Liner notes by Ethan Iverson 2018
Rob Schwimmer is a strikingly advanced polymath, a wizard on multiple
instruments, a relentless comic, an old pro, a throwback to the
groovy '60s/‘70s, a repository of unlikely trivia, a summoner of
strange beauty, a master of the absurd, a man with a heart of gold.
For this recording, assorted esoterica combine in Rob's subconscious for an unprecedented presentation. Many of the works directly come from Rob's past emotional life or are inspired by people he has known. Heart of gold *and* Heart of Hearing.
Piano is Rob's home base. His command of the 88 keys is superior to most of those who claim piano as their only instrument. However, Rob also has virtuoso control over the theremin and the Haken Continuum, and both of those unlikely devices have tasteful cameos within.
The disc has an important structural map, with each work fitting into the scheme of things just so.
TERRA FIRMA #1
1. HERE WE ARE... (2:10)
We begin in a relaxed fashion. Rob sets the table with gentle charm.
SONIC GINGER #1
2. SPARKS (1:01)
It is best not to get too comfortable, however.
HALLUCINATIONS ON POPULAR SONGS #1
3. IN THE WEE SMALL HOURS (5:55) (Mann/Hilliard)
Thelonious's bells toll 13, and now we are after midnight. Once we become accustomed to our surroundings, we realize that Rob can play jazz ballads exceptionally well indeed. The decorative patterning of his improvised lines might suggest Art Nouveau.
TWO SHORT SCENES
4. WAKING UP IN A STRANGE PLACE (1:15)
5. MIST/ THE SEDUCTION (1:41)
The piano is a percussion instrument, but it can also insinuate. These interludes wander impressionistically among far-flung keys and sensuous themes.
6. cChHoOpPiInN (2:19)
Rob says, "Chopin's Op. 35 #4 is so weird and cool and I've always been attracted to it. First heard it with Michelangeli playing it and thought, ‘Where did THAT come from?' So I learned it and one day I had the idea to stagger the unison octaves. It was a fun exercise but really hard to keep the hands from going back together—like attracted magnets getting too close. Anyway I always played it starting w. the right hand. Then I tried the symmetrical inversion (dividing at D or G#) which was also big weird fun... I was going to hold off recording it but a short while before the session I started messing with starting with the left hand and really liked that as opposed to starting with the right but for one reason or another (either because it was a new wrinkle or because maybe that way is just harder) it was a lot harder. So of course I got excited and recorded it. Rhythmically I also play the sets of 8th note triplets as 3 groups of 2 as opposed to the usual 2 groups of 3—Sounds more spiky. Halfway through (the repeat of the opening figure) I do both hands together in symmetrical inversion which goes back later to the original line with left hand leading again... Shot from canons!"
The only thing I can add is what Schumann said of Chopin, "Cannons buried in flowers."
HALLUCINATIONS ON POPULAR SONGS #2
7. LOST IN THE STARS
(for theremin & piano) (4:58) (Weill/Anderson)
...Which is a good way to transition to the Broadway side of Kurt Weill. Rob was very close to the singer Mary Cleere Haran and this arrangement is dedicated to her. He explains, "Mary was a great singer and knew more standards and more about composers and unknown verses, etc. than anybody I'd ever known. I'd always entered into standards via melody/harmony/rhythm and rarely paid attention to lyrics—Mary evened out that equation in me. Totally out of the blue one day she was hit and killed by a car while on her bicycle. Without going into too much detail, knowing that maybe helps explain some of this rendition. I set out to do this in an old fashioned melodramatic 30's or 40's black and white movie style. No doubt Mary (with her characteristic exquisite taste and understatement) would have looked askance at my over-the top rendition..."
HALLUCINATIONS ON POPULAR SONGS #3
8. SOUNDS OF SILENCE (2:06) (Simon)
Rob toured with Simon and Garfunkel for a time in the early 2000's. This arrangement — frankly, derangement — turns major chords to minor and vice versa (with some tailoring). I wonder how many people would recognize the song right off when dressed in this garb? To me it sounds a little like the Berlin side of Kurt Weill...
THE RUSSIAN MYSTIC
9. OBUKHOV PRELUDE #1
(for Haken Continuum & piano) (3:08)
While the Chopin selection is all lines, the next classical work is all harmony. "Nikolai Obukhov wrote this obscure prelude in 1914-1915. Pianists Michael Weiss turned me on to it and Jenny Lin provided the info about the year he wrote it. (Obukhov also invented an electronic instrument similar to the theremin, the croix sonore, built in the shape of a cross, with the electronics hidden inside a brass orb to which the cross was affixed.) The Haken Continuum which I play the melody on here is one of the loves of my musical life. It allows for real shaping/phrasing like a theremin can but it's polyphonic and all fingers are independent control wise! However I'm just playing melody this time out."
