Writings about Music

Piano Improvisation Series

American Alap from Hoboken, Hamlet and Crown Heights

Michael Robinson embraces semblances and divergences of jazz and raga. This photo was taken in the meditation tower of Bob Longhi's Maui home, he being the person who introduced Michael to George Harrison.

Connections between ballad recordings by Frank Sinatra, born in Hoboken, New Jersey, and John Coltrane, born in Hamlet, North Carolina, with the opening alap form of North Indian classical music ragas are stunning. While the alap is rendered without any tempo, the extraordinarily slow tempos enacted by Sinatra and Coltrane at times create such an approximation.

Many of my compositions for meruvina, and now my piano improvisations, too, relate to the Indian alap. My first home was in Crown Heights, Brooklyn after being born at French Hospital in the Chelsea district of Manhattan. We soon moved to North Merrick when I was one, followed by Wantagh when I was twelve, both on the South Shore of Nassau County on Long Island.

As far as I know, Frank Sinatra never heard any ragas prior to his ballad recordings of the forties and fifties. John Coltrane may or may not have recorded his greatest ballad performances of the fifties prior to hearing Indian classical music. I am curious to check the precise dates and will do so. Coltrane was definitely influenced by both Sinatra and Johnny Hodges while developing his original ballad manner, with Tommy Dorsey being a most significant exemplar for Sinatra.

Prior to hearing any Indian classical music, I was entranced by John's rendering of What's New from the Ballads album, insisting upon listening to this track together with my teacher, Lee Konitz, at the beginning of each lesson because I found it placed me in an advantageous state of attentive relaxation for learning. Now, looking back, it is clear Coltrane studied the Sinatra recording of this standard, echoing the process of Lester Young, Miles Davis, Lee Konitz, and many other leading jazz artists.

American jazz and North Indian classical music, together with British and American rock, superseded the European classical music of the time, roughly the middle of the twentieth century, becoming the true classical music of the Western world.

Keeping the focus on jazz and Hindustani music, both are essentially theme and variation forms based upon improvisation. Indian classical music, which includes Hindustani music and Carnatic music, has evolved over hundreds of years, while jazz is roughly one hundred years old.

Together with their theme and variations modus operandi, jazz and Hindustani music are centered around expression, known as rasa in India. Shringara rasa, representing human love, divine love, eroticism, and the creative spark of life, is the chief emotional and spiritual impetus for both Hindustani music and jazz. There are a number of additional rasas that apply equally well to jazz.

Charlie Parker and Ravi Shankar were both born in 1920, each of them bringing transformative design and content to their respective disciplines, jazz and Hindustani music. These included melodic, rhythmic, expressive and structural innovations. Parker's main influence was Lester Young, with Allauddhin Khan being the primary inspiration for Shankar.

I was charmed to learn how Ravi Shankar and myself had the same nickname in our youth, this being, "Robi", shortened from his birth name of "Robindro" or "Robindra", while mine was a shortening of "Robinson."

There are few if any with a greater love and appreciation for the music of Ravi Shankar than myself as demonstrated in my music, writings, and anyone who knows me, including gratitude for the kind words he wrote along with an invitation to study after being wowed by my Chinese Legend album. I was surprised to hear him express a lack of experience and knowledge of jazz while attending a lecture he gave in San Diego in December 1997. What was apparent from his brief remarks is how Ravi simply had not had the time to explore the complexities and subtleties of jazz, which is a vast ocean of substance, including oftentimes necessitating being a developed or even studied taste for a degree of comprehension similar to other highly developed and complex forms regardless of how astute the listener is. Apparently, Ravi heard either Dixieland or Swing in Europe while touring with his brother, Uday, as a youth. He also participated in collaborative recordings with leading West Coast jazz artists in the sixties, and heard what I believe was some of John Coltrane's late period music.

All of these experiences are most admirable, of course, but without encountering and coming to terms with the music of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Kenny Clarke and Max Roach; Lee Konitz and Lennie Tristano; Miles Davis; the fifties music and modal period of John Coltrane; the piano styles of Red Garland and Bill Evans; the vocal interpretations of Frank Sinatra and Sarah Vaughan; the orchestras of Count Basie and Duke Ellington; the playing of Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Gene Ammons, Lester Young, Paul Desmond, Jackie McLean and Stan Getz; the trumpeting and singing of Louis Armstrong; Paul Chambers and Richard Davis; Gene Krupa, Jo Jones, Stan Levey, Joe Morello, Jimmy Cobb, Elvin Jones and Alan Dawson; the deep reservoir of jazz standards; and dozens of additional musical profundities comprising the various periods of jazz, there is no significant understanding of this elevated art form allowing for an informed comparison of likenesses and differences between jazz and Hindustani music. Please note how Ravi has been quoted making widely divergent statements about jazz at different times of his life, some of which I was in total agreement with, the present writing only addressing what was heard in person.

