July 30, 2016
In the documentary Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words, the film’s subject sometimes comes across as a bit frustrated by his cult of personality. One thing he bemoans more than once is that most people know his name but few buy his music. The film itself is also more focused on his interviews than his performances. It didn’t even take day after I published my review (Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words highlights the mind behind the music … and the ideology — a film review) before a friend texted me to ask “Who is Frank Zappa?”
I have produced another artist profile piece for another “New Times” publication in South Florida. This one appears in the “Broward/Palm Beach New Times,” and it has something to do with Roger Waters’ upcoming June 15 performance of the Wall in Broward County. No, it is not Roger Waters (“He’s not talking,” I was told) but his son, Harry Waters, who has toured with the former Pink Floyd bassist/vocalist/songwriter since 2001. We spoke via phone, last month, while the band took a break between shows in Los Angeles. “Lovely nice weather,” he said of the place, in his quick, chirpy English accent. He has his own show worth noting that will take place in South Florida a couple of days after the Wall show at Fort Lauderdale’s Revolution Live (buy tickets). The show benefits local 501©(3), Community Arts & Culture.
You can read the entire piece after the jump through the publication’s logo below. It also features an interview with a South Florida-based saxophonist, Michael Sinisgalli, who collaborated with Harry once before and will participate in this up-coming show:
Though he started learning piano at the age of 8, following his parents suggestion, the 34-year-old Waters would not find a true love for the instrument until several years later. “I definitely wasn’t one of those prodigal children that picks it up, and that’s all they do,” he said. “I played kind of for four years, but I didn’t practice or anything, and then when I was about 12, I got a new teacher, and he sparked my passion for piano music, like boogie woogie and Scott Joplin and that kind of thing, and Fats Waller.”
In my profile on the younger Waters, we take a closer look at how that early passion in swinging piano music led him to form his own jazz band, which he plays on the side of these Wall shows since they kicked off in the fall of 2010 (Roger Waters to do the Wall on next tour; I also reviewed an early performance of one of these shows here: Waters’s ‘the Wall’ live cements theme with vivid production). The younger Waters said he has played a few of these jazz shows during the tour of the Wall, and this would mark his second in South Florida. “I did a few in Argentina, in BA, which was really nice. I did some in Eastern Europe, so kinda of as many as I can. Yep! Yeah, they’re really cool.”
Here’s some recently up-loaded, HD videos of some of his performances in Buenos Aires, Argentina:
Finally, this has to be my favorite number of his, “Jarrets Dreams,” and we talked about it at length. He described it as “more of a textual kind of thing, and it’s a little longer. There is a melody. There is a tune and some soloing over some very basic chords … I never solo on that because the piano is not the melody. It’s like a groove-based thing. It’s like one of those Herbie Hancock tunes where you have a bass line that just goes throughout … and the piano serves that purpose. It just underpins the rest of that song. If I stop playing that phrase, the song would disappear (laughs). I can’t really solo over that because you have to play it with two hands, that phrase. You can’t play it with one hand, so it’s not like I can play with one hand and then improvise over the top. So that’s my role in that song, it’s just to keep the song going. Yeah, it has that hypnotic, repetitive kind of nature, which is what I was going for, so I’m pleased with that song. It’s fun to play, really.”
August 28, 2011
I have been real busy as of late working other blogs with film and music pieces, plus I am brewing up some interesting exclusives for Independent Ethos. But today, I must pause to note that this day marks one year since one of South Florida’s greatest guitarists died and came back to life.
A few days ago, I wrote a brief profile piece on Carl Ferrari and his work for his band Gypsy Cat on Beached Miami, ahead of this “re”birth day, Aug. 28. Click the Beached Miami tile below to read it (and get a free download of “Zambra,” a mesmerizing, 11-minute-plus slow burn of a piece that highlights Ferrari’s plucking acrobatics):
It’s a short profile piece mostly focused on this man who should have been dead after suffering an electric shock on stage that stopped his heart. His savior, Alex Logan, a friend/musician/paramedic, describes that terrifying day last year in the piece. “I remember I dropped down to my knees and prayed to God to keep him good and safe,” he told me over the phone. He said he had spent close to 10 minutes giving Ferrari CPR until paramedics arrived.
The profile was also in promotion of the release of the debut album by Gypsy Cat, which came out this past June. The eponymous debut sure is something different from the music I first heard him performing in the mid-nineties. He was the lead guitarist in what I described in the piece above as the “gloom-rock outfit Swivel Stick.”
