazz musicians, is dedicated to the creation and production of improvised music. Originally established in 1982 by pianist Connie Crothers and drummer Max Roach, the label's first release was the now-legendary Swish (NA1001), a critically acclaimed Crothers/Roach duo recording. New Artists' reputation for uncompromising improvisation is reflected in its structure— each member of the collective functions as an independent producer with complete creative freedom. The label provides a platform for the type of highly individual music that is too often overlooked by conventional distribution channels.

AAJ: Besides the records on New Artists Records, you also have several albums available on Bandcamp. Could you highlight some of the most important and talk about them?

MAL: "Several" releases is a bit of an understatement. I just published my 54th album produced entirely on the iOS platform using an iPad Pro and a digital keyboard. This, most productive, chapter of my creative experience began four-and-a half-years ago in Istanbul, Turkey and is now happening in Savannah, Georgia, USA.

I have quite a few favorites. Here are a few with some brief description.

1. Out Of Nowhere. This is primarily a collection of jazz piano improvisations with synth and acoustic instrument accompaniment. I stretch into classical and electronic, but the standards, "I'm In The Mood For Love" and "Out Of Nowhere" anchor it firmly in improvisational jazz:

2 Pictures At A Planetarium. This is the first thematic album I produced. Based on Holst's, The Planets I began by leaving the moon's atmosphere and heading out toward Pluto. I endeavored to transition musically from the warmth of the 3rd planet to the increasingly cold distances and emptiness of the outer planets:

3.Dinosauria. Themed to dinosaurs, sea creatures and giant insects of the various epochs. Strangely, a lot of jazz feel along with the thunder, whirring, plunging and general violent surreality of those bygone eons:

4. Synthony #1. Although this was early on in my iOS learning curve—hence, the production leaves a little to be desired—it was my attempt at an improvised symphonic work of five movements. There is no midi editing of notes on this one. The themes and piano parts are exactly as I played them on five consecutive late night/early morning sessions. I'm still very satisfied with the musical feeling I captured, like snapshots on a rainy day:

If at all possible, please listen with headphones. The sound quality is greatly improved using them.

AAJ: I would like to delve into your approach of using an Ipad Pro for music production. When did you start producing music digitally and how do you approach it, including choice of programs/apps, choice of sounds, composition and so forth?

MAL: When I moved to Istanbul six years ago I left my gorgeous, 1915, rebuilt Steinway B behind. In order to play on something silently I got a Casio keyboard with a pair of headphones. Casio is actually quite a high-value brand, and those just getting into using a low-priced keyboard could do a lot worse than a $600 Casio digital piano.

That Casio was actually a "workstation "which means you can make multitrack recordings with it, but on a very basic level. After a year I wanted a better workstation, not knowing any better, but working on the small screen provided even on expensive, high end, keyboards is not fun. I had no desire to do desktop production as it can be very expensive and I don't like working with a mouse and an onscreen cursor. Plus it's kind of complicated to do anything quickly and easily as compared to iOS [iPad Operating System].

Researching my next workstation I came across Jordan Rudess, a great keyboardist/Juilliard grad. He was demonstrating the Kronos by Korg, a very high end product. In searching YouTube for more of Jordan's stuff I saw him demoing his app GeoShred which was created for the iPad:

Wow. That hit me hard. Thinking there were probably only a few music apps out there I bought the ones by him. I was hooked but I knew nothing. Seeking info I came across the Audiobus Forum which is dedicated to iOS music production.

It was there I learned about Cubasis, a recording studio for the iPad based on the desktop version Cubase as well as a universe of instrument apps and effects.. All of a sudden I could record my piano improvisations just by tapping a few commands on a sheet of glass! Here's what it looks like:

In this screenshot you can see a simulacrum of an analog mixing board—the faders—and a landscape of various separate tracks. The wav forms are audio recordings and not very malleable, The readout of little blocks is a MIDI track [Musical Instrument Digital Interface] MIDI encodes all the parameters of a note—pitch, volume, duration, velocity, etc—in a block of digital information, but it does not record any specific instrument. I do play the keyboard—usually with a piano sound—to create the midi info, but once I have done that I can substitute the original piano sound for any instrument I have available... an electric piano, an organ, a harpsichord, a string section, a horn section, an acoustic bass, a synth sound... any instrument at all.

Since my improvisations can be complex, incorporating a lead melody, a left-hand chord pattern or bass line, right-hand—treble—chords, rhythmic patterns, etc, I can parse that midi info to different instruments or orchestral sections. Double basses take over the left-hand chords or single-note bass line, for example. The treble part can be used for a lead guitar or vibes. Even vocal choruses can be plugged in. You can hear all these applications in my recordings.

