Saturday, November 14, 2009

BloG #40: Whose Piano Is It Anyway?

With this being the eve of a Fall series of new release concerts in promotion of my new cd Don't Ever Forget, I'm going to attempt to answer a question I commonly get asked.

The question usually focuses on my piano influences. Who do I listen to? Do I emulate anyone in particular? Or... Just who am I trying to play like?

Great questions all of these and I'm glad I asked them. Seems someone asked me at least one of them sometime, somewhere. I bet someone else might even ask me again.

So... a little background here..

I started taking piano lessons in 3rd grade. Up to that point, we had a piano in the house and I would often sit and amuse (and sometimes amaze) myself at my ability to just come up with a melody that truly sounded pleasing to me. I enjoyed that. But then I essentially repressed that memory until fairly recently when I began to put some thought into why I have chosen to follow this passion all these years later. What continues to drive me to do this?

Another memory I have stems from just a few short years later. Sunday mornings before church, when the childrens choir my mother directed & I sang in wasn't singing, I would often have a little time to kill before the service started. We would arrive early so my parents' adult choir could practice. So, I would find my way to an empty Sunday school room that had a piano and sit down & start playing on it. I was taking lessons, so it wasn't just noise like I get from so many children who wish to play the keys on the piano in my music classroom. No... I was playing music, and doing it for the pure enjoyment of it.

Around this same time, however, practicing for lessons was truly becoming a chore and I was hating it. I did not wish to continue. So, I eventually stopped.

This was a sad day, because looking back I can remember being so excited to start lessons. I was ready & couldn't wait! Now, it was a chore & I couldn't take it anymore.

But something else happened right at this same juncture. A calling was approaching me over the airwaves that I could not ignore. I began to hear these awesome songs over a year's time that spoke to me beyond the words he was singing. The artist in question kept releasing tunes that were bringing out this spiritual awakening in me driving me back to the piano bench where I had just left!

The first song I ever heard by this artist, I only heard once in an older neighbor boy's car, when he offered me a ride. I thought it was cool & specifically remember the clever lyrics & playful accompanying piano line throughout. I couldn't wait to hear it again because it sounded so great on his car stereo but it was another year or two before I heard it again. I remembered the name of the singer/player though because it was so unique.

Next, over the summer months of 1973, came a full on rocker by this singer that was fun, but didn't push my piano buttons so I essentially ignored that one. But 3 or 4 months later into the fall season, the classic that got my juices flowing again hit the airwaves. Every time I heard this one, I would stop everything and just find myself in another place. This one ended up being one of my first two 45 records that I would buy with birthday/Christmas gift money from my uncle. The other 45 was Rock On by David Essex.

Springtime led to another fun song by this artist with some cool studio effects thrown in. The next hit that followed in the summer months finally sealed my retirement coffin. I could stay away from piano no more. I had to learn how to play this song! So, I went to the local music store and was pleased to find the sheet music - first one I ever bought! Took it home and struggled through the first couple measures. Over the next several days, I was worn down to the realization that lessons could maybe give me the skills and pathway to actually emulate this player.

Who was it? And what were the songs? If you know my age, you may have already figured it out.
Elton John was the culprit. And he wouldn't stop! The pieces kept on coming!!

The first song listed above was Honky Cat. Lyrics, piano, horns, syncopation...great piece!
Next came Saturday Night's Alright (for fighting) and I wasn't a fan yet, so it was fun but didn't take me there.

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was the clincher. I was sucked in by this one. So very cool. Loved it & couldn't wait to hear more. Then came Bennie & The Jets - so cool with the electric boots & mohair suit, etc..

Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me just grabbed my soul & became the anthem that I had to learn. I absolutely loved every note of that song. The piano. Elton's vocal performance. Ray's tambourine. Davey's guitar. Nigel's drum fills. Dee's subtle bass lines. The background vocals and the horns. And Bernie's lyrics! All conspired to create a completely perfect song! That hot summer, the steam from that particular song perpetrated a following for this artist that I have weathered through thick & thin for 35-plus years.

There is more to the Elton John story, but since the original question asks in the plural form, I will move on & save Elton for another future writing.

Billy Joel never did it for me. That is until the Fall of 1981, I heard Say Goodbye To Hollywood followed by pieces from The Nylon Curtain the subsequent year. I enjoyed those songs, but not much else. He always seems to be trying too hard or something. Maybe I just appreciate English artists more. (I also felt that way about the Do They Know It's Christmas/We Are The World debacle) I don't know...