This new CD opens with distinctive polyrhythmic beats of hand drums and hand claps, establishing it as Flamenco-influenced. “Nuestra Rumba” then continues on a rolling guitar rhythm featuring two intertwining melodies on one acoustic, sealing the Flamenco quality. But then a soprano sax offers a jazzy accompaniment, which the guitar joins. The instrumental pulls and melts into this shifty, yet cozy amalgam of very distinct styles, setting up the record’s unique sound. It also features more meditative pieces, like “Preludio” and a daring reinterpretation of the horn master Miles Davis’ “So What” with electric guitar at the center, not to mention the mp3 noted above. You can stream tracks from the full album here:
I did not have space to share all the Ferrari-related news in the piece on “Beached Miami.” He also told me he is not necessarily done with Swivel Stick. During a recent phone conversation, he was fast to tell me that he maintains an affection for the dark, hardcore rock of Swivel Stick, which actually evolved to a more jazz-influenced group, often featuring several John Coltrane pieces in its repertoire. In fact, Ferrari assured me he’s not done with Swivel Stick, as he plans to have their unreleased 1998 album available to the public soon. “It’s pretty much finished except [producer] Frank [Albergaria] is pretty obsessed with it. He’s been mastering it for a while. That will be just an Internet release. I’ll set up a Bandcamp where people can download it for free.”
Anyway, that’s some extra news about this talent from Miami, and it’s a good thing for music to still have him around. Happy Re-Birthday, Carl!
From the Archives: Rounding up Mike Garson, his Now Music, visual art and a bit more Bowie (Part 5 of 5)
August 1, 2011
It all began at the start of this month with an exclusive interview with Mike Garson talking about his new solo album, the David Bowie Variations for Piano (Mike Garson talks about ‘David Bowie Variations’: an Indie Ethos exclusive). Bowie’s stalwart keyboardist since 1972, Garson is up there with some of the more creative collaborators Bowie has worked with. As I noted in earlier posts of this series, I had the privilege of talking with Garson back in 2004, backstage at what would have been Bowie’s tour stop in Miami for the Reality tour.
The publication of the story in the pages of the record collector’s magazine “Goldmine” hinged on whether I could get some exclusive quotes from Bowie. As detailed in earlier posts in this series, it was not to be, and the story languished until Bowie quietly slipped away in an unannounced form for retirement.
Out of the blue, in May or so, I dropped Garson an email to see what we could do with this interview. He told me about the upcoming release of his solo record (Garson will sign a copy of the CD for anyone that orders directly from his website). We spoke again some more, and I resurrected my 2004 interview, which totaled about two hours of talking. Here are the last tidbits of our conversations, from 2004:
Hans Morgenstern: Is there some distinction for you personally between what’s jazz and what’s classical music?
Mike Garson: To be honest with you, I don’t actually have a personal line or barrier or distinction. That might be a plus, and it might be a minus. I never figured it out, but to me, it’s all music, which is probably why I have no problem crossing barriers. I’m very comfortable with fusion music and playing angular things on David’s music and this and that. It’s like whatever I hear is what I play, whether I’m playing solo piano or playing jazz or I’m playing with my trio or playing rock and roll with David. In other words, if I hear it, I play it. I don’t feel, 0h, I’m slipping out of rock. I’m playing jazz. If I hear it, and it seems appropriate for that music, I’ll play it. Once in a while, somebody will say that didn’t sound right, but usually because I’m not in the moment. If I’m in the moment, I’ll usually make the right calculation.
That’s what I was wondering. Is there a rock hat you put on? Do you have a creative pool that you reach for the classical notes and a separate one for the jazz?
It looks that way, but it’s really not for me. It can be, but I don’t opt for that.
How does Bowie’s music fit in with that?
There might be a few rock tunes that I’m required to play rock piano through the course of the night like “Suffragette City” or “White Light[/White Heat],” that Velvet Underground song. I’m just playing…
… But there’s a lot of songs like … We were playing “Ashes to Ashes” one day, and I was playing a synth solo. He says, “Ah, that sounded too much like Herbie Hancock. Why don’t you switch to piano and play like a piano solo, more like ‘Aladdin Sane’ kind of stuff?” So now I do that at the end of the song. Now, that’s not on the original record, and that’s not recorded anywhere, so I’ll get to stretch out on that tonight, if we play that song, and that’s very unusual for me because it’s a three-bar phrase, and it’s a G-minor, an F-major and a C-minor chord, and it revolves in three bar phrases, and it’s not easy to improvise on. Especially since I’m improvising in an avant-garde way, so it’s a challenge for me every night. Whereas when I play an “Aladdin Sane” solo it’s just A and G. It’s easier to improvise on that than:
So there I’m functioning like all the instruments coz I’m playing as a solo pianist. I won’t be doing so much left hand later, or I’ll play it differently. There I had to cover the fullness. There’s some jazz elements and classical elements there.
* * *
That was the point where my hour-long tape ran out, as I was only supposed to have a half-hour with him (yes, just as he was demonstrating his Bowie-related playing). I did call him up about a month later to round out the interview, as really we sort of “improvised” it on the day we first met. Most of this later interview I have already shared (From the Archives: Mike Garson on working with David Bowie (Part 1), From the Archives: Mike Garson on working with David Bowie, the later years (Part 2)). However, I still have some left over bits that do explore other facets of Garson’s life, creativity and technique:
Hans Morgenstern: We did not talk about your institutional studies. When did you go to Julliard and what did you get out of it?
Mike Garson: I studied with a Julliard teacher. In fact, over the years, three Julliard teachers. The Julliard teacher, I never had to go to Julliard because she lived next door to my house, so I didn’t have to travel there. So I had a Julliard teacher for classical, but I didn’t have to study at the school. My college was Brooklyn College.