Every piece I create is based on an original piano improvisation which I then, frequently, orchestrate. I will often record an additional lead line on top of my original two-hand improv. A trumpet, or a flute, violin, synth lead, etc. Also, I might add a drum or rhythm track. I can also edit the midi notes to correct a few notes of my improvisation that could have been better. Or I can transpose parts, duplicate them, increase or slow the tempo. You get the picture. It's basically everything individual musicians had to do under the guidance of a leader sixty years ago, now being at the fingertips of the solo composer.

These are the advantages of using an iPad as opposed to a laptop or desktop:
  • It's totally mobile. You can produce music anywhere... on a bus in a car... in a plane, on a star. In your bed, in your head... anywhere you want to play any time night or day.
  • No mouse. All done with taps on glass. Many musicians work on computers all day for a living. They don't want to find themselves in front of the same machine to do their labors of love.
  • It's incredibly affordable. The Cubasis recording suite shown above is several hundred dollars on desktop. IOS version is $50—$30 on sale!—for a recording studio that did not exist at any price in 1960 and one that would have cost $100,000 or more in 1990. And the tools keep getting better. A top-notch iOS piano based on the high-end, titanium stringed, Ravenscroft can be had for $36—$18 on sale!!—. I use mainly that virtual piano and one other—PurePiano—in almost all my recordings.
  • The array and quality of iOS instruments, synths, effects, drums, generative apps keep improving, just as desktop instruments do. The average listener would be shocked at the number of movie soundtracks, ads, records that are produced using virtual instruments with desktop. And now that a top-of-the-line iPad can have 16gb RAM and a Terabyte of storage powered by an Apple M1 chip, there is literally no difference between an iPad and a high-end laptop. I use an iPad Pro2. 4gb RAM 500 megabyte storage—cost:$800—and it does everything I need it to.
After a learning curve of several weeks I realized I had the tools, literally at my fingertips, to make music I only dreamed of for the fifty years I played prior to discovering digital—and especially iPad—musical production. In the past four plus years I have created close to 700 individual tracks and over 50 albums. Playing jazz acoustic piano I made five CDs in 20 years.

AAJ: I think some might be skeptical about using a digital piano instead of an acoustic piano. For instance, I am wondering myself if you can have the same sense of touch? How do you feel about the difference and why have you chosen to go all-in on digital piano improvisation?

MAL: Ah, the ultimate keyboard argument! This question of whether digital keyboards can compete with acoustic pianos makes many players— especially classical players—see red. Of course, the whole argument is ridiculous on many levels.

1. The historical point of v:iew saying digital keyboards should never replace or even be used is like 18th century harpsichordists crying "What? Playing The Brandenbergs on a thwacking felt-hammered contraption! Blasphemy!

Despite the desire of Luddites to stop technological evolution and freeze the march of time, time will always win out. Every new invention, like the telephone or the computer, is lambasted by diehards with closed minds. If the digital keyboard does not perfectly emulate a good grand piano now, for sure, one day it will, just as deep fake photography is now virtually indistinguishable from the real thing.

The benefit of such a development... it will be more affordable, just as it already is. How many global musicians can afford the minimum $30,000 for even an entry— level concert instrument? A new Steinway B is multiples of that amount. $150,000 for a nine-foot Yamaha is par for the course. Not to mention the space and noise limitations most musicians contend with.

I am not saying there is anything comparable to the experience of playing a great grand piano. It is incomparable. But harsh realities must take us to more economical and practical solutions.

2. The concept of the inviolability of touch is equally untenable, in my opinion. Should organists not play organs because it doesn't "feel" like an acoustic piano? Do they even care? They are perfectly comfortable with the diametrically opposite feel of a Hammond organ. And pipe organists... they accept the delay between pressing the key and the sound creation.

At this point the action of the best hybrid digital pianos—that cost upwards of $15k—will still be criticized by acoustic piano purists, even though they utilize similar, wooden, keyboard actions as grands, using long keysticks, escapement, pedaling, whippens, springs and felt hammers,
  • Digital keyboards require no tuning, regulation or other maintenance. They are portable, often moveable by one person. You can get a huge sound from a very small footprint. Most importantly, technological evolution will not stop until the acoustic experience is totally emulated and even surpassed in digital form. Just as pianos surpassed harpsichords in their expressivity. Will it always be wonderful to play a good acoustic with its organic woody and metallic resonances and live manifestation in the open air? Of course, but it also may be a false goal, just as the sushi-phile'd quest for "freshness." "Ah, this tuna so fresh! Like right out of the sea!" In fact, all sushi grade fish must be frozen to eliminate parasites... but, damn, it tastes fresh!
  • When faced with the choice of a modest upright with a "real" keyboard action compared to a high quality hammer action digital piano using sampled—or ultimately, modeled superior grand piano emulations—I go for the digital every time. Unless you're wealthy it is the best route to an excellent, and ever-improving, piano sound.
  • Lastly if I could only have a Steinway grand or a reasonable MIDI capable digital—and they all are MIDI these days—, I will pick the digital every time. My sonic needs are not oenophileic. I don't judge my ears as requiring the ultimate piano authenticity. Close to perfect is good enough for me. I need the versatility of digital information. I can imbue that info with as much "authenticity" and profundity as my production skills will allow. In terms of using the piano as one of several instruments in a track, it is far and away easier to have that piano sound break out of a mix using a digitally sampled piano sound than trying to acquire and properly mic a great acoustic instrument.
Bottom line: In my opinion, this is an irrelevant apples-to-oranges debate that will inevitably be resolved in technological time.

