Beyond The Sky
(liner notes)

By Chip Stern

Beyond The Sky is piano music at the highest level of creativity and joy. Beholden to no particular element of style, Beyond The Sky reflects far too many sound signatures to properly catalog, as the pianist is far less concerned with history than with mystery. That Rob Schwimmer is ready, willing and able to meaningfully negotiate the composer's formalism of classical music and the improviser's freedom of jazz, blurring distinctions between both disciplines, is the mark of an original and intrepid artist, and part of what makes listening to this piano virtuoso's music such a serendipitous experience —even if representing his essential artistry, the variegated stylistic and harmonic splendors of these wide-ranging performances has proven something of a challenge. No, his music doesn't "defy description" as the old cliché goes, yet even for so resolute a wordsmith as myself, there are times when the descriptive arts fail us... as if our metaphors were but so many rows of wooden posts sunk at specific intervals in an open field, and try and try as we might to tell the musician's story, all we manage to do is fence them in. However, in perusing my listening notes it occurs to me that Schwimmer's music eludes easy categorization and turns of phrase such as "against all flags" seem to pop up again and again. Indeed, Schwimmer seems to relish the idea of punching a musical ticket to destinations unknown, somewhere beyond the sky... all aboard.

That's because Rob Schwimmer's is a music of inclusion, both wry and ruminative, romantic and avant garde, minimalist yet expansive. The depth and breadth of Schwimmer's musical and imagistic vocabulary are such that I was quite startled to learn that Rob's wide-ranging stylistic lexicon and imposing technical gifts are neither begged nor borrowed, as this artist is primarily self-taught. Quite an achievement, after you've reveled in his sublime touch and vast pallet of articulations, or taken the full measure of harmonic devices and voice leading that reveal a profound understanding of the entire keyboard tradition —resonating with classical references from Chopin through late Scriabin, Bach through Ravel and beyond, while his sense of space and pace, of tune and tempo, is just as deeply rooted in the work of George Gershwin and Bill Evans, Art Tatum and Paul Bley... yet beholden to none.

"Those stylistic variations in my music... it's all been the same thing to me, for as long as I can recall. I don't really think of them as disparate elements. Style is really just a mood, to me. I've spent my entire life falling between the cracks, not being defined or confined by any one aspect of my musical personality.

"It's all experiential, it's always evolving, and while I try to keep moving forward musically, I've never completely abandoned any aspect of my playing —there are all sorts of neat things laying around in my old sock drawer," he laughs. "Let's put it this way, when my son Simon was young, he heard Little Richard singing, 'Good Golly, Miss Molly' and it prompted him to ask, 'Mommy, is there bad golly?' I've had plenty of tragic-comedic events in my life, just like everyone else, and Beyond The Sky is basically a compendium of all the good golly and all the bad golly and all the sundry shades in between.

"It's like that famous exchange between jazz great Wayne Shorter and a writer who offhandedly dismissed John Coltrane as 'sounding like scrambled eggs,' only for Shorter to counter that '...it depends on who's doing the scrambling —it's how he scrambles those eggs.' Think about how a Beethoven sonata can sound so different in the hands of ten different pianists. Or take that movie The Aristocrats where all of these different comedians tell the same joke, and yet it comes out so distinctly personal with each re-telling. Beyond The Sky represents all of these varied aspects of my music, of my personal take on things. On some pieces I try to maintain total control, while on others I just let go of the reins. It's the impulse to create structure while acknowledging-celebrating the idea that life is a liquid environment. As to putting things in boxes, in Austin, Texas there's this music shop called Armadillo Records. There are no hierarchies, no categories whatsoever —everything is laid out alphabetically, so that jazz pianist Herbie Hancock is right next to country artist Wayne Hancock, who is right next to the classical composer George Friedrich Handel. I think that's great."

A brief glimpse into Schwimmer's upbringing helps to explain his progressive, evenhanded approach to music. Rob grew up in New York City, moving to Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania when he was ten years old. His father taught philosophy, logic and ethics at the collegiate level, while his mom taught sixth grade. "My dad was also qualified to teach college level math, physics, calculus and economics," Rob remembers proudly. "My parents were also very active in the civil rights movement and other progressive causes."

Together they taught him how to think outside the box regarding freedom and creativity —lessons which sustain his muse to this day. "All I ever wanted to do was play the piano," Rob enthuses. "Hearing my older brother, Peter [now a renowned banjo player] practicing his piano lessons when I was four years old, I found that I could replay all of it by ear, pick out tunes, figure out chords and fingerings."

"Our house was always filled with music, mostly folk and classical," Schwimmer recalls, "but I really benefited most from the 'renaissance-man' influence my dad exerted on me. He had a very unique viewpoint about life and art and music —as a philosopher my father taught me that music could reflect not only the connections of one's life but also their contradictions."

You can hear the implications of that approach in the lyricism and dissonance of his epic cinematic interpretation on "Stormy Weather," as remarkable a vision of the Harold Arlen classic as I've ever heard, what with its progressions from gong-like percussive thunder through dreamy harmonic transitions, as Schwimmer fashions a sonic canvas which suggests and equatorial clash of converging storm fronts and half-forgotten lovers.

"When I was a little kid my dad would give me scenarios (often of nature) to play on the piano. 'Robby, play a flooding river, now leaves turning color, the sun going down-coming up, and oh yeah, play a storm in the distance...'"

You can hear a lot of that creative give and take between father and son in the fanciful, nostalgic, harmonic variations Rob evokes on "I Would Talk With My Dad," one of his two settings for "Songs Without Words."

