Mike Garson On Ultimate Improvisation

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By Stephen Fortner

“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.”

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.

When we last spoke in 2004, you said that jazz was “something you passed through” on your way to improvised neo-classical music. Since then, you’ve gotten back into jazz. Can we talk about that journey?
That’s a great question—I remember saying that. From 1995 until about 2004, I needed a few years to shut down the jazz vocabulary to develop what I’ve been calling my “now” music—my classical improvisations. I felt like that had to be outside the jazz vocabulary for one reason or another. What happened around 2005 was, I began to miss the interplay with other musicians in real time. Now, five to six years later, I’m seeing myself trying get out of my own way and help others do the same musically. Not coincidentally, my pieces are including whatever I hear in my head as I’m composing or improvising them on the Yamaha Disklavier—there are elements of jazz, pop, classical, avant-garde, rock, gospel, blues. I’m not putting up any self-imposed exclusions, which I did for ten years. I think that was foolish and maybe a bit arrogant.

Given your lifelong career with Bowie, why was an album of his songs so long in coming?
It was a very interesting process. Bowie had talked about producing an album for me as early as 1972. There was a time in the ’90s that I planned on doing one with [Bowie producer] Tony Visconti, using a lot of different singers and arrangements. Then, I was going to do a jazz album of Bowie with a band. Nothing was really resonating. So I’m talking to a friend, Jérôme Soligny—he’s a journalist in Paris, a singer and songwriter, and he wrote a book about Bowie. He says, “Why don’t you do the obvious, Mike, and just play solo piano? That’s what you do best.” So nearly 40 years later, here it is.

Were all the songs on the record 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.

Has your improvisational soul ever been drawn to synths and all the ways they can morph sound in real time?

Most people call me for my piano skills, but I love the Rhodes, I love the Wurlitzer, I love playing Moogs, and I loved ARPs back in the day. I loved the Oberheim when I was playing fusion with Stanley Clarke. I’ve played piano through a Leslie as an experiment with Bowie on the Pinups album. I just got a little M-Audio Venom synthesizer and I’ve been having a ball with it. But the thing is, I made a choice that’s there’s just so much you can do in a given lifetime, and if you really want to be an expert, stick with what you do best. If I were to do a project and spend six months with some of those instruments, I think I could come up with some great stuff, but right now I feel like I’d be dispersing myself and would wind up being a jack-of-all-trades.

When you’re improvising solo piano, what’s the process whereby a light bulb goes on and you move from one style to another?

I can give you the simple answer, but then there’s the background data about how I got to that point. So, the oversimplified but really true thing is that I was encouraged to improvise that way when I studied with the great jazz pianist Lennie Tristano back in New York in the ’60s. He wanted you to improvise what you felt and not use too many “licks.” I mean, it’s impossible for every note to be fresh—otherwise you wouldn’t even recognize a player’s style—but as much as possible, he wanted you to be fresh. So I took that to heart, and over 30 to 40 years I developed it. Now, I don’t have boundaries about jumping styles—I do it in a natural way. Again, you learn to get out of your own way—which you’ve probably heard a lot of artists that you’ve interviewed say—and the music becomes bigger than you.

If that was the simple answer, what’s the background data you spoke of?

There were ten to 15 years where all I did was practice eight hours a day. I wouldn’t play a song until I’d done two hours of scales. For a whole year, Lennie Tristano had me play just melodies of standards in the right hand—no improvising, no left-hand chords. For a whole other year, I had to play those same melodies in the left hand, then he’d let me improvise one note above or below the melody note for several months. So I had the most rugged discipline, and that might be why I’m able to be so free now because I put in so much time when I really—to tell you the truth—hated my playing. Somehow I must’ve intuited that if I paid those kinds of dues, it would lead to the freedom that I’m able to experience in this part of my life—which is beyond a joy, you know?

The ultimate “getting out of your own way” is to translate thought and emotion into moment-by-moment decision to play a given sequence of notes instead of any other sequence. You seem to do this effortlessly when improvising. How does one get there?

If I fully answer the question, you’re gonna have a 500-page magazine! [Laughs.] There was a time when I had to think through all these things consciously, so let me list them in an order. Step one is to get your instrument under your belt—familiarity with scales, chords, and how harmonies work. There’s a certain oiling of the wheels so there’s no squeaking. That’s pure ditchdigging repetition, like the way one might learn a language. Not to acknowledge that would be very arrogant on my part, as I’d sound like I dropped in from heaven and all of a sudden made magic. If you want to play pop, rock, or blues, then it doesn’t have to be a 20- or 30-year runway like it might be for classical or a great jazz pianist like Art Tatum or Oscar Peterson. It doesn’t take as long to learn to write a great pop song—that runway might be a year or two.

