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Michael Robinson's Piano Improvisations: Seven Albums of Unique Takes on Standards

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Keyboardist Michael Robinson is a prolific and creative artist who is best known for his haunting, Eastern-inspired, musical soundscapes. He usually utilizes his own invention, the digital Meruvina, for these recordings. Robinson, however, is also an accomplished pianist and has self-produced several superb solo albums of piano improvisations. In 2021 and 2022 he released seven of these intriguing recordings, each consisting of two to five long tracks. They cover mostly jazz standards mixed with a few pop songs.

Michael Robinson
Eventide
Azure Miles
2021

On Eventide Robinson thoughtfully and with elegance deconstructs two often-performed compositions. Violinist Victor Young's "Stella By Starlight" opens with Robinson stating the main theme with gentle, hesitant notes. From there he progresses, with Harlem stride style, to deconstructing the melody to its core elements. He then deftly reconstructs the tune in multiple kaleidoscopic forms, yet he never loses sight of the original's motifs. Robinson returns to the concluding refrains after meandering far and he seamlessly puts everything back together.

Cole Porter's "Just One of Those Things" similarly starts off with Robinson playing the bare bones of the song without any flourishes. Slowly he changes a chord here, a note there and what initially sounds like late-night noodling actually becomes a sophisticated extemporization. Robinson continues to use fragments of the song as both a framework for his spontaneous embellishments as well as nostalgic adornments for them. As he does in "Stella By Starlight," Robinson returns to the main theme with lithe alacrity and closes on a contemplative tone.

Michael Robinson
June Night
Azure Miles
2022

A brighter mood prevails on June Night. Here Robinson interprets four very different tunes from the 1930s, all part of the Great American Songbook. Robinson starts with "I'll Never Smile Again," the tender 1939 ballad that Canadian composer Ruth Lowe penned and singer Frank Sinatra popularized. The delightful contrast between his right hand and his left consists of melodic segments bouncing off of dense, block chords. Gingerly the improvisation progresses into building captivating and crystalline forms that are bluesy and flirt with dissonance.

Moving on to pianist Johnny Green's "Body and Soul," Robinson does not fall into the trap of merely imitating the piece's greatest interpreter, saxophonist Ben Webster. In fact Robinson starts elegantly unraveling the original's motifs one by one and giving them a very personal reading that is charmingly upbeat. He concludes with resonant and percussive phrases that add a sense of drama to the performance.

The oldest of the batch is Harry Warren's "I Only Have Eyes For You" originally written for the 1934 film Dames. Several permutations of the song exist, including in doo wop, rock and jazz genres. Robinson's idiosyncratic take on it is stimulating and moving as his hands echo one another in deconstructing the music down to single notes. The ambience is appropriately cinematic and nocturnesque.

Trombonist Glenn Miller's "Moonlight Serenade" similarly gets imbued with spontaneity and its thematic unity gets intriguingly questioned. Ironically, as Miller reportedly did not like extemporizations, this is one of the most intricate of all of the album's improvisations. Robinson maintains the piece's sweet lyricism without surrendering to overly saccharine tones.

Michael Robinson
Wandered Around
Azure Miles
2021

Continuing with standards, Robinson's Wandered Around, true to its title, features the pianist meandering far from the main themes on three well-known songs. The oldest among them is "It Had to Be You," the 1924 hit by saxophonist and bandleader Isham Jones. Taking it at a laid-back tempo Robinson explores harmonic variations in a pensive mood. Often going back to the tune's opening refrain he stretches it at times while at others he plays overlapping notes. The result is a thought-provoking and meditative performance that is a common feature of the album.

Chronologically the next piece is the 1941 "Lover Man" that the trio of Maxwell Street Jimmy Davis, Ram Ramirez and James Sherman composed and vocalist Billie Holiday popularized. Robinson's intimate and heartfelt rendition flows with a pensive, brooding mood. The pianist maintains the simmering passion of the original while musically analyzing its building blocks. Despite an increase in the sophistication of the improvisation it remains warmly raw in its emotions.

Last but not the least is Brazilian composer Luiz Bonfa's 1958 "Manhã de Carnaval" listed under the name used when Sinatra recorded it, "A Day in the Life of a Fool." Robinson strips from it the bossa nova effervescence to recapture its folkish source. He embellishes, deconstructs and reforms the piece as he follows a serpentine stream of consciousness. Hence his interpretation is simultaneously reflective of Bonfa's work and its impact on Robinson's own creativity.

Michael Robinson
Blossoms Waiting
Azure Miles
2021

The most intimate of the series featuring exclusively standards is Blossoms Waiting. Jule Styne's "Time After Time," associated both with Sinatra and saxophonists John Coltrane and Stan Getz, opens the album. Robinson gradually embellishes the main melody with his own personal musings. While not deviating much from the main theme, his dense chords and intricate spontaneous phrases give the tune a refreshingly novel character. He also builds up to crescendo and then descends from that climax in wave after sonic wave, finally concluding on a lullaby like serenity.

Keeping with Coltrane's work Robinson opens the saxophonist's "Moment's Notice" with lithe muscularity and subtle lyricism. As he explores various permutations of this uniquely clever and engaging composition Robinson successfully navigates its twists and turns. The result is an intelligent interpretation of a brilliant tune that delights and stimulates.