"I always imagined my father and I, as we got older, sitting on the back porch and talking about the million and one things that he knew about, or what he thought about something. He died unexpectedly and I've been left with this feeling of... I don't know..." He pauses, his voice trailing off into silence. "Anyway, I'm glad for the time we had."

Such is the scope of the storytelling canvas Schwimmer chooses to paint upon, that his subtext is the entire history of the piano. That it sounds like a personal vision and not a cross-cultural collision is testament to the pianist's probing rhythmic instincts and harmonic curiosity, his touch and articulation, the manner in which he is able to summon up in the course of a single passage, let alone an entire piece, a vision of the piano's wide-ranging stylistic and structural expanse. Rob is quick to credit co-producer Joe Mardin, not just for his worldly pair of ears and technical skills but also for his sensitivity and commitment to the pianist's artistry and vision. "I didn't want a producer to impose an artistic aesthetic on me —needless to say, he's been a great friend and a consummate professional and there aren't many producers who could have stayed out of my way while also helping me to maintain such a sharp focus throughout the process."

Rob achieves a phantasmagorical sense of coloration and contrast, of flotation and swing on two remarkable sets of "Hallucinations On Popular Songs." On "All The Things You Are" he alternates elements of stride with darkly impressionistic passages (leading me to envision a tete a tete between Willie "The Lion" Smith and Claude Debussy on the tail end of a three day bender in Harlem of the late 1920s), while "Brother Can You Spare Dime" abounds with psychological and [auto]biographical allusions, contrasting passages of darkness and light —from the spectral, impressionistic intro to atmospheric chordal passages with their bluesy overtones and Ravel-like abstractions of thematic material over some dreamy left hand pulsations— before shuffling offstage in a tintinnabulous reverie of old black and white movies and gospel blues.

"When I was around eight or so I learned this song from my mom, who lived through and was very affected by the Great Depression. She used to cry sometimes when she would sing it. It was an early encounter with the blues emotionally, seeing the music bring the pain back to her as if it was today. On a less emotional plane, she would sing it to me and as I tried to figure out the chords she'd yell, 'No! That's wrong!' Eventually I got it right and both of us were thankful for that."

Rob follows that hallucination with "Never, Never Land" from the Broadway musical Peter Pan, in which childlike memories are only very dimly recalled, superimposing some slightly astringent voices upon the changes, just to let the listener know that this land of make believe is even farther away than we originally suspected, perchance beyond the sky, though perhaps it was never real at all —an exceptionally touching performance. "This is something else again out of my childhood... recollections of Mary Martin... while not exactly remembering how the song goes; accepting and then leaning into that fact."

Schwimmer is supremely gifted at making himself disappear as his musical decisions take on a transparency and painterly sense of inevitability, all the better to illuminate the text in a song or an arrangement, which is why he has become a first call player for demanding singer-songwriters and arrangers the likes of Simon and Garfunkel and Arif Mardin, and why he and guitarist Mark Stewart, performing as Polygraph Lounge, have come to enjoy such a level of popular acclaim with their broad range of musical parodies and Firesign Theater-like satire. (In that duo, Schwimmer plays a wide range of keyboards and home-made instruments, as well as the theremin, the seminal electronic instrument introduced in 1919, upon which he is among the instrument's most gifted practitioners. Listen to Rob's brilliant collaborations with violinist Mark Feldman and pianist Uri Caine on his previous release, Theremin Noir.)

Polygraph Lounge is all about free association and parody, oddball juxtapositions and puns, and the same genius for connecting disparate elements that makes Polygraph Lounge so funny finds an equally postmodern romantic expression in Beyond The Sky. On selection after selection one can feel him emotionally ascending, towards freer and freer levels of expression, but that which is allusive never succumbs to the kind of self-referential cleverness that inevitably leaves most listeners behind. Rather, his structures always evince a playful, edgy, inquisitive quality —so much the better to counterbalance his romanticism. Thus the jagged symmetrical inversions of "Ostinato" offset the brooding lyricism of "Orpheus" or Rob's elegiac tribute to Clara Rockmore, 'Empress Of The Theremin', on "Waltz For Clara" (from his Suite.) And when Rob reprises "Waltz For Clara" towards the end of this recital, his virtuoso turns on the theremin lend a decidedly operatic air to this lovely remembranza.

Elsewhere, Schwimmer never alights on one mood for too long. He chooses instead to take the listener on a more cosmic journey through his musical menagerie, hoping that we might all get lost, if only for a while, as it represents such an interesting challenge to then find one's way home. That spirit informs the heartfelt confessions of his love song "Holding You In My Arms," the mysterious little dances and prismatic distortions of his Four Miniatures, and the austere, yet extravagant explorations of 20th century tonality, contrapuntal freedom, and conversational interplay of Three Tone Poems, where he invokes extraordinary bell-like tones from the piano's upper register.

Rob Schwimmer still remembers what it was like to approach music with the innocence and wide-eyed enthusiasm of a child... a very wise child. A child in awe of this fulsome musical gift from an ineluctable universe, who now full-grown, offers thanks with every note, in every lovely gesture, in every explosive pairing of consonance and dissonance, as he reaches out beyond the sky, where all the prettiest notes and lost chords reside, posing a whole new series of questions for which there are no ready answers —only the promise of new adventures.

Chip Stern
Contributing Editor, Playbill
Chip Stern's Epicenter of Hip
3/22/06

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