Writings about Music

Standards Proving To Be A Jazz Phoenix

Michael Robinson (Lahaina, Maui)

A jazz phoenix is one way to describe my experience using jazz standards for piano improvisation. Some background first.

My compositions and performances for meruvina began at the crossroads of where I felt jazz had arrived, this being the Interstellar Space album by John Coltrane and Rashied Ali, and where Western composition was beginning anew, represented by an escape passage from serialism suggested by Steve Reich, who was a mentor of mine. As my music progressed, the classical music of India, including syntax, form and expression filtered through my personal temperament, came to co-mingle with jazz and Western classical elements, rock and pop being so pervasive in my life as to be a centrally unconscious component. Of course, at the time of his passing, Coltrane had been planning to study ragas with Ravi Shankar, the Interstellar Space instrumentation echoing that form.

For composition and performance, I turned to the purity of computers, feeling the need for detachment from the conventions of traditional performers, this being the medium I felt was necessary to capture the zeitgeist of our time in the realm of composition, and so my music became both notated and programmed without any human interaction at the moment of performance or recording, conceptually similar to how Conlon Nancarrow earlier used the player piano. Preferring a poetic moniker to a cold technical description of my instruments, I christened the collective software and hardware employed the meruvina.

Most unexpectedly, in 2017, the elderly yet formidable mother of a friend, upon learning I was a composer, asked me to play piano for her once a week. While I had memorized a number of the Johann Sebastian Bach Inventions while a teenager, I had only dabbled at the piano since then, and did not even own any keyboards since leaving my childhood home. Now, faced with this most moving request from a person nearing the end of her life, I purchased six books of jazz standard songs, and began playing from the books for three hours each Sunday. Wishing to practice a bit, I then purchased an electric piano for home. This led to playing both free improvisations and improvisations on Indian ragas, represented by my first piano albums, Mystic Toy, Distanced, Seventh Avenue and Weaver's Loom.

At one point, I wondered about improvising on the jazz standards I continued to play for Jocelyn on Sundays. For her, I focused on the melodies and traditional harmonies. My feeling was that the creative time of jazz standards had arisen during the era they were composed, informing largely the swing and modern jazz periods. John Coltrane and others had moved away from standards towards modal jazz, which takes a cue from Indian classical music, and various forms of avant garde jazz. And, to be clear, I have considered my music for meruvina to be, in one sense, a form of avant garde jazz, partly because jazz had superseded Western classical music as the dominant classical music of the Western world, rock later on doing the same to jazz, after which my music for meruvina became a personal vision of Western classical music.

At the point of considering improvisation with jazz standards, as opposed to copying jazz styles of the past, either traditional or avant garde, a philosophy favored by my teacher and friend, Lee Konitz, and following the advice of Bill Evans, I set about discovering what my personal approach might be. As it were, this led to beginning to actualize for myself what Phil Schaap had told me he envisioned the future of jazz might be, namely developing concepts of Lennie Tristano, something I later realized had happened when I intuitively began focusing on a walking bass in the left hand as opposed to a more traditional reliance upon chords. And Tristano's early experiments with multi-tracking anticipated what I was able to do in real time with the capabilities of the meruvina. Lennie is also famously the first jazz artist to engage in free improvisation, of course.

My first albums focusing on jazz standard improvisations were Stargirl, Orion's Hour and Turning Rain. There are two free improvisations among the ten total tracks for these three albums.

Now, I have released six new albums of jazz standard improvisations, including one track of free improvisation among the twenty-five total tracks.