So it was informal?
It wasn’t informal. It was serious piano lessons. I just didn’t go to that school. My degree is from Brooklyn College for music and education.
I used to put them on after they got sore, now I put them on before, so it’s preventive medicine. I probably hit the keys too hard, I guess. (He laughs). And every time I try to play without them, and, I start off playing soft, I still end up banging by the end of the show, so I keep them on. They really help. Occasionally, I’ll catch a wrong note because of the thickness of the Band-Aid but most of the time, I know how to compensate. I’ve been wearing Band-aids for 30 years.
So that started on a regular piano, but you still need them on a synthesizer?
Well, on stage I have a piano with a piano action, so I need it for that, and of course the synth is right above it, so I don’t take the Band-Aids off. I don’t need them for when I play synth, technically. I need it for the harder action.
Yeah. I probably didn’t learn right from the beginning because I probably shouldn’t need Band-Aids because most people don’t wear them, but you know the old expression, “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it”? So I don’t deal with it. But I’m probably not hitting all the proper parts of the fingers because the band-aids help the sides, and you really should be only hitting in the center part, so I’m probably not even hitting perfect. But, whatever it is, you sort of develop your own way of hitting and playing as the years go on, and if it works, you leave it alone. But it’s probably not a hundred percent standard. Nothing I’ve ever done is standard, connected with the piano.
I have 2,000 in classical and 2,000 in miscellaneous, jazz and pop.
Do you ever fear that the vast amount of pieces you have written out there might diminish the value of each piece?
Well, the truth of the matter is that I feel that maybe one out of 10 is probably good. So I probably have, out of the 4,000 pieces I wrote, 400 that I’d be proud of, and the reason I write so much is to get that one out of the 10. It doesn’t diminish the value for me. Maybe for the commercial world that likes to put scarcity in abundance on things, I’d say, What was the only composition he ever did? or something like that, but I don’t think about those kind of things because I just write music. Hayden, the composer, wrote hundreds of pieces of music, but we play the ones we like. The same with Bach and Beethoven. You find that it’s kind of like the cream rises to the top. I mean of the 400 I would chose, maybe if I was dead, maybe [someone] would chose a different 400, but I would say I would have 400 that I would be proud of and then probably 400 that are OK and then probably 400 that are fair and then probably a thousand that were just bullshit, that were getting me to the other place. Both as a student and a teacher, I tell everybody that: if you want to be a good writer or composer, write a lot, so I wrote a lot. When I used to write pop songs, I couldn’t write good bridges, so I spent a year just practicing writing the bridges of songs, just as a discipline, you know? But since I compose a lot of the music on the Yamaha Disklavier, they take less time to write because I’m actually improvising them on to disk. Then they get printed out, so I’m not having to write it by hand anymore, like I used to do in the sixties and seventies, so my composition has become almost the direct output from my fingers to the piano, so it’s sort of a gift that opened up when I turned 50. It’s kind of exciting in a way.
So you’ve only been doing this since you’ve been about 50, for about eight years?
How do you get the music out there to the other players?
What happens is I first give the disc to this guy who works for me, who prints it out in Finale, and then he makes it look real good, and then I check it over. And then, you know, as I travel around the world I meet people, and I say, “Have a listen to this recording, and if they like one of the pieces, I’ll send you the music,” and guys play them.
Someone played one of my nocturnes in a recital last week, I got a communication last week. I did get asked, just yesterday to play with a symphony orchestra next year, and they want to do my concerto, which I told them, they have to do it by my rules because even though the concerto was written, I was going to play a different piano part with the orchestra playing the same part. It kind of threw the conductor off, but they said, “Why not?”
So you never play the same thing twice, do you?
I try not to. Sometimes I have to on a gig. Like there are certain things that David Bowie wants to hear, I’ll give it to him all the time, but other times I have leeway.
The trouble with my thing is, all my records are out of print, so it’s very hard to find a Mike Garson CD. I have a couple of things floating around. You find them on eBay and this and that, but there’s really nothing, and I’ve done 11 albums.
What’s this Now Art that you are working with?
That’s a whole other part of me that developed in the last six years: computer-generated art that I kind of do like my Now Music; I kind of improvise it. Somebody had given me a program called Photoshop, but I didn’t know you were supposed to use it with photos, so I started drawing things from scratch, and I ended up creating thousands of pictures over the last six, seven years. I had my first art showing in Portland last month [On April 12, 2004, Portland’s Brian Marki Fine Art Gallery hosted a premiere reception of his artwork]. When we passed through Portland some gallery asked me to take some of these computer-generated works and have them put on canvas. There’s a process that you can get them put on canvas. So I had them put on canvas, and they look beautiful, so we sold them. And anyone who bought a piece of artwork at the gallery, I had a piano there, I composed a piece on the spot for them that went with the artwork.
So you create these by just working in Photoshop?
Photoshop, Painter, Artist, (some others) a lot of programs, mostly Photoshop, but I create them from scratch by using the different tools that are in there, with plug-ins and whatever, and I just got a very good knack for colors and balance.
