Robert Irving III: Gaining Momentum

R.J. DeLuke By

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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.


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