AAJ: How do you solve the problem of playing live when you play the music you have composed digitally? Do you also play on the Ipad live?

MAL: I haven't played in public for 25 years and have no plans to do so in the future. It would not be possible for me to recreate anything I did as it's all improvised and I can never play that stuff twice. But musicians often use iPads in their live rigs. It ranges from performing artists who affix several iPads to an electric cello to the simple use of the iPad as a sound module. Certainly live guitar shredding can easily be done as Jordan Rudess demonstrated on the link I posted with one of my responses. But for me, if I performed again, it would just be a piano solo.

AAJ: Finally, how would you sum up your musical journey so far and what's on the horizon for you musically?

MAL: I have no plans for the future and that suits me. I couldn't have planned that the discovery of iOS and iPad production would launch the most creative chapter of my now, rather long, life. Just as I could not have predicted my enlightened teacher, Connie Crothers. That's the beauty of plugging into feeling, as Connie taught me so well. Expectation only diminishes what's possible. Our incessant thoughts are like the internal combustion engine. We think they're modern and evolved, but they're really based on an old paradigm that, frankly, is as primitive as making tiny explosions to move a vehicle forward.

Abandoning thoughts and their attendant judgements when creating ditches the internal combustion mind for a more supersonic and streamlined model. It only has one moving part... feeling. I don't think I made clear the critical distinction between feeling and feelings. Feelings are emotions, and by their very nature are volatile and transient. Of course many feelings feel great and it's fun to have them, but, as I explained earlier, those feelings and the judgements that arise from them are anathema to accessing pure musical feeling and the improvisational music that is released by cultivating the ability to tap into something so limitless and positive.

Note-to-note feeling, being present at every moment, is the corollary to feeling. If a player is present at every moment he/she is in total contact with that universal feeling energy. Again, as I learned, the goal is not to banish thought, as that is a distracting activity in itself. Rather, thought is persistently nudged to the sideline where its volume decreases to an amusing whisper. That's why I can do my best improvising and think about lunch at the same time. Ultimately, thought, like every aspect of life is dependent on chi, or feeling energy.. it is like the electrical source we plug all our mechanical devices into. Feeling informs and energizes all our activities, from sex to prayer, from destruction to creation. Whether we are conscious of that connection, or, unconsciously, mangle that energy is up to the individual and his/her awareness and acknowledgment of this deeper aspect of life.

I firmly believe everyone is given opportunities during their time on earth to awaken to this consciousness of the prime mover of our lives. The problems arise when we ignore or deny those moments of opening for a materialistic, two dimensional view of what our lives are. Gurdjieff described humans as machines. If we never have the aha experience that we, indeed, are enculturated to be a sleepwalking repeater of routines... a clockwork mechanism that can survive by eating, sleeping and working... then, in a real sense, are lives are never truly lived. We are mere sensation consuming automatons that live on the surface of existence.

Connie Crothers was integral to my forming a conception and pathway to a deeper awareness of life's primal energy through the spontaneous creation of music using a keyboard. She was not my only teacher, but she was central. When we learn something really well... when we can enter the "zone" as Eckhart Tolle and others have called it, we are free of the mind and its manifold distractive tricks.

Many artists and athletes can enter that zone when they manifest their particular innate and developed gifts. Unfortunately, many do not extrapolate that understanding/experience to every other aspect of their lives. An enlightened teacher can help the student see that correspondence and guide them to an understanding that will allow them, on their own, to apply that thoughtless understanding to the entirety of their human experience.

I guess you could say that has been my journey. Many varied chapters of experience... creative expression, work, love, money, materialism, relationships... and their inevitable successes and failures, gains and losses. These experiences have lead me to be ever more centered on a simple understanding and philosophy. Get out of my own way. Diminish thought volume. Sense the irresistible, irrepressible, force of life that is so easily buried by our learned routinization and habitual, unconscious behaviors.

Lennie Tristano had a dream. In this dream Jesus came to him and said: Pray!Then Bird came to him and said: Play!

Isn't it appropriate that "playing" and "music" are inextricably linked? Above all, making music, spontaneously or otherwise, is fun and emulates the unfettered play of children. But first we must learn everything before we can shrug it off and play without encumbrance. This is an analogy of life, in general, as I have come to see it, First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is, as Donovan so rightly sang.

Here is a final track to leave you with. It accesses the feeling energy I have tried to describe. It was spontaneously played without thought or intention, informed by the energy of beingness (see Soundcloud player below).

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