I actually enjoyed a few Barry Manilow songs & even scored one out for the Jr. High chorus to sing background with me at piano & lead vocals. That was fun. Corny I know, but consider the time period folks. I remember seeing him play on tv back then & liked how he sat on a stool that put him a little higher above the piano than the average player.

Anyway, the next pianist that really caught my attention was Keith Emerson of Emerson, Lake & Palmer. After acquiring a job at the grocery store, I became immersed in talking music with co-workers, while earning enough money to finally purchase a decent turntable. So, the new Technics direct drive turntable and ELP Works Volume 1 LP were purchased on the same day & I proceeded to be blown away on the first & every subsequent listen since. Side one of this double album features Keith with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Once again, I couldn't get enough! And what a way to break in the new turntable!

There was a Christian artist band that was around in the 70's & early 80's who I was turned on to for awhile. Their name was 2nd Chapter of Acts and Annie Herring wrote most of their music, played piano & sang. I was drawn to her percussive/melodic style of playing and actually played with a group that played their music for a couple years. Some of my playing style still reflects what I gained from that influence. And, btw - Matthew Ward's vocals are incredible! Loved seeing them live. Special times, they were...

Did you ever see the movie On Golden Pond? Dave Grusin did the soundtrack and I absolutely loved it. Haven't listened to it for years. I wonder if I can find a recording of it somewhere. Would be nice to check in again.

During the Spring of 1983, a friend turned me on to Pat Metheny. I think this is where I finally began to really hear music w/out words and just get it. I bought Offramp and played it over & over again. Lyle Mays on the keys was taking me to that next level beyond the pop & classical sound that I needed. I use the term jazz loosely here, because it really isn't jazz in my mind. I say that as a positive. Having jazz driven into me throughout school/college, I really got sick of it. But Lyle Mays & Pat Metheny had their own style that cut through the crap as I saw/heard it. Seeing them live over the next few years including at Red Rocks was very special to me. The Red Rocks show was during the same tour that Travels was recorded from. Pure magic!

Spending the summer of '83 in Colorado opened me up to some other musical directions I had not really been previously aware of. One of those directions became an influence that has stuck with me ever since. I suppose you could say George Winston's piano playing drove down the middle road between what I was hearing from Lyle Mays & Keith Emerson. Not jazz/fusion. Not rock. Not classical. It was being referred to as New Age, which seems to drum up so many negative connotations, partly based on the confusion created by the polytheistic religious associations. I hate that. I just want to hear the music. George Winston's music draws mental images for me. I like that. I also loved the packaging. So much so that my JavaMusiK Label somewhat emulates the packaging by Windham Hill. Seeing George Winston in concert with his relaxed demeanor wearing socks, jeans & flannel shirt juxtaposed against his precise playing was blowing my mind. I've been a fan ever since.

The following summer, a friend and I drove my 1970 Dodge Charger back out to Colorado for an impromptu vacation. After breaking down late at night in a Nebraska college town & spending all our money getting the car fixed the following morning, I took a nap in the back seat of the car heading west on I 80. When I woke up, my friend had a tape playing of solo piano music I had never heard before. This artist seemed to develop his themes from the smallest of ideas or even mistakes. And then he would just go with it. As I layed in the back seat pretending to sleep, I was getting so lost in where this player was taking me. He would hum-sing over parts he was really getting in to. It was all so raw and fantastic! Recorded live in front of an audience, you could feel the energy just pouring out in his performance. You felt like the smallest mistake would take his music into a brilliantly new direction. We were listening to Keith Jarrett's The Moth And The Flame that day. That, and his Koln Concert have provided me much inspiration over the years.

The most recent pianist to get my juices flowing would have to be Jon Schmidt from Utah. I have enjoyed my listens and find myself checking back from time to time. I encourage you to visit and hear for yourself. I'm venturing to say you'll easily see what I mean!

Those are the biggies. Limited in scope, I know. There are many others, but none prominent enough in my own mind to be thought of and given a paragraph here. I would list David Lanz and Jim Brickman both as having some influence. I also liked what Kate Bush & Peter Gabriel were doing with keyboards & piano. Meanwhile, if something else comes to mind, I will add it in later, b/c thinking back over the last 35-plus years is draining, especially at 2:30 am. I'll prbobaly look through my music collection later & wonder to myself how I could have possibly left whoever I left out. Meanwhile, buy my cd's and let me know who you think I may sound like to you. Hopefully, you'll say I have a very unique and lovely sound all of my own.


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