SONIC GINGER #2
10. A FEATHER BLOWN BY THE WIND (1:55)
Perhaps this interlude might be considered in the Scriabin-to-Messiaen vein, opening back out into lines after the dense verticality of Obukhov.
TERRA FIRMA #2
11. THE QUESTION (4:05)
It's comparatively rare to meet a fellow diehard Paul Bley fan. After Bley died I went over to Rob's house where we listened to some records and told some stories. At his piano Rob played Annette Peacock's "So Hard It Hurts"which inspired me to finally learn it and record it for my own album The Purity of the Turf. Rob acquired some of that music from the source. "I met Paul Bley in 1971 or 1972 and met Annette Peacock at pretty much the same time. I later toured with Annette in Europe in 1974. This piece honors them both for their artistry, vision and inventing a new way of doing things that was deep, meaningful and pleasurable to me even at its most bleak and heartbreaking."
SONIC GINGER #3
12. IN A JAPANESE GARDEN (:56)
Although the surface is not that similar, for this palate cleanser I strongly feel the presence of Leopold Godowsky, whose minor masterpiece Java Suite is a touchstone for those that love that kind of thing. Godowsky after Bley — this is a wide-angle lens by any standard, but of course in the end it is all Schwimmer.
13. SCENE D'AMOUR FROM VERTIGO (4:32) (Herrmann)
No instrumental piece composed specifically for cinema travels as well as Bernard Herrmann's "Scene D'Amour" does. Rob also plays this on theremin, but here he goes all out in a rich solo piano version that reproduces most of the original orchestral detail. Rob's deep connection with the material is palpable.
from THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA
14. CONCERT PARAPHRASE ON ADAM GUETTEL'S OCTET (3:11) (Adam Guettel)
The next selection also features large-scale piano, but in this case Rob's own harmonic imagination is more visible. In the context of so much older music, it's really fun to hear something from a more contemporary repertoire. "My friend Adam Guettel first played me this piece that would wind up as "Octet" in his Tony award winning musical The Light In The Piazza when it was just piano and vocalise. I loved it immediately—Just beautiful. "I did my best to make it into a big piano solo "concert paraphrase" in the tradition of the old school classical pianist-composers."
15. HARD TIMES (1:41) (Foster)
16. INTRODUCTION & A HOME AWAY FROM HOME (4:14)
For all his interest in far-flung musical cultures, in the end Rob is an American artist, which brings us to a chorale version of Stephen Foster followed by A Home Away From Home.
"There used to be a million cowboy TV shows on when I was a kid but they're all gone... Strangely my dad (who was a not very athletic Jewish intellectual) loved cowboy shows.I remember the first time the family went horseback riding together in Wyoming—Not at all what my dad was expecting but he looked great in the cowboy hat despite the unlikely head it sat upon. Anyway I was thinking about him and his love of the old west that mostly existed for us only through TV. "
Like "Sounds of Silence,"the second cowboy song is all but unrecognizable. "I always liked "Home On The Range" but this version is an unsettled vision with no real home (despite being totally tonal...) It wanders from here to there with the wrong melody and the wrong chords... ‘I guess we ain't never gettin' those cows back into the barn now!'" (delivered a la Andy Devine voice.) "Home Away from Home" has more of Rob's astounding left hand, half Tatum, half Horowitz....
IN THE COMPANY OF FRIENDS
17. ACCEPTING IT (5:30)
...But Rob doesn't have to be busy in his left hand. Indeed, if you a serious jazz player playing with bass and drums there are plenty of times when less is more.
A good coda is a completely new idea that gives another kind of richness to the narrative preceding it. Surprise! Here's a 1989 jazz trio track with a classic NYC rhythm section, Jay Anderson and Jeff Hirschfeld. Rob's composition is exceedingly memorable and he handles the genre with authority. "After all the solo stuff, it's nice to think about friends and the music I've made with many friends through the years. A cure for/relief from the isolation of the rest of the music. Nice to hang out with friends... Garbo said, ‘I want to be alone,' but I'm fairly sure she didn't mean all the time."
In the end, Heart of Hearing is about harmony. Hallucinatory, complex, subtle pitches and people together. The 88 keys plus sine waves, a life lived in strange and beautiful music. Rob Schwimmer, thank you for being you!
Ethan Iverson 2018
Note: All compositions by Rob Schwimmer except where noted