I was very fortunate to be allowed into the inner sanctums of the Allauddhin Khan and Ravi Shankar gharana through my studies with Harihar Rao, Ravi's senior disciple, and the person closest to him for most of his life beginning in their teens in India. Like Ravi and the other Indian masters I was fortunate to study with and know personally, Harihar, whose students included Don Ellis, Lalo Schifrin, Ed Shaughnessy, Robby Krieger, Brian Jones, George Harrison and John Densmore, had not had the time to explore jazz deeply, which is entirely understandable because the ocean of raga is a vast expanse unto itself.

Ragas provide the improvisational medium for Indian classical music, while standards and blues forms provided the template for jazz in my personal favorite periods of modern and swing. Ragas and standards are both composed forms of genius, capable of countless interpretive variations, only limited by the imaginations of the practitioners.

Defining features of individual ragas and standards, and how defining musicians go about developing them through improvisatory procedures, are equally specific and rarefied, though in different ways, of course. One reason why my improvisations on standards are longer than convention comes from applying raga craft and consciousness outside of ragas or turning standards into ragas on a different plane. This is essentially what I've done with composition as well, my performance medium for composition being a manifestation of anahata nada.

Needless to say, if jazz and Hindustani music were identical there would be no reason to make any comparisons. The notion that they are too different to compare is uninformed. It would merely be ethnocentric to state that either form is superior to the other. Infinitely more useful and beneficial is to embrace their respective virtues together with our personal preferences.

Prior to Allauddhin Khan and Ravi Shankar, talas other than teental were exceptionally rare. Even exotic talas such as 11, 17, 19 and 23, all talas I have used in my music for meruvina, the most esoteric one I invented being 111 for the title composition of the Viridian Seas album, are composed with varying combinations of only two or three matras. Learning and making music with talas other than teental is simply a matter of practice and experience, common to both exalted and average Indian musicians. In general, talas or time cycles unrelated to 4/4, 3/4 and 6/8, including unique inner accents and rests, don't appear to favor the flavor of jazz, which focuses on the irresistible, transcendental sensation brought on by play with the inherent tensions and repose when superimposing a triple feeling on our duple physical makeup. The most famous exception would be Take Five by Paul Desmond, of course, but few have pursued following that direction most likely for the reasons stated above.

While I believe that solo North Indian tabla playing is the most intellectually and technically advanced music in the history of the world, the rhythmic play and sophistication of the finest jazz drummers, instrumentalists, and vocalists is equally difficult to achieve, also defying easy analysis and understanding.

Above all, jazz and Hindustani music are two different languages sparked by a passion for spontaneous invention and expression. It is thrilling and challenging to ponder and discover connections and divergences between these two monumental forms.

One insight I especially cherish is how the only musician I've ever heard who can match the rhythmic fluidity of Charlie Parker is Alla Rakha and vice-versa, uncovering a highly significant instance whereby a jazz musician and a Hindustani musician have more in common with each other than anyone from their respective genres. Recognizing such entails possessing a degree of familiarity and understanding of both forms, of course.

While being fortunate to interview Pandit Jasraj, Shivkumar Sharma twice, and Zakir Hussain, a chance to interview Ravi Shankar slipped through my fingers. If we had done so, I'm highly confident Ravi would have agreed with many of my thoughts comparing and contrasting jazz and Indian classical music, him not having been exposed to some of the concepts elucidated here before. And I'm sure he would have been excited to learn of the many semblances between himself and Charlie Parker, beginning with how they were both born in 1920, and how they both revolutionized their respective disciplines, bringing new vistas of melodic, rhythmic and expressive invention, including liberating the role of the percussionist, a crucial elevation from accompanist to musical equal.

I had thought that standards were a thing of the past for jazz, again predominantly of the swing and modern periods, but now I'm personally discovering new life for them through an entirely unexpected happenstance, this being my becoming a jazz pianist over the past few years, something I'm enjoying developing.

During an initial phone conversation relating my new experience playing standards, David Amram most astutely noted what I was describing brought to mind the general approach taken by Chet Baker, an insight that had not occurred to me before, having already headed considerably further in that direction. After actually hearing some of my efforts, David subsequently wrote, "A treat to hear from you and see and hear what you are doing with the standards. It is really DIFFERENT and the more you listen to it, the more it grows on you." He added, "The overall effect is that you want to hear them again," mentioning "ingenious bass lines" and enjoying my rare usage of "the whole range of the piano." Perceptively tuned into the raga influence on my playing, Amram continued: "...it gives the listeners a chance to think and become part of the experience. That's what so much music from India and Asia does as well, and as Sun Ra said..."Space is the place"!! Truth be told, I am unfamiliar with the music of Sun Ra, now curious to give it another spin.

In response to one of my very first recorded piano improvisations, Maria Improvisation, using more of a modal than polymodal approach, and with a left hand drone rather than counterpoint, David Amram enthused: "Just sending you a quick note to thank you for this REALLY OUTSTANDING piece of music. It is truly original and makes you want to LISTEN!! I enjoyed it and all those ragas intertwined with Lenny’s use of the tritone are very moving and like the Prélude à l'Après-midi d'un faune, it has its own category." Perhaps I will revisit this conceptual approach, adding it to my present inclinations.