Once your instrument is under your belt, what’s step two?
Be excited about it. Find a piece that speaks to you and makes you want to do something, as opposed to the more mechanical vibe of, say, hitting a certain musical style for a TV commercial—though that ability is a gift in its own right. But whether it’s a Tom Jones tune or a Herbie Hancock tune, you need to feel you have something to add to do a version of that song. Right there is a breakpoint, because I’ve forced pieces just because I thought it’d be a good discipline to practice variations on them, and they’ve been very uninspired. They might have been useful “ladders”—there’s the saying that to make a great writer, composer, or improviser, you just force them to write, compose, and improvise—but the final result was much headier than I like music to be. For this record, when I’d sit down with “Space Oddity”—I’ve now done four versions of it, two of which are on the CD—I felt it. Again, that speaks to being able to record into the Disklavier over a comfortable time period.

Creative people are also subject to moods where we just can’t get excited about anything, but feel obligated to produce output. What then?
Go to the movies, go bowling, go for a walk, and wait until you are excited. One has to respect the process of not improvising and not creating, and letting music and life take its form and unfold—one can’t always be in this condition of genius with music continuously coming through. You need down time where you might be fooling around with your iPhone and just playing Angry Birds. You know, you’re actually preparing for the next piece—that’s how I see it.

Not creating as part of the process of creating?
To an extent. My philosophy is that everybody should be creating something. I don’t care if it’s in Photoshop, if they’re dancing, if they’re writing a poem, if they’re writing a script. I believe that within each being, the potential for creativity is part of our God-given gift. If one doesn’t utilize the potential, that’s okay, too, but I believe that there’s a certain joy in life that can be gotten from sitting with something and getting to know it. So when you sit down and look to find a way into a piece, there has to be a level of trust. For me, there also has to be the surrender part where, again, I get out of my own way and let the music flow. That’s what we might call step three, and Beethoven and Chopin have alluded to it. Then there’s step four, which is the trial-and-error where you just test it out. You might have to do a few takes. Sometimes, you’ll get a moment of inspiration where if you’re out of your own head and let your fingers flow, you might surprise yourself.

Let’s say you’re at step four. You have some skills and are excited about the song but feeling blocked. Any concrete techniques for opening up?
I learned a great one from Thelonious Monk—he didn’t tell it to me, he told it to the great bebop pianist Barry Harris. Barry was asking him how to become a better improviser, and Monk said, “Sit down and play the same song, maybe 200 choruses, two hours a day. Never stop if there’s a mistake, because the main thing is to keep the time flowing.” By playing something over and over, in the first 20 or 30 choruses you work all your comfortable “licks” out of your system, you play all your junk. And all of a sudden, it starts to open up after half an hour or 45 minutes. Maybe you use a metronome or a loop to keep the time nice and steady. The music starts to take on its own life and evolve. That’s 180 degrees opposite of how I used to teach, which is that I’d show people exact improvised lines. I still use that method, where I’ll write something out—it’s just that now I believe both methods are very useful.

As a teacher, do you worry that hearing about how rigorously you practiced might scare away aspiring players?
Well, one size doesn’t fit all, though what I went through will work. To contrast with that, I once had this student who was a new-age pianist. She didn’t want to learn any of the stuff we were just talking about—she wanted to play on A minor and G major. She refused to learn sheet music, jazz chords, classical licks, modes, or anything. She’d come into the lesson and play, sometimes for an hour, on two chords in a new-age style. Sometimes I’d actually fall asleep, and she thought it was great that her music was producing a meditative effect on me. [Laughs.] But the truth is, I let her do that, and she became terrific at new-age piano. I wound up helping produce her record in the late ’70s. Ten years later I got a letter from her saying she’d been studying orchestration, had learned how to read, and was writing a symphony. Because I didn’t enforce my realities, she did her thing until she ran it out, then moved on. The point is, if you put your heart into anything connected with your instrument, and you just do it a lot, you’ll get a result.

On that topic, how “serious” do you expect your students to be about piano?
For many years, I’d be very frustrated if a musician was doing a day gig. I was intolerant because I couldn’t understand why they didn’t “follow through.” But now, when you see just how rough it is out there, and you figure at least 80 percent of musicians around the world are playing weddings, bar mitzvahs, funerals, churches, company parties . . . it’s very difficult to just be a professional musician only doing that. I consider myself exceptionally blessed. Although when I was coming up, you’d go with a record company and they’d develop you for five albums. Now, if you don’t have a single in three months, you’re out.

