"'Within 20 notes we knew he was the guy,' said David Bowie about Mike Garson in our January 2004 article. He was recounting Garson’s 1972 audition with the Spiders From Mars, which led to a lifelong collaboration, and further praised the pianist: 'There are very few musicians who naturally understand the movement and free thinking necessary to hurl themselves into experimental or traditional areas of music, sometimes, ironically, at the same time. Mike does this with such enthusiasm that it makes my heart glad just to be in the same room with him.'And that's just a small sample of the thorough and engaging interview! Read the full feature on KeyboardMag.com!
Bowie’s words don’t just echo our own feelings about Mike Garson, they perfectly sum up the polymath influences and fearless improvisation that has characterized Garson’s entire career—whether playing with Bowie, Nine Inch Nails, or Smashing Pumpkins, or committing spontaneous jazz and neo-classical compositions to his Yamaha Disklavier piano for posterity. Garson’s solo works have always been artistic tours de force, but his latest, The Bowie Variations, is his most accessible and downright fun yet—without sacrificing one iota of his mind-bending virtuosity. Hearing it makes even an advanced keyboardist go, “How can I even approach this level of fluidity and freedom when I try to improvise?” We wanted to know, too. So we asked him."
Were all the songs on the record (The Bowie Variations) improvisations? Did you nail them in one take?
There might’ve been a couple of tracks where I did a couple of takes and then chose my favorite, but for the most part they were straight-ahead improvs because that’s how I play and write. Three or so songs also have overdubs of multiple piano parts.
How and where was the album recorded?
I decided to do it with the Disklavier, which as you know is a modern-day acoustic player piano that Yamaha makes, and it plays back perfectly. I have a nine-foot concert grand version in my studio. I figured if I could capture into the Disklavier, I could play each song I felt when I felt it. So over 30 days—every few days I’d feel like playing a Bowie song and I didn’t even know which one it’d be—I’d do a song in one shot. If instead, I’d had to do it in the concert hall for [record label] Reference Recordings—they like to record in a hall as opposed to in studios—and to have all that inspiration in one or two days because that’s all the time the production budget would’ve allowed, I don’t think I could have come up with 11 songs that felt fresh, so I just did them at home with my Disklavier over about a month. That’s why everything felt pretty good and nothing I recorded was a throwaway.
So then, did you record the audio by playing back the Disklavier and miking it?
Yeah. Yamaha brought another nine-foot Disklavier to the Oxnard Performing Arts Center where we were recording, I brought the files from home, we pushed “Play,” and boom—a few hours later we had the music. Th e audio engineer, Professor Keith Johnson, is this brilliant guy originally out of Stanford. He won a Grammy last year and he’s been working with Reference Recordings for maybe 30 years. For the tunes that had overdubs, we played back each track separately so the Disklavier piano didn’t trip itself up. Keith set the mics differently for each overdub to get a slightly different spacing when you hear it through speakers.
I heard one of those overdubs on “Heroes.” There’s a counterpoint that, while it doesn’t sound like Steve Reich or Philip Glass, made me think of those composers.
That’s right. That’s the closest I’ll ever get to them because it’s not my style, but I wanted to pay respect to their work—especially because Philip did that album of Bowie music symphonically. It was just my little tribute. But it wasn’t calculated—I realized it afterwards.
“John I’m Only Dancing” and the end of “Let’s Dance” have these utter explosions of stride piano. Where did that come from?
When I was a kid I practiced stride piano for weeks and months, and I listened to stride piano when I grew up, so it has always been there. I played stride on the track “Time” from Bowie’s Aladdin Sane album. So here we are with “Let’s Dance,” and I’m playing it kinda funky, and I’m getting a little note-y, and then I have that strong bass line, and then all of the sudden it hit me to do an overdub of stride. “John I’m Only Dancing,” on the other hand, is the jazziest piece on the album in terms of the straight-ahead jazz vocabulary, although I had a lot of blues licks in there.
How about the beginning of “Changes”? There’s almost a boogie-woogie left hand.
Rick Wakeman played on the original album—I took that figure and I went crazy with it. It has boogie-woogie and all these crazy elements in it, but—if you listen to the original take and then play mine—you’ll see the workings of my insane brain. [Laughs.] Then in the middle of the piece I play very straight, so it’s a great juxtaposition. “Changes” is one of my favorite songs.
Your original “Tribute to David” has a curious call-and-answer that’s sort of like a canon. How was that achieved?
First of all, after doing all his tunes in my own style, I thought it’d be respectful to look inside myself and write something for him, so I just sort of tuned into his world, and it came out in one take. As-is, I felt a harmonic sensibility that might resonate with him, but then Keith Johnson and I did something interesting. We recorded it a second time and off set that track by just the right amount. It was like creating your own delay, except with two live piano tracks. That made it feel more Bowie-esque to me, because when those harmonies start to overlap, you get little clashes and dissonances. Don’t forget—the world isn’t the biggest fan of solo piano, so I was trying to be interesting, especially since I didn’t have bass or drums and many people are used to hearing me play with rhythm sections.
Labels: Interview, Keyboard Magazine, Mike Garson, The Bowie Variations