Off The Water

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Robert Irving III

Note: This piece includes an audio companion podcast of my interview with Robert Irving III, found at the bottom of the post.

With an incredible history, including numerous collaborations with Miles Davis, musician and producer Robert Irving III is continuing to live a life creating and promoting music and it’s history. Irving was exposed to the world of music at an early age in his hometown of Chicago.

“I came from a big gospel music family on both sides,” he said.

Gospel music led to an early interest in organs and pianos, but his first musical training came with the bugle. His knowledge of that instrument led to his recruitment into the Robert Taylor Drum & Bugle Corps as a teenager. He was drafted into the brass program at DuSable High School, entering into a group that had spawned jazz luminaries such as Nat ‘King’ Cole and Johnny Griffin. By the time he switched to Hirsch High School, he was playing multiple brass instruments.

It was at Hirsch that Irving would solidify the path that would eventually lead him to Miles Davis. His band teacher, George Hunter, was in a big band called The Moonlighters, a band which spawned the horn section for Earth, Wind & Fire. It was the same teacher also emphasized the importance of piano to Irving.

“That band teacher stressed if you’re serious about your horn, you want learn piano,” Irving said.

He would spend his time after school learning piano from Hunter. This gave him what he referred to as “the big picture of musical shapes,” educating him in scales, chords, and progressions that would apply to all of his future pursuits in music.

“That set a precedent and a discipline for me,” Irving said. “I was playing any song that I heard in all twelve keys.”

Robert Irving III would find his way to North Carolina, where he became very popular for his unique jazz skills in a region where radio emphasized gospel, country, and rock. There he would form a Top 40 band called Your Mama that would grow increasingly popular due to their regular playing of Earth, Wind & Fire music. He educated himself in music through practice, performance, and study of orchestration and arrangement while pursuing a degree in business.

“I felt that music is a business and that would be supportive of that side of what I needed to do as a music business entrepreneur,” Irving said.

He would return to Chicago after eight years, where Your Mama’s reputation and his previous connections with Earth, Wind & Fire would lead to the next step in his career. While attending a birthday party for the wife of keyboard player Larry Dunn, Irving was heard playing by Miles Davis’ nephew, Vince Wilburn Jr. Wilburn invited Irving to replace his departing keyboard player in his band, Data. Miles Davis, after hearing the demo, in particular a composition by Irving called “Space”, invited him to join him to record in New York.

Irving would end up spending two months with Davis, recording all day to help him develop new music. The result of those sessions led to the Miles Davis comeback album, “The Man With The Horn” in 1981. Irving described the surreal nature of his involvement in the project.

“I had no idea, no plans to do anything close to playing with Miles Davis,” he said. “It was absolutely like being on top of the world.”

The collaborations would continue with Davis’ next album and a tour. His work would eventually put him into position as the musical director for the band. He and Miles would listen to recordings of performances together and he would apply the notes with the band at the next soundcheck.

“Miles didn’t do rehearsals and he didn’t do sound checks,” Irving said. “He needed someone to delegate.”

Stepping into that role has influenced Irving’s music to this day, where he still reviews rehearsal tapes to catch the nuances and make the needed course corrections he may miss during live performances.

Robert Irving III’s career would continue to expand as he became in demand as a producer. As health issues brought about what appeared to be the end of Miles Davis’ career, Irving dove into producing. He was surprised to receive a phone call from Davis’s manager inviting him back to join a recovering Davis on tour. Circumstances, both due to scheduling and musical divergence, forced Irving to decline.

“I guess this is it,” Irving said. “It was sort of a bittersweet thing.”

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They kept in touch, though did not work directly together again. Since the death of Miles Davis in 1991, Irving has worked to help honor and maintain his legacy through a number of tribute and alumni bands. He noted the current lack of attention placed on Davis in our culture and his hope to be a part of bringing it back to relevance. His band Generations is one way of accomplishing that goal. The group, which started as a Miles Davis tribute band, came out of the suggestion from Irving’s wife that he incorporate the kids he was teaching into a live band. They have since expanded into a vehicle for Irving’s own compositions.

“It sort of became our way of extending the Miles legacy,” he said. “It helps to bring that legacy forward.”

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Irving is working on bringing that legacy to listeners in a number of ways this year, which would have been Miles Davis’ 90th birthday and the 25th anniversary of his death. Locally, Generations, along with trumpet player Corey Wilkes, will be playing at the Lighthouse Jazz Festival in Michigan City on July 9th. He also continues his work with a number of other projects, including his record label, Sonic Portraits. Information on the festival can be found at lighthousejazzfestival.com and the rest of his work at sonicportraitsjazz.com.

 

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This piece created in part for Justin’s weekly column in Off The Water.

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Dan Deitrich- The Table

It was while protesting troubling legislation in the Michigan Senate, standing outside our local Senator’s office carrying signs of outcry and singing songs of unity, that I first met musician Dan Deitrich. At the after-protest discussion over coffee and through our continued communication on the Internet, I came to know Dan as a person committed to his music and his personal beliefs. Those aspects come together prominently in his latest release, an EP titled “The Table.”