Robinson closes the recording with an unusual choice, the 1916 popular song "Poor Butterfly." He performs this Raymond Hubbell piece that Giacomo Puccini's opera Madame Butterfly inspired with panache while deftly mixing Harlem stride stylings and brief bursts of angular tones. to create an apt theatricality, especially when he follows percussive chords with a solemn quietude.

Michael Robinson
Past My Bed
Azure Miles
2022

With Past My Bed Robinson expands his source material to works by The Beatles. The album opens with George Harrison's "Within You Without You" from Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Parlophone, 1967). Robinson improvises heavily on the song chords. He alternates percussive low-register tones with an angular embellishment of the the main theme, fluidly changes the tempo, and weaves a radiant melody with hints of ragtime that is as inventive as the original.

Another Harrison piece that Robinson features is "Blue Jay Way" from "Magical Mystery Tour" (Parlophone, 1967). He deconstructs this tune with elegance and reconstructs its Western classical sensibilities into a tender sonata. Melancholy permeates the entire track and adds to the subtle lyricism that underlies even his flirtations with dissonance. He concludes on a contemplative and haunting note.

The remaining three tracks are Sinatra-associated tunes and include one by Duke Ellington and two by Frank Loesser. Ellington's "I Like the Sunrise" unfurls unhurriedly and demonstrates Robinson's agile pianism and virtuosity, while Loesser's "I Have Never Been In Love" gets a subtle yet equally creative reworking with the main motifs repeating in a variety of patterns that echo fragments of the composition.

The finale, "On A Slow Boat To China," is a whimsical extemporization and becomes more intricate with each bar. Its densely woven sonic tapestry shimmers with cascading notes and is gently buoyed with reverberating rhythmic flourishes. Robinson meanders far from Loesser's music but successfully comes back to it with lithe panache.

Michael Robinson
In My Tree
Azure Miles
2022

The exuberant In My Tree continues exploring The Beatles' tunes with only one standard, Jimmy McHugh's "Say It (Over and Over Again)" and three by John Lennon and Paul McCartney. "Say It," the first track, starts off the album on a mellow note as Robinson rolls out soulful refrains that build and intricate improvisation. As the energy picks up his percussive chords reverberate against one another bringing the tune to a gentle yet dramatic conclusion.

"If I Fell" is taken at a slower tempo than the original and expresses an equal level of romanticism and passion. Playing variations on the melody, Robinson demonstrates his facility with spontaneous creation as well as his full grasp of harmonic contrasts. The resulting performance is more a personal homage to Lennon and McCartney than an interpretation of their work.

The same is true for the other pieces on the album. "Strawberry Fields Forever" is an intimate reading of the song that Robinson deftly unravels into a layered musical yarn. Maintaining the poetry of the celebrated composition, Robinson builds around the main motif's hypnotic, lullaby-like phrases that change slightly with each repetition.

The psychedelic "Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds" also takes on a playful, berceuse-like form. Robinson's retelling opens with gentle, hesitant lines and transforms into spirited recreations of the theme. Interspersed within these complex, improvised phrases are moments of joyful simplicity and quiet tones.

Michael Robinson
Nobody Told You
Azure Miles
2022

The final release in this series is Nobody Told You and is again a mix of the Great American Songbook and The Beatles' works. Starting with the Lennon/McCartney composition "I Am The Walrus," Robinson entirely revamps the celebrated song with spontaneous elegance and intelligent musical flourishes. Using resonant left-hand chords and contrasting it with the right hand's peeling cascade of notes, he produces a dynamic and theatrical ambience that echoes the original mood well.

Moving on to Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," Robinson imbues his version with lyrical melancholy that is much like The Beatles' own interpretation. Robinson then launches into a suave and brilliant reconstruction of the emotive melody in kaleidoscopic variations. His improvised phrases are often angular, sometimes dissonant but never jarring. The undercurrent of the mellifluous theme creates a nice tension and a dramatic atmosphere vis a vis the percussive and dense refrains.

Young's 1933 foxtrot hit, "Street of Dreams" concludes the recording. Robinson plays it introspectively and with a laid-back cadence. With each repetition of the main refrain he adds a few personal touches to the song. By the time the track reaches its end the piece is equal parts Robinson and Young.

These seven releases, each with beautifully patterned cover art, demonstrate another aspect of Robinson's musicianship. His masterful pianism as well as his ability to deftly build new musical constructs on the spot are a testament to his artistry and a retort to naysayers of his electronic work.

Tracks and Personnel

Eventide

Tracks: Stella By Starlight; Just One of Those Things.

Personnel: Michael Robinson: piano.

June Night

Tracks: I'll Never Smile Again; Body and Soul; I Only Have Eyes For You; Moonlight Serenade.

Personnel: Michael Robinson: piano.

Wandered Around

Tracks: A Day In the Life of A Fool; It Had To Be You; Lover Man.

Personnel: Michael Robinson: piano.

Blossoms Waiting

Tracks: Time After Time; Moment's Notice; Poor Butterfly.

Personnel: Michael Robinson: piano.

Past My Bed

Tracks: Within You Without You; Blue Jay Way; I Like the Sunrise; I've Never Been In Love Before; On A Slow Boat To China.

Personnel: Michael Robinson: piano.

In My Tree

Tracks: Say It (Over and Over Again); If I Fell; Strawberry Fields Forever; Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds.

Personnel: Michael Robinson: piano.

Nobody Told You

Tracks: I Am the Walrus; While My Guitar Gently Weeps; Street of Dreams.

Personnel: Michael Robinson: piano.

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