* * *
And these were all the components that would have made a lengthy feature profile on Garson. I probably gathered enough material to write a book, so inevitably lots would have had to have been cut back for a magazine. But thanks to the Internet, and unlimited space, here is a testament to my research. Because of the release of the Bowie Variations, I found a good time to publish it all. Who knows? Maybe one day a proper story in a publication might appear with some of Bowie’s quotes. If there is one thing I know for sure about David Bowie, it’s that nothing is ever final with him.
As Garson has said, he had been thinking about variations on Bowie’s music for a while, so I will leave you with a performance of his variation of “Space Oddity” in 2007:
This is continued from Part 4: From the Archives: Mike Garson on playing the piano (Part 4 of 5)
As already established in my earlier posts culled from several interviews with Mike Garson for an unpublished piece regarding his contribution to the music of David Bowie from 1972-2006 (Mike Garson talks about ‘David Bowie Variations’: an Indie Ethos exclusive, From the Archives: Mike Garson on working with David Bowie (Part 1), From the Archives: Mike Garson on working with David Bowie, the later years (Part 2)), Garson brought a colorful experience in jazz when Bowie called on him to join the Ziggy Stardust tour. Garson had no experience in rock and no idea who this David Bowie character– with his orange mullet and glitter makeup– was. So how did a classically trained jazz man like Garson wind up being Bowie’s most consistent side man of his career?
During my first interview with Garson, when I met him in 2004, I began our conversation with some questions about his jazz experience, which would eventually lead him to working with Bowie.
I met him backstage, in a small, isolated dressing room at the James L. Knight Center in Miami, just hours before Bowie and his band was supposed to take the stage on May 4, during the Reality Tour’s stop in Miami. He was sitting in front of a Yamaha Motif, preparing to warm up for the show, as was his regular routine while on tour with David Bowie.
Our conversation that day wound up mostly focusing on his experience in jazz, before going deeper into his approach to the piano. He would illustrate a lot of his points on the keyboard, some samples of which I have converted into mp3 files posted throughout the rest of this interview, which will continue in two more parts.
On with the interview, which I had hoped to convert into a more feature-oriented piece that never came to be, as detailed in the earlier posts about Garson already posted on this blog. Please note that you will find I ask a lot of questions about his age and what time whatever happened. It would have been what feature writers call “color,” not necessarily direct quotes. But since the story never happened, here is part 1 of that full conversation:
Hans Morgenstern: One of the first things I saw in my research is that you once had a six-hour session with Bill Evans. Is that true?
Mike Garson: Well, yeah. When I grew up on the New York jazz scene in the sixties, I sort of wanted to take advantage of all the great jazz pianists around. I was a gigantic Bill Evans fan. I used to sit this close to him at the Village Vanguard, watching him play and watching his hands. I used to steal my father’s car out of the house, from Brooklyn— I was 16— and just drive down to the Village Vanguard in Manhattan and just watch him play all night. I would get this corner table, and I could see the piano perfectly, so, one day, I got the nerve, a year or two later, to say, “Can I have a piano lesson?”
He said, “Yeah,” and I went up to his place. He spent six hours with me. He didn’t charge me a penny, and we went over some tunes, jazz things, and he showed me how he harmonizes them and voices them, so he would show me different chord substitutions for tunes. He used to carry around a little notebook when he would be on the train, going to gigs, and if he heard a little idea in his head, he would sketch it out, so he kind of showed me a little bit how his creative process worked.
Plus, we shared something in common. He liked Lennie Tristano, and I don’t know if you know Lennie Tristano. Lennie Tristano was a blind pianist. He was phenomenal, actually. A real unsung hero. He’s not alive anymore. I studied with him for three years. Lennie Tristano played with Charlie Parker. He had his own school of music.
This was after your meeting with Bill Evans?
I was studying with him [Tristano] at the time. I had already had two years with Lennie Tristano, so I was just adding Bill in as an additional little supplement because I knew it was just going to be one lesson with him. With Lennie it was weekly. Lennie taught people like Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh, they were sax players. Lee Konitz is still alive. Warne Marsh is not. He had a whole little school of people who played jazz in his style—very advanced harmonic concept and rhythmical concept. The Tristano School was almost like a cult in New York in the fifties and the sixties and the seventies, so I had the luck to study with him for three years. There’s a little playing of Bill Evans on an album that Bill did called New [Jazz] Conceptions in 1956 and there’s a couple of tunes on there where you could see that Bill Evans got influenced by Lennie Tristano, so we got talking about that.
You must have been really young.
You know … I was studying classical primarily, but my jazz studies were all between 15 and 20 or something. I had three lessons with Herbie Hancock. I studied with a guy named Hall Overton (Check out a great radio piece by NPR about Overton as teacher and jazz man). He did the big band charts for the Thelonious Monk albums that have big band on them, if you heard any of those albums they’re hard to find, and those are his arrangements, so I got to study with him.
I remember reading Thelonious Monk did big band, but I never heard any of those records.
He had a big band for a little period of time, and this guy, Hall Overton, was my teacher for two years. He did those arrangements, and, right after my lesson, Tony Williams used to take a composition lesson with Hall Overton. I mean, what I’m trying to say from all this, since you brought up Bill Evans, is I was able to be a sponge and be right on that New York scene. I mean, I got to work with Elvin Jones, who was [John] Coltrane’s drummer.