Hrayr Attarian and Karl Ackermann have written fascinatingly about my piano improvisation recordings for All About Jazz.

Related to my music for meruvina, it was encouraging to receive the following thoughts also from David Amram: "I am playing all your CDs (especially when I am driving and have peace of mind and no one to interrupt being able to LISTEN!!!) and see that you have your OWN course that you are pursuing and that’s the best that any composer can do for a life’s work. Edgard Varèse, Ornette Coleman, Charlie Parker, Harry Partch, sculptor and mobile maker Alexander Calder, Jackson Pollock, Jack Kerouac and so many other artists I have been blessed to know all found their way and their own voices and often confused connoisseurs because they couldn’t be classified because they were ORIGINAL!! So keep on doing what you are doing. With all your technical skills as well as musicianship, you can do whatever you want to do and get it out there without having to answer to ANYBODY!!" "You have your OWN VOICE, and that’s the most and only really important thing."

While my personal preference for listening inspiration and learning is modern, swing and modal jazz, my compositions for meruvina follow the implied direction of my favorite avant-garde jazz, the Interstellar Space duet recording by John Coltrane and Rashied Ali. This format was influenced by the sitar and tabla style of Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakha, with John planning to study with Ravi before he passed away.

You see, I am an avant-garde artist myself, doing my best to develop my compositions for meruvina and improvisations for piano. The music we listen to in the time we have is crucial, really like the food we eat, and I passionately pursue that which I find nourishing in terms of expression, intellect, spirituality and technique. There is no time for anything less.

Sometimes people outside of music have been my greatest supporters, like Sadami (Chris) Wada, the Vice Chairman of Sony Corporation, in charge of government relationships. While doing temp work in Manhattan, he took me on as his assistant. Insisting upon hearing my music, Chris played my composition, Trembling Flowers, in the original realization for the first meruvina incarnation. He was thrilled by the piece, comparing it to a Bach Toccata. Trembling Flowers was played in cassette tape form in his office on a top floor of the West 57th Street building towering over the resplendent trees of Central Park in their autumn beauty. Wada insisted on leaving the door wide open, the loud, ecstatic music drawing astonished quick glances from those passing by in the hallway. Chris wanted me to consider working for Sony full time, as Ralph Lauren also wished for me to do at his company, Polo, but they both came to understand how my full time could only be for music, something Earl Wild helped enact.

Fortunately, people inside of music like Lee Konitz, Steve Reich, John Cage, Pandit Jasraj, Nazir Ali Jairazbhoy, Joel Chadabe and myriad others too numerous to mention have taken a personal interest in helping me develop as a composer and musician.

Pandit Jasraj, Ravi Shankar, Harihar Rao, Nazir Ali Jairazbhoy, Anindo Chatterjee and Swapan Chaudhuri are among the Indian masters who have praised my music, representing an original assimilation of Indian classical music influences into Western composition.

Nazir is the only Indian classical musician or scholar I've met to date who also had a deep understanding of jazz. That being so, I was delighted to hear during one of our initial conversations how Lee Konitz was his favorite jazz artist. Introducing Nazir and Lee to each other was thrilling for me, both of them coincidently born during the autumn of 1927. Harihar Rao was also born earlier in the winter of that same blessed year.

I've never had the pleasure of meeting a jazz musician with a deep knowlege of Indian classical music. My personal experience with jazz and Indian classical music seems ordinary to me, but the more I look around it appears to be rather uncommon and extremely lucky.

One noteworthy fact is how my study of both jazz and Indian classical music occurred outside of academia, which is the traditional method for both genres. There were wonderful composition teachers as an undergraduate. I had to leave a graduate composition program where a scholarship was offered because it proved more a composer factory than a place of learning.

My admiration for John Coltrane is boundless. He is indeed very much inside of me, and I admire his intellectual and spiritual compass in turning towards Hindustani music, a direction I've been fortunate to embrace, like John, excited by the synergistic possibilities of learning something new, imbibing and shaping that which attracts into what we do.

My baptism into the music of John Coltrane occurred predominantly in my late teens and early twenties, preceded by a similar immersion into the music of Charlie Parker.

Pandit Jasraj, known as the Sun of Music in India, became my primary source for the experience of alap.

My most recent and current musical obsessions have been exploring and studying the music of Frank Sinatra in his various stages together with the trio and solo recordings of Red Garland. The beautiful thing is how once you study something deeply, it forever remains a part of you.

Both Pandit Jasraj and Frank Sinatra are singers, of course, their instrument known as the gatra vina in India, meaning musical instrument of the human body, the sole instrument created by God or nature we instrumentalists do our best to reinvent.

I only know a raindrop in the ambrosial seas of raga and jazz with beckoning discovery led by what sounds and feels right.

Michael Robinson, May 2022, Los Angeles


© 2022 Michael Robinson All rights reserved


Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer, programmer, jazz pianist and musicologist. His 170 albums include 150 albums for meruvina and 20 albums of piano improvisations. Robinson has been a lecturer at UCLA, Bard College and California State University.