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Robert Irving III

Fancy following in the footsteps of Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarret and Chick Corea? Robert Irving did, and now finds himself doing just that, playing keyboards with Miles Davis. Tim Goodyer reports.

Following in the footsteps of Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul is no easy task. But a young musician by the name of Robert Irving III is doing exactly that - playing keyboards to Miles Davis' trumpet.

THE NAME MILES Davis is really its own introduction. A black jazz trumpeter born in Illinois back in 1926, quoted by many and various musicians as being a seminal influence - and still active and contentious 60 years on.

Davis began to establish himself as a fairly average trumpet player during the forties. Like many of his contemporaries, he found himself having to develop an individual playing style to overcome his musical limitations.

In 1948 an album, Birth of the Cool, resulted, and featured a nine-strong band and the complex arrangements of Gerry Mulligan and Lee Konitz.

The mid-fifties saw Davis in the ascendant. He assembled a classic quintet with John Coltrane on tenor sax, Red Garland on piano, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Philly Joe Jones. It was with this line-up that Davis began to consolidate his position within the jazz world. The combination went on to produce five albums, originally released on the Prestige label with the endearing titles Round About Midnight, Cookin', Relaxin', Workin' and Steamin'.

Excellent as they were, these proved to be only a foretaste of Milestones, on which the quintet was augmented by alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderly. The album's title-track became the blueprint for a new development in jazz playing - modal improvisation. Drawing heavily on a book by George Russell called The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organisation (1953), 'Milestones' and the following LP, Kind of Blue, demonstrated a new freedom for the soloist. Liberating musicians from the restrictions of conventional chord structure, the new doctrine adopted notes within scales as its grounding.

Later in the fifties, Davis collaborated with another arranger - Gil Evans. The fruits of these labours were Miles Ahead, Big Stuff and a version of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, all of which used Evans' arrangements for a big band to complement Davis' solo flugelhorn.

By the late sixties Davis had expanded his activities beyond jazz into the sphere of rock with Miles in the Sky, In a Silent Way and the classic Bitches Brew. Under the influence of Zawinul's use of the electric piano with Cannonball Adderly, Davis first adopted the instrument himself on 1968's Miles in the Sky. This marked the beginning of an association with electronic instruments that was to lead him (eventually) towards synthesisers, but which was initially confined to an electric piano treated by effects such as the Echoplex.

In a Silent Way also marked the beginning of a series of collaborations with keyboard players whose names have since become commonplace. Names like Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul, all of whom found their careers very much the more rewarding (both financially and artistically) for working with the great man.

Hancock played acoustic piano with Davis during the mid-sixties and was joined on In a Silent Way by Corea and Zawinul. Jarrett made his appearance on the subsequent live albums Live Evil and Live at the Filmore.

So Miles Davis, in addition to continuously reaffirming his position as perhaps the solo modern jazz musician, has also promoted and nurtured the careers of a good many other musicians who might otherwise still be playing local high-school gigs.

INTO THE REVERED position of Davis' keyboardsman steps Robert Irving III, a young player, composer and arranger with an emerging talent that somehow attracted Davis' attention - though Irving is unsure of the reason.

He must have heard somethin' special", Irving concedes the morning after a recent sell-out concert in London. At the time of his meeting with Davis, Irving was an aspiring player and writer looking to further his education at music college.

"I wanted to go back to school", he says. "But my relationship with Miles has been more than that for me. It's a great relationship, rather like a father and son. He's been so encouraging and I've learned so much from him. At first I felt I wasn't developed enough as a player so composition was my main involvement, but it's developed from there."

The first fruit of the Davis-Irving collaboration was The Man with the Horn in 1981. The disc featured some of Irving's writing and showcased his unorthodox harmonic approach to great effect. On its release, one critic was overheard to comment: "Heard the new Robert Irving LP? It's got Miles Davis on it."

"Miles is still playing some of the same licks he was playing 30 years ago. He's aware of that, and it's important he has a diverse background to work off or it becomes very limiting for him."

A live album, We Want Miles, followed a year later, and another studio album, Star People, emerged in 1983. The latter marked Davis' successful reunion with Gil Evans, Irving did not contribute to either. However, 1984 saw the release of what is, generally considered to be the best example of Davis' current musical direction - Decoy. Produced by Davis, the album saw Irving back on team, playing, writing and especially arranging in his own style. In fact, it's on Decoy that Irving makes his presence most felt, sharing the production, programming of rhythm patterns, and writing and co-arranging a number of the pieces.

A year later, You're Under Arrest also benefitted from Irving's contributions, though the LP made greater concessions to commerciality and lacked the definitive feel of Decoy.

Davis' most recent vinyl output is Tutu, released last year to great acclaim from critics the world over. But Irving's name was once again absent from the credits on the sleeve. The reason for his absence on this occasion was his involvement in a film project - scoring and recording the soundtrack to a new film called Street Smart. The feature stars Christopher Reeve, is directed by Jerry Salzberg, and is set for February release.

"It was all recorded in two weeks", recalls a bewildered Irving. 'Miles played on about two-thirds of it but he hadn't heard any of it until he came in to put down his tracks. Musically it embraces quite a wide variety of influences - pop and classical - but mainly it's good old New York jazz. There's a little bit of technology involved in it but mostly it's acoustic stuff: bass and piano work.