Oh yeah, A friend of mind told me you played with Elvin Jones, and he wanted me to ask you about him.
Well, what happened was I went to this club to see Elvin Jones, but the piano player fell off the stand drunk [NOTE: must have been between 1971-73, when Steve Grossman was in the band, according to Allmusic.com]. They dragged him out into the street. It was on Spring and Hudson, in Manhattan, and Elvin says, “Does anyone know how to play piano in the house?” And the sax player was a guy named Steve Grossman, who I had been playing with on jam sessions. He was a very talented guy, very young, and he said, “This guy plays,” and I was like in a tuxedo. I had just come from a gig of some sort, you know, some sort of a wedding or party or something like that.
And how old were you?
How old was I then? Maybe, uh, 20, 19 or 20. And, so he points to me and Elvin sees me, and he kind of says, “Come on up, Arthur Rubinstein” because Arthur Rubinstein was a great classical pianist at that time, and he could sense, just by looking at me, that I had a classical background. These guys are very intuitive. And I went up and played a few nights with him just based on the fact that this guy fell off the bandstand drunk, and it was a great experience because I was young, and there wasn’t a more favorite drummer I preferred, even though it was a very short stint, working with him. But I also worked with Pete La Roca at that time, who was also a jazz drummer. I worked with him with Dave Liebman, the sax player. You ever hear of him? Dave Liebman?
We grew up together.
Didn’t you record something with him?
Yeah, we did some recording together, too. We haven’t released the last thing we did. We did a duet, which is really interesting.
I haven’t released it yet, but we played in the Catskills Mountains together for like three or four years every summer (We went to the same high school. I was a year older than him), but we worked with this great drummer named Pete La Roca, who’s a great drummer and Bob Moses played drums with us in that band and then Randy Brecker … There was a loft that Dave [Liebman] lived in, in New York City. There was all these great musicians. We’d have sessions. One day Mike Brecker comes in and starts playing, next day it’s Lenny White, and this is all when I’m 18, 19, 20. It’s not like that anymore.
That was like during the end of the hard bop era, right?
It was sort of right after that a little bit, but we were playing that style. We were a little younger than those people who were the generation before us. So we played some free music, we played some Coltrane-type music. I was playing like McCoy Tynre at the time. It was crazy stuff. It was a great time for music, and I would practice eight hours a day. In fact, about six months before the Bowie gig, I got called to work with Freddie Hubbard. I turned it down coz I was scared I wasn’t ready. Joe Henderson called. I was scared to do that, and then three, four, five years later, I heard the people that played on those records, and I was actually playing that way, but I didn’t have enough self-confidence.
But then you did work with Hubbard.
It turned out I did work with Freddie Hubbard in 1988, many years later, and the night I got called for the Bowie gig was one night after I played a jazz club in Manhattan, on 69th Street and Broadway.
This was like in ’72?
’72, and there was like three people in the club. I was playing with Dave Liebman and Pete La Roca and Steve Swallow and making $5, and I said something’s wrong with this picture, and I said maybe I should go out with a rock band, and then the next night Bowie called. But interestingly enough, the same night Woody Herman called and Bill Chase. Bill Chase, they die in a plane accident [in 1974], so it was good I didn’t do that gig. He was a trumpet player with Woody Herman, and he had his own band. Woody Herman’s gig paid very little money, and I’d played a lot of big band music already, coz I was in the Army Band for three years, so I had played in a big band, so I wasn’t excited about that, but the David Bowie gig sounded interesting, but I have to admit, I didn’t know who he was.
Well, how did he hear about you?
I had just played on an album as a session player for a singer named Annette Peacock, who had been married to Gary Peacock, who was a bass player. She was also married to Paul Bley, who’s a jazz pianist, and she knew David [then labelmates on RCA], and I had just played on her album [called I’m the One (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon)], and he respected her, and he came to America for his first tour and he said he was looking for a pianist to be on the American tour with the Spiders From Mars, and she said, “I just heard this guy who has classical and jazz background, and he might be interesting on your music.” She didn’t really tell him I was a rock player, coz I really wasn’t.
Stream the two songs featuring Garson’s piano on I’m the One below:
From what I’ve read and heard, I sense that you’ve taken piano playing to another level. Does this kind of playing come from wisdom or just playing for many years?
The thing is, I’m obsessed … with the piano. Some people, they orchestrate, they conduct, they played four instruments, they play drums, they play guitar, they play bass, they sing, they write harmony parts. I don’t do any of that. My whole life has been dedicated to the piano, and it’s on-going. So, I’ve looked at so much music and listened to so much music and sight-read so much music, and, personally I’ve composed like 4,000 pieces, of which half are classical.
