Writings about Music
In the Booth with Phil Schaap
Having just written this essay related to Phil Schaap, I went looking for a photo, at which time I learned he had passed away three days ago. When I was last interviewed on WKCR in 2019, I heard he was not well, and hoped he would fully recover. At this time, I wish to dedicate my essay composed just before hearing the mournful news to his everlasting memory. (Michael Robinson, September 10, 2021 at 10:34 p.m. PST)
The summer of 1990 in Manhattan was incandescently memorable, including giving concerts at Saint Peter’s Church, Hunter College, The Knitting Factory, and even performing live on air at WKCR FM hosted by Neil Strauss who became known for his writing later on.
And it was at WKCR FM, part of Columbia University, summer having transitioned into the first day of autumn, that I passed Phil Schaap in the hallway, meeting for the first time. Whatever I said to Phil must have been the right thing because he invited me to join him in the broadcast booth where he was hosting the John Coltrane Birthday Broadcast. I was amused to discover we both had auburn hair in addition to both being Jewish American, my heritage not as obvious as Phil's given how the family last name was changed from Rabinovitz by my grandparents after arriving from Russia.
Finding myself in the booth with Phil live on air without any prior notice was unreal because listening to his illuminations of Charlie Parker’s music on Bird Flight every weekday morning beginning in my high school years had greatly assisted in my study of the monumental alto saxophonist who altered the course of jazz and Western music itself. Coltrane was born on September 23, the fall equinox, and I mentioned to Phil how this was my absolute favorite recording by the tenor saxophonist from North Carolina who had an equally profound influence on jazz and Western music itself comparable to Parker. Some years later, while listening to Phil broadcasting another show, he mentioned that Equinox was a favorite Coltrane track for musicians, giving me a charge.
The hours with Phil in the booth that day flew by like the tempo on Giant Steps, our conversations while music was playing sheer joy. At one point, I asked Phil what he thought the future of jazz might bring. He didn’t have an immediate response, as if my question wasn’t a commonly posed one, and thought keenly for a moment before offering how his best guess was that it may involve developing innovations put forth by Lennie Tristano.
Lennie Tristano was the teacher of my primary jazz teacher, Lee Konitz, after which we became close friends. The main reason this writing sprang into being is because I began recording piano improvisations a few years ago, first beginning with extemporizations on Indian ragas, and also pure improvisations without any preconceived basis, the latter concept being one of Lennie's innovations. Just this past year, I wished to find a new way to improvise on jazz standards, and spontaneously began using a walking bass line in the left hand that had greatly impressed me on some of Tristano’s solo recordings. My general format became first stating the melody with my right hand together with a very abstract bass line in the left hand, entirely natural for me, after which my right hand began improvising, too, essentially creating two-part counterpoint related to the Bach Inventions that had captivated me as a teenager. At certain intervals, I would transition to playing chords in the right hand, and sometimes played giant chords with both hands at once. All in all, in my own modest way, I was beginning to fulfill a prophecy Phil Schaap had made on John Coltrane’s birthday because I am unaware of anyone else playing improvisations on jazz standards quite the way I was beginning to develop, with three albums, Stargirl, Orion’s Hour and Turning Rain containing these mentioned improvisations.
Another important influence on my piano improvisations was having the fortunate experience of witnessing David Amram perform at the Cornelia Cafe in Greenwich Village, followed by watching his piano playing on YouTube. David plays with a wonderful sense of spontaneity and discovery, and when asked about his approach to the piano, mentioned spending a good deal of time with Thelonious Monk at the home of Hannah Rothschild, known as the Jazz Baroness, the same place where Charlie Parker left this earth, and how Monk made special mention of one enormous virtue the piano possesses, this being how one actually sees the notes while playing, something so obvious it's often overlooked like many of the best chess moves. By coincidence, like the day Phil Schaap and I met at WKCR, David and I were once having a long phone conversation from Los Angeles to New York, and having moved to discussing John Coltrane at some length, including David's personal interactions with John, I suddenly realized it was September 23, again Coltrane's birthday.
On one occasion while an undergraduate, I was listening so much to Coltrane - I know his entire catalog - I had a dream where I was half asleep and half awake, and thus couldn't move, while my spirit left my body, and was comingling and communicating in some mysterious way with John's visiting spirit near the ceiling above the door. Even though I was aware I was in a dream, and couldn't move, I relaxed and felt safe knowing it was his godlike, nurturing spirit. Subsequently, Above the Door, on the Purple and Brown album, was named for that unusual dream.
Last month, I recorded two separate sessions, and luckily they seem to have turned out the way I had wished for, representing some personal advances towards my newly forming piano style. Each of these sessions has enough material for three separate albums for a potential total of six new albums. My intent is to release the first three of these from the earlier session later this month or in October.
Having been riveted by the Proper Records Box Set of Lennie Tristano brilliantly compiled and annotated by Joop Visser, I realized how the pianist’s use of multi-tracking and other studio manipulations anticipates capabilities native to the meruvina used to perform my compositions, so in that regard Phil’s prophecy also relates to me in a most personal way. (Visser's multiple productions for Proper Records are pure magic, myself having his Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Fats Navarro, Louis Armstrong, Artie Shaw, Chet Baker, Lee Konitz, Gerry Mulligan, Art Tatum, Stan Getz, George Shearing, and other sets that are all not to be missed.)
My most recent interview on WKCR was during June 2019, for three hours on Jazz Alternatives, and it would be so meaningful to be interviewed there by Phil. There’s so much we might talk about, including Lee Konitz, Lennie Tristano, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and other jazz artists who have influenced me the most, like Jackie McLean and Paul Desmond. What a thrill and education that would be at once for me.
That summer and early autumn of 1990 in Manhattan had been preceded by one year living in Kapalua, Maui, and soon after meeting Phil Schaap, I then moved from my native New York to Beverly Hills, not having any idea at the time that my new home would lead to what John Coltrane had been pursuing before his untimely passing, namely the study of Indian classical music as interpreted by Ravi Shankar. My studies commenced with Ravi's senior disciple, the legendary teacher, Harihar Rao, followed by Nazir Ali Jairazbhoy, Pandit Jasraj, Anindo Chatterjee, and others.
Indian classical music and John Coltrane is certainly another topic I would love to tackle with Phil, including how it relates to my own music.
- Michael Robinson, September 2021, Los Angeles
© 2021 Michael Robinson All rights reserved
Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer and musicologist who has been a lecturer at UCLA, Bard College and California State University. His 155 albums include 148 albums for Meruvina and 7 albums of piano improvisations.