“I’m a Christian and I work at a church,” Dan said. “We’re known for what we’re against because of the loudest, craziest voices in the media who claim to represent all of Christianity. I’m trying to dispel some of the negative stereotypes.”

“The Table” is Deitrich’s musical message to push back against attitudes that his faith requires that everyone to fit a certain mold. As he described it, the EP is meant to communicate that “everyone is invited to the table.” He was one of many in the crowd at the protest representing a common, but often unheard belief that Christianity is meant to unify, not divide. It is through his music he hopes to continue to spread that message.

The EP was recorded in Durango, Colorado with producer Michael Rossback. Deitrich was able to fund the project using the crowdfunding tool, Kickstarter. Fans contributed money before the EP was made and received benefits for doing so. In addition to helping him with his expenses, the process also provided him a method to actively engage his audience and get them invested in the project.

“It can be an awkward thing,” Dan said. “On one hand, you’re asking people for money. But the way I chose to look at it is that you’re inviting people into the process of making the album.”

During recording, his supporters received regular updates about the behind-the-scenes work. Some contributors were even invited to sing back-up vocals on the album.

“I really enjoyed the process,” he said. “It gets people involved, gets people excited about it.”

“The Table” was born out of a deliberate plan. With three children and a full time job, Dan would often find it difficult to balance creativity with every day life. He had a moment where he realized he had not written a song for an extended period of time, so he set the goal to write a specific number of songs. Once written, he declared his intent to himself and to the world to record them the following year. Even the choice to record in Colorado was deliberate, knowing he had to set the time aside and step away from daily life so he could complete the project.

He found collaboration, both in the interaction with his fans on Kickstarter and with Rossback during recording. He described the “magic” of the studio process and the benefit of working with another person while recording.

“My last album was just me in a studio late at night,” he said. “It was nice to have someone else in the studio who’s passionate about the songs and has ideas about the songs.”

The process created an excellent rock EP with a message universal to Christians and non-Christians alike.

“I’m thrilled with how it turned out,” he said.

Currently, Dan is out promoting “The Table” with local concerts, including a show as The Livery in Benton Harbor on July 14th. You can find information on more shows and and hear the EP in it’s entirety by visiting dandeitrich.com.

 

These piece created in part for Justin’s weekly column in Off The Water.

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The Avett Brothers New Album, "True Sadness"

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Long time listeners of the Avett Brothers are familiar with the continually evolving sound of the folk rock band, both in recording and on stage. Growing from the original line-up of Seth Avett, Scott Avett, and Bob Crawford playing homegrown Americana, they have expanded through the years to incorporate rock, pop, and orchestral sounds, playing with the energy of a punk band and the heart of storytellers. Live shows now consist of seven players, filling performance venues with a contagious vigor no listener can resist and leaving audiences singing, dancing, and crying both tears of sadness and of joy. Their upcoming release, “True Sadness,” is their most unique album and the latest example of the band’s constant maturation. It’s a journey through sounds previously visited in past albums and unification of elements new and old.

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The first single and energetic opener, “Ain’t No Man,” is a soulful sing-along with catchy percussion. The listener finds it difficult to resist clapping their hands and joining in on the chorus before the track’s end. “Mama, I Don’t Believe,” opens with a harmonica reminiscent of The Refreshments or Springsteen. The sweeping strings are a callback to the album “I And Love And You,” and the full sound that came out of the addition of cellist Joe Kwon to the band. It’s with “No Hard Feelings” that we get into the deep of the album, a journey that takes us through feelings both personal and far-reaching. In light of events in Orlando, in Stanford, and around the world, this mellow tribute to love, forgiveness, and compassion are especially relevant and emotional. The final lyrics of the song, “I have no enemies,” repeated over and over, are a lesson for us all in our reactions to the difficulties around us.

with no hard feelings…lord knows they haven’t done much good for anyone.

The album continues in stride, exploring traditional music with banjo, fiddle, and tambourine, before spinning us around with technological rhythms and percussion. By the time we’ve reached the second single, “Satan Pulls The Strings,” we have experienced the most prominent merging of sounds, with visits from the Hammond B3 organ and the electric violin.

The album’s title track makes use of one of my favorite Avett Brother tricks, carrying us along lyrically to a particular emotional space, eventually shifting the music to match the tone mid-song. It’s a message of communal penitence and somber reflection, but the music reminds us of hope and recovery. The message and sentiment, especially in the frame of world events, were enough to make me cry on the first listen. The statement, perhaps, is that “true sadness” is of the most genuine and beautiful aspects of life.

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The Avett Brothers are skilled most in their ability to communicate the shades of life we each experience. Rarely are the subjects of their lyrics grandiose or out of reach and, even then, they manage to find the commonality of humanity within them. The fierce emotional response to their music by fans from varied backgrounds is the result of their artistry. With “True Sadness,” they have continued that path, expanding into musical realms that are technological, ambient, and catchy, all while managing to keep in touch with their roots in acoustic music and Americana themes. Their musical evolution is much a reflection of that of society. The affecting love and hope it communicates is an example both of their musical prowess and of the paths we should each take forward.

 

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“True Sadness” releases today, June 24th. Tour dates and information on the band is available at theavettbrothers.com.