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Three Gems from Michael Robinson and Eliot Zigmund: Earth and Sky, Runs to Sea and What Magic

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Keyboardist and electronics innovator Michael Robinson is a prolific and imaginative musician. In 2018 he started re-exploring the acoustic piano and, during the solitary times of the COVID-19 pandemic, his solo piano recordings increased dramatically. In 2022 he met up with drummer Eliot Zigmund and over three days the duo reinterpreted and deconstructed several standards. Zigmund is known for his collaborations with such legendary pianists as Bill Evans and Michel Petrucciani and has also led a few superb sessions himself. Robinson and Zigmund demonstrate impeccable synergy on the eight resulting albums, each made up of one or two long tracks. Below are three of the highlights of this uniformly superlative series.

Michael Robinson & Eliot Zigmund
Earth and Sky
Azure Miles
2022

As with the majority of Robinson's output the hand-made cover art on Earth and Sky is beautifully abstract and colorful. And here the vibrancy of its red and pink hues matches the music within perfectly. Starting with a radical reinterpretation of pianist Bernie Miller's "Bernie's Tune," Robinson and Zigmund set a tense and intriguing mood. Zigmund's crisp beats and subtle colorings complement Robinson's percussive pianism. Robinson goes from block chords to single cascading notes as he plays off Zigmund's taut cadence and breaks the song down to its building blocks. He maintains the undercurrent of melancholy as he improvises on its melody. Zigmund drives Robinson's gradually evolving refrains with his restless beats and polyrhythmic flourishes. As the tempo picks up mid-track, the pair demonstrates an infectious exuberance in their extemporization that is replete with delightful angularity. The performance concludes on a pensive tone.

Composer Richard Rodgers' "Have You Met Miss Jones?'' is equally intricate and crackling with spontaneity. Zigmund's cinematic drumming and Robinson's crystalline phrases form a kaleidoscopic array of lyrical experimentations. A whimsical sense permeates this piece more so than its predecessor. Robinson demonstrates a Harlem stride-style virtuosity as he weaves and unravels a dynamic improvisation within the original's structure. He also quotes segments from other standards such as pianist and bandleader Duke Ellington's "I'm Beginning to See the Light." ZIgmund joins with his booming vamps and the interaction simmers with a soulful swagger. As the two men return seamlessly to the main theme they imbue the release's coda with serenity.

Michael Robinson & Eliot Zigmund
Runs to Sea
Azure Miles
2022

Another album from this series is the more contemplative Runs to Sea. With its linear array of calming blues and greens, the cover art sets the tone for the improvisations.. Opening with "Irving King"'s (songwriters Jimmy Campbell and Reg Connelly) "If I Had You," Robinson and Zigmund create a pensive mood. Robinson's serpentine lines and resonant chords reflect off Zigmund's sashaying beats. The duet evolves gingerly with continuously evolving refrains made up of melodic embellishments. Within the nocturnesque ambience bursts of shimmering color punctuate this delightful and cohesive performance.

Following "If I Had You" is composer/lyricist Ann Ronell's famous "Willow Weep For Me." Robinson pushes his improvisation further and further from the song's motif yet he maintains a wistful tone. Occasional tumultuous passages are like a sonic storm exploding quietly within the subtly passionate tune. Zigmund's agile and complex beats respond to Robinson's pianism as the latter goes from blustery bravado to eerie serenity. In this way the two musicians create a thrilling dramatic tension. The piece concludes with a lullaby-like warmth and stillness.

Michael Robinson & Eliot Zigmund
What Magic
Azure Miles
2022

The intriguing What Magic comes with trompe-l'œil cover art with muted colors. The content here deviates from the Great American Songbook. On it Robinson and Zigmund tackle composer Michel Legrand's "Watch What Happens" ("Recit de Cassard") and pianist Dave Brubeck's "Watusi Drums." These two cinematic pieces pair well with one another and Robinson and Zigmund's extemporization flows seamlessly from one track to the next.

Robinson contrasts the main theme of the first tune which he plays with one hand against both the block chords of his other hand and Zigmund's softly rustling brushes. With elegance the duo deconstructs the original and with eloquence reassembles it several times throughout the long track. Each time, there are delightfully unexpected twists and turns that are introduced that give the interpretation its singularity. Midway through, the tempo picks up with simmering intensity as the both artists demonstrate their impressive agility. The piece closes with an apt effervescent exuberance.

Brubeck's composition opens with Robinson's bluesy lines rolling over Zigmund's percolating beats. Robinson quickly launches into a soulful improvisation with a dramatic flair while Zigmund embellishes the cadence with his complex polyrhythms. Robinson's piano style, at times, hints at boogie-woogie while at others is laid back and tranquil. The contrast maintains the captivating intrigue of the mood throughout. The duo concludes with a contemplative return to the core melody.

Both Robinson and Zigmund are idiosyncratic musicians and they bring out the best in one another. Their collaboration above is a high point on both their careers and the resulting output both accessible and thought provoking.

Tracks and Personnel

Earth and Sky

Tracks: Bernie's Tune; Have You Met Miss Jones?

Personnel: Michael Robinson: piano; Eliot Zigmund: drums.

Runs to Sea

Tracks: If I Had You; Willow Weep For Me.

Personnel: Michael Robinson: piano; Eliot Zigmund: drums.

What Magic

Tracks: "Watch What Happens" (Recit de Cassard); Watusi Drums.

Personnel: Michael Robinson: piano; Eliot Zigmund: drums.

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