Michael Robinson (Lahaina, Maui)

Personally, I am amazed by what had transpired because I did not think it was possible for jazz standards to be reborn again like a phoenix, but this has occurred. I've been enjoying making lilas, meaning creative flights, with songs born from melodies and chords within the compass of equal temperament tuning, effectively retaining the melodies and tuning (my compositions from 1995 and on, showing the influence of Indian classical music, use just intonation, and occasionally other tunings), while eschewing traditional harmonic practice for what might possibly be termed "polymodal" settings. As noted in the collective liner notes for my six new albums, Not Like Before, Somebody Whisper, Wonderful Schemes, For A Whirl, The City Sleeps, and Bounce the Moon, "At first, this was rather frightening, like walking a high wire. With practice, I began to get more comfortable, and while playing there was the sensation of navigating a sea of dissonance with sirens of consonance calling over the waves in the distance."

As stated in my previous essay, Mel Powell once quizzed a graduate composition class I was in at CalArts with ten musical examples we had to determine were either atonal or abstractly tonal music, myself luckily scoring ten for ten. Thus, in terms of differentiation, my piano improvisations based upon standards, if forced to define what I'm doing, are definitely "polymodal" as opposed to "atonal," likely influenced by my immersion into Indian classical music, with ragas being distinct from modes while sharing some basic qualities.

Looking up "polymodal" after writing this, I learned the term was coined by Béla Bartók, referring to the avoidance, expansion and development of major-minor tonality, and distinct from the theories of Arnold Schoenberg and his followers. More precisely, it appears Bartók first used "polymodal" in combination with "chromaticism," making his complete original term "polymodal chromaticism." For my own music, including a number of my compositions prior to 1995, and the more recent piano improvisation albums, I prefer the single-word, "polymodal," this being a description I thought of myself before knowing about Bartók's usage, finding it more accurately describes my specified music. "Polymodal" does not apply to my compositions roughly from 1995 and on, this being the time that raga influence became pervasive.

Morton Feldman detected the influence of Bartók in one of my early scores, this most likely being The Abode of Joy to the best of my recollection, then using the original name, String Quartet No. 2, an insight that baffled me at the time because I never considered the Hungarian composer a major influence even if he was a favorite at one point early in my life. Now, I realize how astute Feldman was because I was combining different modes or scales at the time, not to mention my ancestry being one-quarter Hungarian. It may be that the influence of Béla Bartók was more powerful and everlasting than realized, so perhaps I will go back and reexamine his music. I do recall admiring the rhythmic propulsion and textural friction informing Bartók's string quartets, if less taken with their formal design.

Speaking of modes, Lee Konitz once clued me into how John Coltrane was fond of playing modes a half-step above the same mode the pianist and bass player were playing in, a general polymodal concept I had employed in works like Trembling Flowers before learning of Coltrane's shared attraction to such practice.

Comparisons between my meruvina technique and my piano technique are superfluous to a degree. I've been working with the meruvina since 1984, and the piano recordings began in late 2017. As I play more, the piano technique tends to grow, of course, while the meruvina does things beyond human capability. In general, to give an extreme example, the types of runs and virtuosity informing the style of Art Tatum doesn't appear relevant for my conception at this time.

Songs that have previously existed for me in the form of recordings from the past, my favorite interpreters being Frank Sinatra, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Lee Konitz, Bill Evans, and myriad others, are now potentially reborn anew in the approach I am in the process of developing.

In terms of free improvisations, and improvisations on ragas, I imagine I will do these, too, moving forward, while my present fascination is with jazz standards that proved to be phoenixes.

It would appear I am unique as a composer, so perhaps it is not so surprising how my recent foray into piano improvisation would be different, too.

Stan Getz had a fascinating response when asked to articulate the qualities he believed were most essential for jazz, these being "taste, courage, individuality, and irreverence." The same might easily be stated about composition, of course.

- Michael Robinson, October 2021, Lahaina, Maui


© 2021 Michael Robinson All rights reserved


"Oh very nice article about how you’ve come to play the jazz standards that are not really so standard after you put new clothes on them :)" (Francine Robbins)


Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer, programmer, jazz pianist and musicologist. His 190 albums include 151 albums for meruvina and 39 albums of piano improvisations. Robinson has been a lecturer at UCLA, Bard College and California State University Long Beach and Dominguez Hills.