"I really wanted it to follow the direction we had set with Decay. That's my personal favourite album and I hoped the next Miles album might go on from there, but instead he changed direction again. This filmscore has allowed me to expand on what we started with Decay. I would have liked to spend more time on it, but then the European tour came up."

Yet the circumstances surrounding the direction taken by Tutu are curious in themselves, as Irving explains.

"Originally Miles wanted to go off in a completely different direction to You're Under Arrest - some serious pop and R&B stuff. He'd got Prince, Chaka Khan and Al Jarreau involved but he had second thoughts that it might be too drastic a change.

'George Duke had already submitted one track, 'Backyard Ritual', and everybody liked that so he asked Marcus (Miller) to write some more along the same lines. He ended up with 'Tomaas' and that set the pitch for the rest of the LP. After that he added 'Perfect Way' and 'Full Nelson' and canned the rest.

"The last piece to be cut was Prince's number. He'd recorded all the backing himself and Miles had just done his overdubs. It was in there 'til the last minute, then Prince himself pulled it because it didn't fit in with the rest of the album any longer." The sleeve notes put the production of Tutu down to a collaboration between Tommy LiPuma and bass player Miller, but Irving throws a little new light on the situation.

"I think Miles wanted to take control of some of the production too, so Tommy became a bit of an executive producer", he reveals.

Davis' touring band currently features drummer Vince Wilburn jnr, percussionist Steve Thornton, bass player Darryl Jones, guitarist Garth Webber, sax player Bob Berg and keyboardist Adam Holzman. Add Davis' own occasional excursions onto the ivories, and you've got three separate stacks of keyboards on stage. Davis uses a DX7 and a well-worn Oberheim OBXa; Holzman a DX7, PPG Wave 2.2, a Minimoog and an Oberheim Xpander; and Irving a third DX7, Roland Jupiter 6, Korg Polysix, TX816 rack and Akai S612 sampler.

UNQUESTIONABLY, DAVIS' ACUTE and tireless objectivity has allowed him to accept technology more easily than many of his jazz contemporaries, and has resulted in extensive use of synthesisers on the later studio albums.

"Technology has really advanced since I joined the band back in '81", says Robert Irving. "Then it was just starting to develop. I had a very basic setup then but I started using a lot more synthesiser for Decoy and You're Under Arrest because Miles wanted to try to duplicate the studio sound live. Because of that I started using a sequencer live, too. I've found it allows you to stretch your imagination and realise things that are at the back of your mind."

"Things we think are perfect for Miles he doesn't like. Other things you might work on for yourself he'll happen to overhear and want to work on. You can't write for Miles - you just do what you do."

The sequencer in question is a Yamaha QX1, which provides the backing to 'Tomaas', 'Human Nature' and 'Perfect Way'. A Yamaha RX11 drum box is also called in to provide a hi-hat pattern for the band to keep time to onstage.

"I use both the Jupiter and the DX7 for controlling the Akai and the TX816 with a MIDI switch box", Irving explains. "The Polysix I use mainly for arpeggiator effects".

While Irving's association with Davis has been established over the last five years, Holzman is a comparative newcomer to the family, appearing only on Tutu where synth textures play a greater role than on any of the preceding albums. On-stage, Irving appears more relaxed than Holzman, though the workload is split evenly between them. The former explains the concert chemistry.

"My role in the band is to ensure there's a balance between the instrumentation and to provide the major textures, colour and mood. Adam's role is a lot more angular; he tends to double up on the bass and sax parts. It works nicely between us.

"Miles is still playing some of the same licks he was playing 20, 30 years ago. He's aware of that, of course, and it's important he has a diverse background to work off or it becomes very limiting for him. He's got this great library of things to draw from; possibly some of it's subconscious but it's still the basis of his work."

One of the many aspects of Davis' character that has brought him such consistent acclaim is, ironically, his inconsistency and unpredictability. In the past this has involved turning his back on his audience - a trick that has now become a trademark - and complete public silences. Is this behaviour reflected in a difficulty in writing material for him?

"Miles has to hear something he likes", says Irving. "A lot of the things we write and think are perfect for him he doesn't like. Other things you might have been working on for yourself he'll happen to overhear and want to work on. You can't write for Miles - you just do what you do.

When he writes himself or collaborates with anyone, it's usually as a result of an improvisation in a concert. Everytime we perform live it's different, so we record it on a Sony 8mm digital recorder.

Miles has a copy of that and listens to it after the gig, and the band get a copy between them to listen to.

Once he finds something he likes he'll have me transcribe it and expand on it.
The tunes develop that way. A good example is 'Robot 415' from Decoy. That came from a solo Miles played. I transcribed it and he asked me to add a melody in a different key. The original solo was in 6/8 and we superimposed a 4/4 drum beat over the top of it."
And that's jazz.

It remains to be seen if the name of Robert Irving III will acquire the status of those of Hancock, Jarrett, Zawinul and Corea. Will Irving move on and away from Davis' guidance, and clear the way for the next protege to take his place? Well, it seems Irving is already working on a solo project.

"I've been writing for about two years for it, but I want to lock in on the direction and instrumentation before I start to record", he says.

The cynics would assert that commercial pressures have closed the avenues that were once open to musicians wishing to pursue pure forms of their art. But if the cynics are wrong, Miles Davis may just have spawned yet another keyboard-playing legend.

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Oberheim DPX1

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Conference Blues

Music Technology - Copyright: Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.


Music Technology - Feb 1987

Interview by Tim Goodyer

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