When I was in Brooklyn College, going to school, I used to bring home music from the New York Public Library. It was the Lincoln Center Library. I’d bring home stacks and put them in the trunk of my car, and they’d let you keep it for two weeks. Then I’d bring it back, return it, bring this much back again. I used to carry it like this, walking through the streets, and I would just sight-read them. I’d only play the pieces once, so I would sight-read composers like Messiaen and Legeti and Bartók and Hindemith and Noles, Liszt and Chopin and Bach and Mozart and Godowsky and Busoni, and I would just read them like people read books, and I’d only just play them once just to absorb it. I was practicing my sight-reading abilities, but of course I was also absorbing music.
What age were you then?
It was between 21 and 25, maybe started even younger. So what I’m saying is I’ve just submerged myself in music. I wasn’t just a jazz pianist or just a classical pianist or someone who played pop or rock or casual gigs or club dates. I just did it all. Whatever came my way. I liked Vladamir Horowitz. I like Arthur Rubenstein. I like Glenn Gould. But I loved Keith Jarrett. I loved Bill Evans. I loved Wynton Kelly. I loved Art Tatum. I loved Oscar Peterson, Bud Powell. So I was submerged in the jazz world, submerged in the classical world, submerged in what the composers wrote. I was writing my own music, and I even like commercial pianists like Roger Williams and Peter Nero and Ramsey Lewis. In other words, I had a specific love for the piano, both playing and composition. Like Chopin, for example, wrote mostly piano music. He only wrote like one concerto and a couple of orchestra pieces, but unlike Wagner or Beethoven, who wrote tons of pieces for orchestra, Chopin wrote for the piano. I’m very much like that. I have 2,000 classical pieces that I’ve written, sonatas and nocturnes and all kinds of pieces.
I’ve heard little bits of them on your website.
Yeah, there’s some things on there. I’ll give you a record. I stuffed one in my suitcase. It’s not out yet, it’s called Homage to my Heroes (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon).
Those are the clips that I heard
But there was some earlier versions. This is a new one. There’s two volumes.
So, if I’m understanding this right, this is basically some of the musicians you mentioned, and you’ve taken their style and done it your own particular way?
Not even that. It’s more like they inspired me at a certain point in my life, whether it was for one day or for a month or for a year. When I wrote the piece I might have just been thinking about them. They all really sound like me and very seldom someone would say that sounds like Messiaen or Bach or this and that. Once in a while it’s obvious. They’re me, but it’s more that they inspired the music, as opposed to copying, but the whole concept behind the album. See, I was trying to figure out what type of legacy could I leave in music that would be different from Leonard Bernstein or Gershwin or Beethoven or Bach or Chopin because they all wrote music this way, by hand, so they composed the pieces, but I had spent 30 or 40 years improvising, so I started writing classical pieces as improvs, but into my Yamaha Disklavier player piano, so it would record all the data and then I’d give the MIDI files to this guy who works with me, and he prints out the music. Something that might have taken me three weeks I’ve done in one shot. I would play on a regular grand piano, and it will record the data, and then they would put it in a program called Finale. It prints it out, then you have to finesse it a little bit. Then I give those pieces to concert pianists, and they play them. I never have played these 2,000 pieces. I just improvise them once, so they might sound like this…
… so my whole concept behind music is if you can capture how you feel at any given second, you are being totally true to yourself and the music but very seldom do I get a chance to create like that. When you’re in a band, you have to play parts. Now, with David, I get more improvisation time than any of the other members because I’m sort of sitting on top of the guitars and bass and drums, so I’m like the whip cream on the cake. So I can improvise a little more, but I still have to play some parts exact.
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In part 4 of this ongoing interview series, I went a little deeper with Garson into what exactly he might be thinking when he plays the way he does.
I’ll leave you with a YouTube video Mike shared of one of his more recent jazz performances (no embed allowed so copy and paste):
This is continued from Part 2: From the Archives: Mike Garson on working with David Bowie, the later years (Part 2 of 5)
This archival interview series continues here: From the Archives: Mike Garson on playing the piano (Part 4 of 5)
Forget Brian Eno, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop. One of David Bowie’s most consistent and important collaborators has been his stalwart keyboardist, Mike Garson. Ever since Bowie’s 1972 tour as Ziggy Stardust, down to his final live performance in 2006, baring a few key albums, Garson has been there, adding a distinct flavor to many of Bowie’s songs. With his abstract, angular improvisations, Garson has helped define the sound of such iconic Bowie tracks going as far back as 1973’s frantic, glitter avalanche that was “Aladdin Sane (1913- 1939- 197?)” to as recent as the spare, atmospheric jazz-inspired number “Bring Me the Disco King,” off Bowie’s last album, 2oo3’s Reality (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon).
Ever since he abruptly halted a world tour in support of Reality, in 2004, Bowie quietly sidestepped the spotlight. The catalyst of this slowdown happened on stage in Germany after he complained of pain in his arm while performing. He was soon rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery to clear a blocked artery (read the BBC article here). Bowie then gradually headed into a low-key kind of retirement following a smattering of appearances as a guest vocalist on other recording artists’ albums and a couple of one-off live performances. No full-length albums have followed nor any tours or full concerts. According to his wife, supermodel Iman, he is living the quiet life under his birth name as a family man in New York City. In a recent interview with the UK’s “Times Magazine,” she said, “I am NOT married to David Bowie … I am married to David Jones. They are two totally different people.” With Bowie no longer recording or performing, who knows if the rock star known as “David Bowie” even exists any more, slipping away through the ether of awareness like the otherworldly life form he has so often been described as.