They also don’t have production budgets anymore. They want you to bring in a finished record. . . .
There you go—the whole thing is totally inverted and ridiculous. I don’t know where the music business is headed. What I do know is if somebody keeps playing, then they’re going to be fairly happy with themselves. So now, my bottom-line intention is that whatever my students get out of studying, it serves them. If they have an epiphany that they’d rather be a lawyer or a doctor because they hate practicing scales, I did my job. If they decide they want to be the Vladimir Horowitz or Keith Jarrett, great. If they decide they want to be a rock player, great. In the early days of teaching, I’d always want to make somebody a better pianist, and I’ll still do that when somebody expresses that goal. But you don’t always know when somebody comes to you what’s in their heart of hearts—and often, they don’t know. My goal is that they discover that as the final product of what I teach. I’ve had all kinds of students come back to me—this one’s a singer-songwriter, this one’s a concert pianist, this one’s a conductor, this one’s an accountant. As long as I’ve somehow gotten them to feel what was resonating within them, I feel like I’ve done my job.

On the other hand, isn’t it still okay to tell people, “Hey, if you develop skills, professionalism, and good habits, you can make money playing music”?
Of course, that’s more than acceptable. One can still set the goal—don’t get me wrong—to make a living from it. But as for dangling that big rockstar prize in front of people, I don’t think that’s a healthy or ethical viewpoint. Maybe I got that prize playing with David Bowie—but I could just as easily have been a starving jazz musician my whole life. Luck, timing, and all sorts of things factored into it. But even if you don’t make it to Carnegie Hall or touring with Lady Gaga, you can still be somebody whose contributions to society are enhanced by music.

In your opinion, how does musicianship enhance a non-musical profession?
If you have played an instrument, no matter what you do to make a living, you must somehow continue to play a certain amount. Otherwise, you’re gonna lose your mind! [Laughs.] That’s the truth. It’s not that you have to play professionally, but you have to play. If people play, they’re actually less grouchy. If they don’t play, they’re very grouchy. This, I’ve experienced in thousands of people—even myself. I was feeling a little uptight about two hours ago, and it dawned on me that I needed to write a piece before we started this interview. So I set up my equipment, I went and improvised a piece, and now we’re having this great conversation.

That’s true of my own experience. . . .
It’s true in anyone who’s willing to take a look. Being human and going through life is not a very easy thing, and the survival factors can be fairly significant. So you put a little beauty in there—a person sees a concert, sees a band playing, he himself plays, does a little artwork, does a little poetry, writes a script—that helps soothe the savage beast, as my dad used to say. For me, it’s always been the piano, but it could be any arts. As long as you’re playing, don’t suffer too much that your integrity is screwed up because you have to do a day gig. I once taught a guy who’d played as a teenager, but then he went into the Navy for, like, 30 years. When he came out he contacted me, and by this time he was in his 60s. He went back to playing the same piece he’d left off at age 17. When he was in his 70s he was still studying with me, and I said, “What’s up with this?” He said, “I’m preparing for my next lifetime.” The bottom line is, when he went back to the piano, it restored a sense of happiness that he’d missed all those years.

When it comes to something as hard as playing an Art Tatum solo by ear, is some of that physiological? If someone’s brain isn’t wired that way, won’t they always have a hard time no matter how much heart they put into it?
Probably! I like the question and I like the answer. [Laughs.] It’s true what you’re saying, we each have our different gifts. If you love music, there are ear-training classes and things you can do—I can teach that, too. They say you’re born with perfect pitch, but you can develop it if you don’t have it. You can also develop relative pitch. I’ve seen a lot of very creative people who have terrible ears, but they still create beautiful things. They might not be able to take off a Tatum solo, but they could write a great pop song. Copping a Tatum solo is not a “step one” conversation. You might try a very simple jazz solo first, from someone like Vince Guaraldi or Ramsey Lewis or Hank Jones, or some pop thing that has a little jazz in it. But if a person loved Tatum and wasn’t wired as you describe, I could still get him to learn some of those notes. And if he couldn’t hear it due to that hardwiring you’re talking about, we’d get out the Tatum book—a number of his solos are notated.

What are your views on music education—for people who can’t take private lessons from a Mike Garson?
I’ve always had the viewpoint that if every school student from the age of five had to learn an instrument until they graduated college, there’d be much less strife and conflict and wars on the planet. Maybe that’s too much of an oversimplification for society and for governments, but music cools people out, and it’s a beautiful thing. I’m doing that with my grandkids. One of them is five now. I started when he was two—drums, guitar, keyboard, flutes—and he says, “Papa, can we have a whole house of just instruments?” I just love that spirit. I started at seven, and seven is too late. Two is fine, three is fine, because what the brain can absorb at that age is absolutely miraculous. If I’d known that, or if my parents had known it, I wish I could have started at age three.

**Look for regular lessons by Mike Garson in upcoming issues of Keyboard!

Learn how Grammy-winning engineer Keith Johnson recorded The Bowie Variations and download a free PDF of Mike Garson’s careening improvisation on “Deck the Halls.” CLICK HERE for the MP3 of "Deck the Halls" or click on the player below.

Deck the Halls by Mike Garson by KeyboardMag