It was a crystalline evening at the Greek Theater in the Berkeley hills overlooking San Francisco Bay. Just moments before headliner Paul Simon walked onstage, a small earthquake shook the 100-year-old outdoor amphitheater. Five thousand people gasped, then cheered. But the real earthquake was to come 45 minutes later.
Paul Simon’s eight-piece virtuoso band rocked the night, re-inventing his classics and sharing his most recent album, So Beautiful or So What? At the end of “Peace Like a River,” Simon nodded at keyboard player and percussionist Mick Rossi, and suddenly the Steinway was the only thing sounding onstage. It was like nothing you’ve ever heard at a rock concert: Mick was improvising a cadenza that was an explosion of what sounded like Philip Glass meets Shostakovich meets Bruce Hornsby, and it grooved.
Rossi is one of those players who has 300 years of classical repertoire in his back pocket as well as the chops to cut any pop gig. He’s played and recorded with Kelly Clarkson, Leonard Cohen, Hall and Oates, Randy Newman, Carly Simon, and the Mahavishnu Project. But you also might see him performing at Lincoln Center with the New York Philharmonic or at Carnegie Hall with Philip Glass. His sudden, improvised cadenza was an honest and thrilling blend of pop and 20th-century classical, and thus a calling card for whom he is as a musician—but how did it wind up in the middle of a Paul Simon concert?
Mick explains: “I’ve been Philip Glass’ pianist, percussionist, assistant conductor, collaborator, and soloist for over 11 years. One day I get a message on my answering machine: “This is Paul Simon. I’m a friend of Philip Glass.’ I’m thinking, ‘Paul Simon? Of course I know who this is!’ He asked me if I wanted to play on the new record. That was about two years ago. Then he called again and asked, “Do you want to join the band? I don’t know if you’re into that kind of thing.” I’m thinking, ‘Are you kidding?’” [Laughs.]
Of course, that kind of phone call is a once-in-a-lifetime thrill. So much of making it is paying one’s dues with thousands of street-level gigs, something first impressed upon Mick by his father, a highly regarded accordion player who lived in Trenton, New Jersey and worked the New York scene. “Dad, to his deep regret, once turned down the Lawrence Welk gig and never let me forget it,” Mick recalls. “He’d hear my latest record and say, ‘This is nice, but why don’t you play standards? Something people will like!’”
- Listen to and download sheet music PDF for this excerpt from Mick's "Lockdown"
Preparing for the Paul Simon tour wasn’t the usual three-weeks-on-a-rented-rehearsal-stage schedule. Mick explains: “Paul rehearsed the band at his place in Connecticut for five months. He’d play a recording or two of his. They were very simple yet highly sophisticated pieces—you’d listen to it once and you’d know where he’s going. We didn’t see a single chart, but his orchestration ideas are very deep. We’ve got really creative musicians up there and everybody doubles or triples on instruments, but he didn’t want everybody playing at once. That’s why the rehearsal periods were so long. He’s very open to and interested in us doing what we do—the weirder the better. I taped together electric bass strings and laid them over the piano strings—it sounds like a harpsichord, only more ugly. He loved it. I think the process is even more important to him than doing the gig. He’d heard my new solo piano record—which is 99 percent improvised—with prepared piano and he got excited about the sound. That sort of experimentation is what I get excited about, too.”
Mick’s personal music, and there’s a lot of it, is anything but standard: “I’m all about pushing the music forward. Why play the same old thing? I want to make it messy. I just did an event at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, fully improvised, in an installation by Carlito Carvalhosa, a Brazilian artist. People were a foot from the piano, closer than they ever get at concerts. I even brought some sheet music in that I didn’t play—some Shostakovich and Scriabin. I just put it on top of the strings.”
Mick’s records run the gamut from pristine jazz quintets to his current album of improvised and endlessly fascinating solo piano, Songs From the Broken Land, which is a gold mine for keyboard players who are tired of the same old ideas. The record is a primer on fusing impeccable technique with irreverent imagination: small, intense pieces that all ask the question, what new thing can one do by ignoring all the rules that one nonetheless knows so well. See the six variations on My Old Kentucky Home for cases in point.
The hard work never ends. At the end of the seismically-active Paul Simon concert Mick showed us his night’s homework: page after page of prestissimo eighth-notes. When his performance day ends, Mick returns to his hotel room to prepare for the upcoming Philip Glass tour. That should be more inspiring than daunting. Every minute of practice, every hour of concentration, brings us closer to the kind of freedom and mastery to which we all aspire—and which Mick Rossi has achieved.
Mick Rossi's Stage Rig with Paul Simon
Mick is no exception to the rule that everyone in Paul Simon’s band plays two or three instruments. Left to right: Steinway D, Hammond C-3 organ, the very same Rhodes that Richard Tee played on “Still Crazy After All These Years,” harmonium (a portable hand-pumped reed organ), hand drum, percussion, and mallets.