Now comes Garson to step forward with a tribute album to Bowie, entitled The Bowie Variations For Piano (Garson will sign a copy of the CD for anyone that orders directly from his website). There is probably no other side musician more qualified to interpret Bowie’s music than the classically trained jazz musician who happens to be, as Bowie once put it, “the best rock pianist in the world because he does not play rock.”
I first met Garson in 2004 after proposing a “Goldmine” cover story that would encompass his years with Bowie. The cover would be granted should I have the chance to get some exclusive quotes from Bowie. However, Bowie’s representatives, who have always supported my coverage of their client since I was writing for a university paper in my undergrad years with advance listens to albums and free tickets for shows, would only allow me to speak with Garson. He had agreed to an interview backstage at the James L. Knight Center during the Reality Tour’s stop in Miami on May 4, 2004. We had 45 minutes, but wound up chatting for close to an hour and a half. Garson had even given me an after show pass and promised to introduce me to Bowie. But, right between the opening performance by Stereophonics and Bowie’s show, a local stagehand had climbed into the light rigging without a safety harness and plunged to his death onstage. Bowie cancelled the show and any festivities following it out of respect to the deceased.
With the release of The Bowie Variations, I got back in touch with Garson, and he spoke with me over the phone from his Los Angeles home, over the weekend. “I remember we had a very good conversation that night,” he said reflecting on our first meeting (NOTE: bookmark this blog post or subscribe to the right for the transcription of that entire interview coming soon). “It was just so sad that that unfortunate thing happened that night. In all the years of touring, I’ve never seen that kind of a thing.”
But here we are in the future, with blog posts allowing for more diverse audiences, unconstrained by the limits of print space, so here is a good chunk of our most recent conversation on the Bowie Variations for Piano, with more to come shortly:
Hans Morgenstern: What label’s releasing it?
Mike Garson: It’s called Reference Recordings, and they’re an audiophile label, very high quality. They do mostly classical stuff. They’ve done a few albums for me over the years. I might have had the highest selling of all their albums, jazz and classical, in the last 25 years, an album called Serendipity that I did with Stanley Clarke on bass, Billy Mintz on drums (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon). It was a great trio album.
The release will be on the high quality HDCD format, but do they plan to release a vinyl version?
They plan on it, they’re looking for the right people who can do vinyl. It’s become a dead art, but they do release higher [quality mp3] versions on the Internet. There’s a way to do it, but iTunes can’t provide it, but they do offer a CD-quality one and then there’s the normal mp3.
Where did the idea to make such an album come from?
I had been thinking about the Bowie album for a very long time, and I was thinking of doing it as a jazz treatment with a band and guitar and sax, but that didn’t feel good. I was thinking of doing covers with a lot of great singers I worked with, and that didn’t fly for me. So each time I’d let it go for months and months. I even talked, 10 years ago, to Tony Visconti [a longtime producer of Bowie’s albums] about a concept, and he was into it, but some record company at the time, I don’t know who they were, they didn’t have the budget I was looking for, and I was not going to do it with a small budget. It had to be done right. Then, a good friend of mine who’s a journalist in France and also a singer/songwriter and has written a book on David Bowie, his name is Jérôme Soligny, he said, ‘Mike, the obvious thing is playing solo piano. Just play the music how you feel,’ and I said, ‘Jesus, why didn’t I think of something so simple?’” (laughs).
Was the album recorded live?
Well, the whole album is an improvised album. There’s three or four tracks that has piano overdubs, as you probably heard on “Let’s Dance’ and “‘Heroes'” and on the “Tribute to David,” there’s a delay where the same track plays about a quarter to a half second later than the first track … very subtle, and “‘Heroes'” has three pianos and “Let’s Dance” has three pianos and there’s a crazy medley that, at the very end, I add an extra hand, like a third hand … but everything was improvised, even the overdubs, so I would record them when I felt them, and it was a very interesting process.
Your take on “‘Heroes'” sounds particularly layered, is there any influence there from the Philip Glass interpretation?
It’s funny you would say that. There’s that one piano part that goes on and on, like minimalist … and it’s never the way I actually play. Although, I’ve written a few minimalist pieces, but nothing the way Philip draws it out slowly and builds and builds and builds. But in this particular case I was able to just keep playing it and improvising around it. I varied it. If you listen very closely they change in and out. But a lot of repetition, and I just fell in love with it. I guess if I’ve ever been influenced by Philip it would have been just in that moment in time because I know his works a little bit but nothing very deeply. I just think that growing up in that same era it would have influenced me a little.
How do you think Bowie fans unfamiliar with your solo albums will react to this music?
