Writings about Music by Michael Robinson
Over Chicken Soup
There I was at Zabar’s on Broadway in Manhattan during the fall of 2015, enjoying some truly excellent chicken soup in their dining area, sublime in complexity, texture and taste. A fellow seated next to me was savoring the same, so I struck up a conversation. Learning that I was a composer, he wove the culinary arts and music together into his discourse, disclosing that a while back preparing dinner for his neighbor and landlord had become a passion. A friendship had developed between them leading to a dinner invitation, and my dining companion was such a noteworthy cook (not a genuine chef) that many more requests for meals were made, which he excitedly and happily fulfilled, enjoying the man's company and telling of colorful stories, many pertaining to boxing. But the wealthy landlord who owned the West Side apartment building was not only a boxer. Rather, he was more a trumpeter by the name of Miles Dewey Davis.
I was waiting for a good time to write about this experience, and noticing the generous use of space in my new Ocean Avenue album, I thought to give credit where credit is due, Davis being a master of space and silence interacting with sound in meaningful ways, teaching us all.
During the summer of 2000, I got to stay at the elegant, stately Essex House Hotel on Central Park South, and one person I hung out with during that New York trip, Lee Konitz, related to me that Miles liked to stay there, too, on occasion. Lee is also a master of musical space, of course, and the two of them made some famous recordings together, not to mention a week in the late forties whereupon Konitz filled in for Charlie Parker, taking his place as the altoist in the Charlie Parker Quintet alongside Miles. (Don Shirley, whose life is featured in a current film, Green Book, I have not yet seen, also shared Miles Davis stories with me related to his relative, Cicely Tyson, who was married to Davis.)
One day that same summer, I was playing the piano for a friend visiting from Korea, and stopped when I noticed she had begun crying, asking her what was wrong. She then startled me by saying that her tears came because my playing of Indian ragas was so beautiful. This unexpected affirmation prompted me to phone Lee, and suggest that we play some alto and piano duets based upon ragas. Lee concurred, and invited me over to this West 86th Street apartment a few nights later. I already knew I was in way over my head, but when we entered his music room with a Steinway grand that evening, I noticed a black and white framed photograph of one of Lee and Mile's collaborators. It was none less than Bill Evans and there were no other photos present. Talk about intimidation! Somehow I found the audacity to proceed, and we played ragas for an hour or so until Lee had to check upon his daughter living in Montana where there were threatening fires happening. During our session, Lee had to put a mute into the alto saxophone bell because his natural volume was overpowering my undeveloped piano technique. (In 2017, I began releasing recordings of my piano playing beginning with Maria Improvisation and Mystic Toy.)
Ocean Avenue is largely about the use of space and silence within melodic invention.
Encanto Drive presents another way of using space and silence within a composition.
Getting back to Miles, my absolute favorite playing by him is found on the first side of the Jack Johnson album - boxing again - titled "Right Off". That track blew my mind when I first heard it at Camp Lewis-Poyntelle at the age of 15, and it still does today, including being an encyclopedia on the use of space and silence in music period. Actually, I have much more to say about the ubiquitous music of Davis, including some reservations, and perhaps will do so in a subsequent writing.
An Israeli woman once related a wise Arabic expression to me: "Rushing comes from the devil."
© 2018 Michael Robinson All rights reserved
Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer and writer (musicologist).