If anyone has a right to celebrate the music of David Bowie, it's his longtime keyboardist Mike Garson. A veteran of decades of recorded and live work with the legendary singer and songwriter, Garson will pay tribute to his friend on a series of concerts in 2018 entitled "Celebrating David Bowie."
From his home in Los Angeles, Garson spoke to KEYBOARD about his history with Bowie and his plans for the upcoming tour.
Can you tell us about how “Celebrating David Bowie” came together?
When David was alive, I had zero desire to play his music in any fashion as a tribute, unless I was doing a pretty “outside” jazz or classical variation of it. I did do “Space Oddity” a few different ways, including a version with a 100-piece symphony orchestra. I also did an album of Bowie variations where I used his music as little themes to get going from. Sometimes I even overdubbed two or three pianos. It was out there, almost like the idea of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations,” where you take a melody and you just really go! But that was about as much as I was willing to do while he was alive.
When he passed, it made sense because I’m sort of the last man standing. There’s Tony Visconti, obviously, who produced so many of David’s albums and played bass with him in the early days, but he’s not really a performing artist, except he goes-out once in a while and does a few things. But as I played on 20 albums and over a thousand concerts with Bowie, it really was a no-brainer. Not for me, but for people reaching-out. After David passed, I must have done 150 interviews within six months. Consequently, people started asking me to do various things. [Guitarist] Angelo Bundini had the idea to celebrate David Bowie, so I helped get a bunch of alumni together for last year. We went-out and did seven concerts, and we brought-in great guest artists around the world. In Los Angeles, Sting and Perry Farrell joined us. And we had Simon Le Bon from Duran Duran, and the guys from Def Leppard, and on and on. In every country, we had great guest artists - plus we had our own great singers like Gaby Moreno from Guatemala. We never thought we’d do anything more. But after a few months passed, people started reaching-out for this year. So I put together another tour that includes [guitarist] Earl Slick, Bernard Fowler on vocals, Angelo Moore from Fishbone, Gerry Leonard on guitar, Carmine Rojas on bass and others. Plus, there will be guest artists in every city we play. For instance, at The Wiltern in Los Angeles on February 28, we’ll have Juliette Lewis, Evan Rachel Wood, Linda Perry, and other great artists who loved David’s music.
You’re the architect of the whole tour?
For the American tour, I’m the architect and the musical director, as well as the emcee and the producer. I tried not to do it and just play the piano! For the European tour, it will be Angelo Bundini. I’ll be doing it with him and [guitarist] Adrian Belew. It’s a different bunch of people on that tour, and it will be great too.
What can fans expect from you musically on these concerts?
While I’m going to play a lot of the great Bowie music, I’m going to approach at least a third of the songs with a different angle to keep David’s spirit of “You’re always innovating” alive. So even when I’m playing things of David that people like, I’m going to have little twists on them. I’m also thinking of composing a new tribute to him every night. I’m still baking that in my mind. So I’m excited. I’ll still be playing aspects of jazz and classical in the shows. I just can’t let that go. It’s what I was brought-up doing, and what David liked when he called me in 1972. So I’ll be looking for a graceful way of having it co-exist with David’s music.
David was known to change players and bands, but you were with him for decades. What do you attribute your long working relationship with him to?
It was a baffling question to me for many years, because I was hired for eight weeks in 1972. After those eight weeks were up, I thought, “This is fun. Maybe I’ll do this for the next two years.” And in those next two years, David had five different bands where he fired everybody but me! I was getting suspicious, and then I realized that he was a chameleon and always changing styles and music. As a pianist, I was sort of a chameleon, because I loved everybody from Art Tatum to Dave Brubeck, to Wynton Kelly and McCoy Tyner and Cecil Taylor, as well as all of the classical people too. So I think we met on those levels, both our creative process and our desire to improvise and create in the moment. I was improvising about 80 percent of the time on those 1,000 concerts I played with him over all of the years. I must have played “Life on Mars?” with him 300 times and every time it was different. He only asked for certain things to bind it together, so I would be respectful of that. A few times I played such crazy intros that he came-in in the wrong key! He begged me that I not do that! [He laughs.]
What kind of keyboard rig are you using on the “Celebrating David Bowie” tour?
I’m going to travel with the Yamaha AvantGrand, which is their three-foot digital grand with a real piano action in it. The samples are great, and it looks very good on-stage. I’ll probably throw an additional synth on top of it for solos. I have an old Yamaha SY99 from the 1990s that has three wheels and a ribbon controller. I love that for some crazy Jan Hammer-type solos. I would use a real concert grand, but David didn’t even like me doing that in the last 10 to 15 years because the miking picked-up too much leakage from the guitars. So with a good digital piano like the AvantGrand, it’s the closest I’m going to get.
For more information and a list of CELEBRATING DAVID BOWIE tour dates visit http://celebratingdavidbowie.com/