You realize that even Mark [aka Total Blam Blam] who runs the Bowie site didn’t recognize most of the songs (laughs), and I’ve been experiencing this, case after case, so I knew that many people who are just my fans who have nothing to do with Bowie, I knew that they would hear it as Mike again improvising. There’s some jazz, there’s some classical, there’s some pop elements, some avant-garde, and then I knew the hardcore Bowie fans wouldn’t cease to stop listening to it till they heard it. For, example, if you go back and listen to “Ashes to Ashes,” all I’m playing is the three-bar hook on that song that was sort of done on a piano … I never played the song. That’s why it’s called “variations.” … There are certain songs that I paid much more respect to his melody and many that I turned inside and out. On “Changes,” I did a combination of both. “Let’s Dance,” I built most of it off the bass line. I did a lot of crazy improvising and ended up with a crazy stride piano at the end, which is reminiscent of “Time,” from Aladdin Sane, but much quicker. With the same bass line going. It has its own wildness:
And here’s the original video from 1983:
One of the most interesting pieces on the album has to be your medley of some the later period Bowie songs.
On the medley, I actually use part of my solo from Earthling, on “Battle for Britain,” and I altered it and changed it. Then I did “Loneliest Guy,” which I played the accompaniment part on the Reality CD, but here I played a little melody and improvised very slow, and then on “Disco King,” I used some of the original recording material. I had some of my original MIDI files that I had of my playing mixed with some improvisations … That was the hardest work to put together cause it was the longest. It’s about seven minutes. And “Life on Mars,” the first two minutes of that, I make up my own piece, totally my own piece inspired by David’s song and then I go into the song. That one you can hear the melody pretty straight. “Space Oddity” has two versions, and they’re pretty self-evident, although the second one gets a little more adventurous. But because I’m an instrumentalist, and I’ve never focused a whole lot on lyrics, it’s very easy for me to hear it and see it that way, but a lot of people who are used to those words and his phrasing, I’m telling ‘ya, they probably wouldn’t recognize seven or eight out of the 11 songs. They just wouldn’t know it. Like “Heroes,” it was just some approximation of the bass line, and I hardly play the melody, and when I did, it was kind of tongue-in-cheek, and then I had that Philip Glass line going, and then I had all my improvisation above that. So it’s a very honest album, Hans … because that’s all I do. I’m an improvising musician.
Then there is one piece that doesn’t seem to derive from any previous Bowie track, “Tribute to David.” What was your starting point for that one?
Purely homage. A tribute to David. It was just my way of writing a piece for him that just came from my world, and that’s what came out.
What were your thoughts when you played it?
It was more the intention to write a beautiful piece that seemed to feel like him, from my viewpoint. Nothing else. The reason I know that is because it came out in one shot, in just three minutes or whatever the song is.
How did you choose the songs?
Well, I didn’t want to do any of the ones I was known for. If there is a Volume 2 of the Bowie variations, I would do “Aladdin Sane” and “Time” and “Lady Grinning Soul” in my own way because I’m known for those. I didn’t think that was fair on the first one.
But you are interested to see what it would be like to revisit those early Aladdin Sane songs?
Yeah… but … I was really being respectful to him as a songwriter. Even though they were done in my bizarre kinda way, I still respected his song. If the album is successfully received and people would like a second volume, I would do the ones I’m known for, but since it would be solo piano, I have to find a way to make them sound good without a bass and drums and guitar. That would be very challenging.
What was the last thing you did with Bowie?
The two last appearances that he’s done in the last six or seven years [including one with] just piano and voice, one was with Alicia Keys for an AIDS benefit, and we all did “Changes” together. She asked me to play the piano, and him and her sang it, and we used her band. That was never televised. And then we did one on television where we did “Life on Mars.” It was just me and him, and it was the first time he did anything after the tour, and that was his first performance he did after his problem with his heart. So, I was very fortunate to be part of those two extremely magical performances because they were both great in different ways, and nothing since then.”
Some shaky video exists of the performance of “Changes” with Keys:
For good measure, here is the Fashion Rocks show where Garson and Bowie performed “Life on Mars.” It aired on CBS in 2006:
Any plans to work together again?
We haven’t talked about anything like that. I know that when he feels ready, he’ll call, and if he feels ready. But the thing I’ve always liked about him is, if he’s not feeling something, he’s not going to do it. So, if and when he feels it, he’ll do it, and if and when he thinks I can contribute to something, he’ll call me. If he hears something else, he’ll call somebody else or not have piano. I don’t know any more than anybody else does on that. I haven’t been lead to believe anything either way … When you’re forcing doing music, when you don’t hear it in your head and feel it, which obviously he hasn’t in this last period of time, it would be dishonest, and that’s the last thing he would do because, one thing about him, whether you like his music or not, no one can say that he’s not honest because he does what he feels like, when he feels like it, how feels like it, and his body of work shows it … I think that’s what we do have in common. We’re both pretty honest to our music.”
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It was a nice conversation that, again, lasted longer than I expected and offered much insight into this original recording that seems to deconstruct music and build it back again as something altogether different. David Bowie Variations seems to compliment the découpage style of writing Bowie often employed in his lyric writing to nearly surreal effect.
For even more insight into Garson’s style and how it has grown and changed alongside Bowie’s own unique songcraft, as well as Garson’s history before and beyond Bowie, follow this link for the start of an early, extensive unpublished interview I had with Garson from 2004: