This post continues my conversation with Mike Garson, which took place May 4, 2004. I sat down with him backstage at the James L. Knight Center in Miami, in a small, isolated dressing room set up with just his Yamaha Motif. He told me he always liked to practice for a couple of hours before hitting the stage. In a few hours he was to join David Bowie and his band on stage, during the Reality Tour’s stop in Miami. But, as detailed, earlier (Mike Garson talks about ‘David Bowie Variations’: an Indie Ethos exclusive, From the Archives: Mike Garson on working with David Bowie (Part 1 of 5), From the Archives: Mike Garson on working with David Bowie, the later years (Part 2 of 5), From the Archives: Mike Garson goes from jazz to Bowie (Part 3 of 5)), that show would be cancelled.

Still, in my 20 years of interviewing musicians, my conversation with Mike was one of the more memorable I have had with an artist of such talent and experience. I was delighted to have encountered a musician whose roots not only went back to the heyday of the glam rock era of the seventies, but even further to the roots of the experimental New York free jazz scene, and none of it had seemed to have gone to his head. He spoke of his apprehension of playing with jazz men of such greatness as Bill Evans, and offered patient insight into his memories of working with Bowie, probably his most famous collaborator.

In this part of our conversation we go a little deeper into Garson’s own ideas of his approach to the piano. It’s an intimate conversation that reveals an interesting and humble mentality to man’s place in music. This continues directly from the last post…

Hans Morgenstern: You mention how the improvisation just comes out of you. It must really take an unself-conscious sort of mindset.

Mike Garson: There is no ego when it’s going right. I have an ego, but it’s not usually in the way when I’m playing best, like the Lennie Tristano thing. He did a record that nobody even knows about because it sold so few, but I happened to get it in the sixties. He’s playing bass line with his left hand and improvising with his right hand. It sounded like this…

Listen to Garson’s demonstration

and jazz musicians like to take simple songs and just do theme and variation on them. You’d expect it to do that in jazz, but in Classical you don’t expect that. You’d expect it to be written out, but when I write out music I would sound like maybe secondhand Rachmaninov or Liszt or Chopin or Stravinsky, but when I was improvising, it became apparent that’s how I create, so that became my form of music, so when I realized I had the ability to get it written out through the player piano because I recorded into the Yamaha Disklavier, which is a 9-foot grand I have in the house. I put the floppy disc in, push record and then give the guy the disk and then he prints it out. I’ll look it over to see that it’s right. Then I pass it on to be played by some concert pianist. I don’t play them but that one time, but they sound like a classical piece. Like what I just did for you, a few minutes ago, that we don’t have a recording of. It’s gone. I could have recorded them in here…

[I point to the recorder].

Oh, yeah, that there, but it wasn’t that good, the classical thing today. The jazz thing was actually better, but you never know what’s actually going to be what, when and where … But to answer your question, it’s a combination of a hundred thousand hours of playing the piano since I was 7, and I’m 58, so I’ve been playing 51 years, so, if you think about it, if you can’t be good after all that time (he laughs) you’re really just in the wrong profession. That’s just on a very physical level, but musically, spiritually and emotionally it’s kind of like … (He pauses). You’re somewhat channeling. It’s like the music’s passing through you or like the notes are there, and I’m grabbing them, or they’re grabbing me. I haven’t figured it out.

I’ve heard Robert Fripp talk about that.

Has he talked about that? Any great artist will somehow or other get around to it, somehow, someway, and I know that it’s kind of like the expression: God helps those who help themselves. I mean, let’s face it, I’ve done a lot of homework, so I couldn’t do this on violin or French horn. I would sound terrible. So I have worked hard, but I know a lot of people who play the piano very well and have played as many hours, but they don’t have that freedom to just create and improvise. There is obviously some gift and some portion of me that is able to get out of my own way because I’ve never had composer’s block.

That goes back to when you were much younger, in your 20s and before Bowie invited you to play with him, you mentioned some of these jazz guys, and you were intimidated by that, basically.

I was.

So what happened to that guy? How did you break that barrier? How did he break through his fear of feeling inadequate to play with some jazz people?

I had to break through something that Vladimir Horowitz never broke through. People used to ask him, “How come you don’t compose?”

He said, “Well, my friend is Rachmaninov, who’s a genius.” I studied Chopin. You can’t beat that. I grew up with that mentality, and as long as you think that, that’s what you get, and it’s pretty logical thinking, so I had that for about half of my life. Then one day, I said, “fuck it.” I have to change my mindset, and I have to adopt a new paradigm: “Oh, I can be as good as any of my jazz heroes. I can be as good as any of my classical heroes. I can be as good as any composer but as Mike Garson.” What do I have to do to do that kind of a thing? And then I started to work toward this music that I call my Now Music, which is all this improvised classical stuff. But I do it in pop, I do it in rock. If you take the “Aladdin Sane” solo away from the rock track, it’s like the stuff that I’m playing. It would sound like …

Garson demonstrates

… So that’s where my joy lies these days, but the theory behind this way of playing, and that’s really what I do with David Bowie on those albums, and I’ve had it on my mind for 30 or 40 years, and I learned it from Lennie Tristano, the blind pianist that I was telling you about, which is he told me he felt that true jazz was really playing what you hear on the spot, in the moment. And a lot of guys play a lot of licks, and things they have memorized and worked out. There’s nothing wrong with that, and I certainly have done that, but I like the concept of trying to play what you feel in the present time, at the moment, and that’s what I’ve been developing for the last many years. It’s not much different than this conversation, in a way, you ask about this, and I start branching out, and it starts to become its own improvisation.

A lot of what I’m hearing here reminds me of what I saw on Michael Apted’s documentary, Inspirations, where he filmed you guys recording “A Small Plot of Land,” and he asked David Bowie about his creative process on the computer.

I never saw that.

You never saw that? Not even many Bowie fans know this film was released. It’s about these different artists, Lichtenstein, is another, and about the inspirations behind their art.

I’d love to see it. Was I in it?

Well, it was during the Outside sessions.

Those were great sessions.

You were on “A Small Plot of Land,” right?

I played piano.

But he was mainly focused on David.

I think conceptually,  [David is] in a similar place, philosophically, to me. Except that he’s working in pop music, in rock ‘n’ roll. He does have to go out and sing “Rebel Rebel” and some of these songs the same every night, and the band has to be tight, and the arrangements have to be tight. But, I think, when the music evolves and develops, he’s probably doing his version of what I was just doing in real-time for you. It’s not always the same thing.

That’s why I’m attracted to artists like him and you because it’s not always the same thing.

It’s not always the same thing … The thing is, Mozart and those people, Brahms, Beethoven, most of them didn’t live past 40, so I have this opportunity now, being 58 to still keep learning and absorbing things, so I’ll be around this other music that I’ve been talking about for the last 15 minutes, and I’ll be around David and this band, each person in this band is so creative and talented in their own way. The drummer, Sterling [Campbell], he’s the one who’s on “A Small Plot of Land” with me, and we improvised those sessions on Outside. David didn’t even let us tell each other what keys we were playing in. We basically played two weeks straight, four hours a day onto tape, the improvisations. They have tons of tape. Outside is just some songs that got made and put together by [co-producer Brian] Eno. Him and David would take these improvs that were all on these tapes, and then they’d hear a little hook here and a little hook there and cut it up. They would create a song like “Hearts Filthy Lesson,” which I wrote with him and the other guys. That ended up in the movie Seven. It must have been something that they heard, and then they formed it into a song. We were just improvising the way I was just doing it now.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, if every artist stayed at what they do, they eventually come to similar realizations regarding the creative process, the inspirational aspects, the channeling, but I think what people sometimes do is they try to jump there, and they haven’t done any basics or fundamentals, and their art sometimes doesn’t have enough substance. I don’t object to it because of the fact if anyone is creating, all the more power to them, but, personally, if you want to have some more depth, I think you have to do some more work along the way. I probably do too much work coz I studied so much, but then I had to undo all the studying to find my own voice, which is what I did between maybe 20 and 45. It’s really starting to come out, the older I get. It probably always was there, but I guess I’m refining it, at this point in my life. But you do get some wisdom as you get older just because you see so much junk go down. I’ve lost so many friends for so many different reasons, a lot of it drugs and this and that. But you start to come to realizations about things, and it affects your music and your art.

One of the words I can’t help to use in my reviews of songs of David Bowie that I hear you on is “angular.”

Oh, OK.

I’m just wondering if it’s a good word.

It is a good word. It is a good word. I don’t know how that came about. I know that sometimes I’ve had the thought if David Bowie, when I’m playing a solo for him like on “Small Plot of Land” or “Battle For Britain” or “Aladdin Sane,” I’m almost being him. I’m trying to play the piano like he would play, if he had the technique, so it might be more him than me that I’m playing at that moment because, as an artist, I also have this sort of chameleon ability to almost turn into anything that I’m around. The big joke is the last thing I hear before I go on stage might end up in the show. I was sitting at a club last week, and the club owner in Austin, Texas starts talking to me about, “Oh, we used to have these barrel house boogie-woogie players,” and I went up and sat in with a guitar player who was playing a rock show, and then I stopped the band and played some crazy like boogie-woogie piano like on steroids, very fast and crazy. But, I’d just been talking about it, so it brought it back to me. So, there’s something where I’m trying to connect myself, my spirituality, my life, my experiences and the music, using that as sort of the vehicle for how I feel.

There’s wisdom in music.

And it comes from a lot of years. Probably it might come from other lifetimes. Who knows? You know what I mean? The biggest problem for an artist, I think, who gets very good at what they do, is to stay somewhat humble and recognize that their music is a gift, and it’s coming through them. They’re offering it as a contribution to people who are listening to it, but if they get too wrapped up in themselves, sometimes the music suffers, and then they end up suffering.

A lot of it sounds like psychology, too. If you’re gonna put up the mental block, then you’re not going to be happy.

Right, and that’s the question you brought up 25 minutes ago regarding the ego and the self being out of the way and all that. I mean, I’ve written tons of songs, like “Letting Go,” is the name of one song, and “Selflessness,” because you’re always trying to figure out how to get away from your humanness because all our humanness sometimes tends to hold us all back. The way you’re creating the art, you sort of want the art to be a little purer, so you’re trying to be a servant to the music, and it’s hard to be a servant to the music when people are clapping for you every night and signing autographs all day long and praising you. You need to acknowledge the compliment from the person who is saying that is sincere, so you want to give them time of their communication, but if you let it go to your head, which is what happens to most artists, it’s the beginning of the end. Consequently, all the guys who ruin themselves, blow themselves off or die or get nuts or get perverted or crazy, it’s just the whole story, so that’s the challenge. I don’t think the challenge is practicing or keeping up my chops. The challenge is how not to get destroyed by the fame.

I totally think of Kurt Cobain and what happened with him, you know?

Right, yeah. The funniest thing is I never worked with him, but the fact that I worked with Nine Inch Nails and Smashing Pumpkins a few years. I toured with Nine Inch Nails and I recorded with them the Fragile album with Trent Reznor.

Brilliant album.

It’s a great album. But it’s always struck me that those kind of people gravitated to me. Obviously, they liked my music, but beyond that, there must have been something they wanted that was a part of me that they felt maybe could enhance their life. For example, I never used drugs, and I’ve been married for 36 years. I have two kids, two grandchildren. In other words, I’m not a normal musician in that way, and I’m probably proud of it in a lot ways because it feels more honest. I think people do all those other things just to keep themselves alive. They’re trying to keep their mind from haunting them and possessing them, so they’re trying to move it out of the way with drinking or with drugs.

The real thing is to embrace that. It’s like the shadow Carl Jung talks about.

It’s exactly that, and a lot of people are not willing to go through the pain of that, so they cover it up, and then it manifests itself in another form, and it just keeps getting them, until they confront it. Sooner or later they decide to get it together, or they just fade away or die or whatever. Certain artists have been lucky enough to sort of come through it.

Going back to your angular style: how do you choose the notes you play? Because they seem to be a bit off, but they work.

I think if there was a lot of music that had not been written I’d play more unangular (laughs). If things like this hadn’t been written…

A Garson demo of “unangular” playing

… If those things weren’t done, I might have been the one to choose to do that, but since so much has been done, I was probably looking to find a voice that had a new contribution, so you have all that classical and baroque and romantic music in the 1600s to the 1900s, so by the time I started creating in the sixties and the seventies and eighties, there was this thing of avant-garde music, and contemporary classical music and atonal music, so I heard a lot of that. I didn’t love it, but I found a way to use it in David’s music and some other people’s music that seemed to fit. I think because rebellious artists and people like us we’re always looking to sort of go against the grain a little bit, and I think people appreciate that type of originality. But it wasn’t really calculated, when it came about because I was doing it when I was 14, 15, 16 and 17. It’s just that nobody knew it. There were no records.

You mean you were playing like that?

There were parts of me that fooled around with that. If I look at some of my earlier classical pieces that I used to write by hand, they were out there … I think I’m also subject to the times that I’m in. As artists, we actually follow the waves of what’s going on in the world, so if bombs are going off and atom bombs and hydrogen bombs are going off, music isn’t always going to be very tonal. It’s going to start having some dissonance and angularity.  That’s part of what’s going on in life.

I’m thinking about the futurists, in the 1920s. The real creation of the avant-garde came about at the turn of the century, and they were all about: destruction will create the new art.

That fits into that. I’m not too much later than that. Forty years later. You know what I mean? And a lot of those people didn’t fully complete their missions or whatever.

I think after all these manifestos came out about how we must destroy the libraries and museums to create the new art, World War I came about and all their friends, famous poets and painters died, and the movement sort of lost its thrust. It came about in Russia and Italy (and some France).

Right. The history of art is fascinating. David really knows about all that stuff, an expert. I spent all my time practicing that I actually missed out on studying on a lot of things that I wished I knew, but I learned it through just being it, but I actually didn’t read it historically, which a lot of people are very well read about those things. I was just so obsessed with the piano. Like David’s such a natural voice and singer, and he just comes up and sings. You don’t hear him practicing. I was practicing eight hours a day and all that stuff, and then I’d do a gig for six hours, so the day would go by very fast, and that happened all through my teens and 20s.

* * *

This is continued from Part 3: From the Archives: Mike Garson goes from jazz to Bowie (Part 3 of 5)

This archival interview series continues here: From the Archives: Rounding up Mike Garson, his Now Music, visual art and a bit more Bowie (Part 5 of 5)

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

As already established in my earlier posts culled from several interviews with Mike Garson for an unpublished piece regarding his contribution to the music of David Bowie from 1972-2006 (Mike Garson talks about ‘David Bowie Variations’: an Indie Ethos exclusive, From the Archives: Mike Garson on working with David Bowie (Part 1), From the Archives: Mike Garson on working with David Bowie, the later years (Part 2)), Garson brought a colorful experience in jazz when Bowie called on him to join the Ziggy Stardust tour. Garson had no experience in rock and no idea who this David Bowie character– with his orange mullet and glitter makeup– was. So how did a classically trained jazz man like Garson wind up being Bowie’s most consistent side man of his career?

During my first interview with Garson, when I met him in 2004, I began our conversation with some questions about his jazz experience, which would eventually lead him to working with Bowie.

I met him backstage, in a small, isolated dressing room at the James L. Knight Center in Miami, just hours before Bowie and his band was supposed to take the stage on May 4, during the Reality Tour’s stop in Miami. He was sitting in front of a Yamaha Motif, preparing to warm up for the show, as was his regular routine while on tour with David Bowie.

Our conversation that day wound up mostly focusing on his experience in jazz, before going deeper into his approach to the piano. He would illustrate a lot of his points on the keyboard, some samples of which I have converted into mp3 files posted throughout the rest of this interview, which will continue in two more parts.

On with the interview, which I had hoped to convert into a more feature-oriented piece that never came to be, as detailed in the earlier posts about Garson already posted on this blog. Please note that you will find I ask a lot of questions about his age and what time whatever happened. It would have been what feature writers call “color,” not necessarily direct quotes. But since the story never happened, here is part 1 of that full conversation:

Hans Morgenstern: One of the first things I saw in my research is that you once had a six-hour session with Bill Evans. Is that true?

Mike Garson: Well, yeah. When I grew up on the New York jazz scene in the sixties, I sort of wanted to take advantage of all the great jazz pianists around. I was a gigantic Bill Evans fan. I used to sit this close to him at the Village Vanguard, watching him play and watching his hands. I used to steal my father’s car out of the house, from Brooklyn— I was 16— and just drive down to the Village Vanguard in Manhattan and just watch him play all night. I would get this corner table, and I could see the piano perfectly, so, one day, I got the nerve, a year or two later, to say, “Can I have a piano lesson?”

He said, “Yeah,” and I went up to his place. He spent six hours with me. He didn’t charge me a penny, and we went over some tunes, jazz things, and he showed me how he harmonizes them and voices them, so he would show me different chord substitutions for tunes. He used to carry around a little notebook when he would be on the train, going to gigs, and if he heard a little idea in his head, he would sketch it out, so he kind of showed me a little bit how his creative process worked.

Plus, we shared something in common. He liked Lennie Tristano, and I don’t know if you know Lennie Tristano. Lennie Tristano was a blind pianist. He was phenomenal, actually. A real unsung hero. He’s not alive anymore. I studied with him for three years. Lennie Tristano played with Charlie Parker. He had his own school of music.

This was after your meeting with Bill Evans?

I was studying with him [Tristano] at the time. I had already had two years with Lennie Tristano, so I was just adding Bill in as an additional little supplement because I knew it was just going to be one lesson with him. With Lennie it was weekly. Lennie taught people like Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh, they were sax players. Lee Konitz is still alive. Warne Marsh is not. He had a whole little school of people who played jazz in his style—very advanced harmonic concept and rhythmical concept. The Tristano School was almost like a cult in New York in the fifties and the sixties and the seventies, so I had the luck to study with him for three years. There’s a little playing of Bill Evans on an album that Bill did called New [Jazz] Conceptions in 1956 and there’s a couple of tunes on there where you could see that Bill Evans got influenced by Lennie Tristano, so we got talking about that.

You must have been really young.

You know …  I was studying classical primarily, but my jazz studies were all between 15 and 20 or something. I had three lessons with Herbie Hancock. I studied with a guy named Hall Overton (Check out a great radio piece by NPR about Overton as teacher and jazz man). He did the big band charts for the Thelonious Monk albums that have big band on them, if you heard any of those albums they’re hard to find, and those are his arrangements, so I got to study with him.

I remember reading Thelonious Monk did big band, but I never heard any of those records.

He had a big band for a little period of time, and this guy, Hall Overton, was my teacher for two years. He did those arrangements, and, right after my lesson, Tony Williams used to take a composition lesson with Hall Overton. I mean, what I’m trying to say from all this, since you brought up Bill Evans, is I was able to be a sponge and be right on that New York scene. I mean, I got to work with Elvin Jones, who was [John] Coltrane’s drummer.

Oh yeah, A friend of mind told me you played with Elvin Jones, and he wanted me to ask you about him.

Well, what happened was I went to this club to see Elvin Jones, but the piano player fell off the stand drunk [NOTE: must have been between 1971-73, when Steve Grossman was in the band, according to]. They dragged him out into the street. It was on Spring and Hudson, in Manhattan, and Elvin says, “Does anyone know how to play piano in the house?” And the sax player was a guy named Steve Grossman, who I had been playing with on jam sessions. He was a very talented guy, very young, and he said, “This guy plays,” and I was like in a tuxedo. I had just come from a gig of some sort, you know, some sort of a wedding or party or something like that.

And how old were you?

How old was I then? Maybe, uh, 20, 19 or 20.  And, so he points to me and Elvin sees me, and he kind of says, “Come on up, Arthur Rubinstein” because Arthur Rubinstein was a great classical pianist at that time, and he could sense, just by looking at me, that I had a classical background. These guys are very intuitive. And I went up and played a few nights with him just based on the fact that this guy fell off the bandstand drunk, and it was a great experience because I was young, and there wasn’t a more favorite drummer I preferred, even though it was a very short stint, working with him. But I also worked with Pete La Roca at that time, who was also a jazz drummer. I worked with him with Dave Liebman, the sax player. You ever hear of him? Dave Liebman?


We grew up together.

Didn’t you record something with him?

Yeah, we did some recording together, too. We haven’t released the last thing we did. We did a duet, which is really interesting.

Garson shared a piece from the still unreleased album called “Repetition” (not related to the Bowie tune, btw), which you can download exclusively here.

I haven’t released it yet, but we played in the Catskills Mountains together for like three or four years every summer (We went to the same high school. I was a year older than him), but we worked with this great drummer named Pete La Roca, who’s a great drummer and Bob Moses played drums with us in that band and then Randy Brecker … There was a loft that Dave [Liebman] lived in, in New York City. There was all these great musicians. We’d have sessions. One day Mike Brecker comes in and starts playing, next day it’s Lenny White, and this is all when I’m 18, 19, 20. It’s not like that anymore.

That was like during the end of the hard bop era, right?

It was sort of right after that a little bit, but we were playing that style. We were a little younger than those people who were the generation before us. So we played some free music, we played some Coltrane-type music. I was playing like McCoy Tynre at the time. It was crazy stuff. It was a great time for music, and I would practice eight hours a day. In fact, about six months before the Bowie gig, I got called to work with Freddie Hubbard. I turned it down coz I was scared I wasn’t ready. Joe Henderson called. I was scared to do that, and then three, four, five years later, I heard the people that played on those records, and I was actually playing that way, but I didn’t have enough self-confidence.

But then you did work with Hubbard.

It turned out I did work with Freddie Hubbard in 1988, many years later, and the night I got called for the Bowie gig was one night after I played a jazz club in Manhattan, on 69th Street and Broadway.

This was like in ’72?

’72, and there was like three people in the club. I was playing with Dave Liebman and Pete La Roca and Steve Swallow and making $5, and I said something’s wrong with this picture, and I said maybe I should go out with a rock band, and then the next night Bowie called. But interestingly enough, the same night Woody Herman called and Bill Chase. Bill Chase, they die in a plane accident [in 1974], so it was good I didn’t do that gig. He was a trumpet player with Woody Herman, and he had his own band. Woody Herman’s gig paid very little money, and I’d played a lot of big band music already, coz I was in the Army Band for three years, so I had played in a big band, so I wasn’t excited about that, but the David Bowie gig sounded interesting, but I have to admit, I didn’t know who he was.

Well, how did he hear about you?

I had just played on an album as a session player for a singer named Annette Peacock, who had been married to Gary Peacock, who was a bass player. She was also married to Paul Bley, who’s a jazz pianist, and she knew David [then labelmates on RCA], and I had just played on her album [called I’m the One (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon)], and he respected her, and he came to America for his first tour and he said he was looking for a pianist to be on the American tour with the Spiders From Mars, and she said, “I just heard this guy who has classical and jazz background, and he might be interesting on your music.” She didn’t really tell him I was a rock player, coz I really wasn’t.

Stream the two songs featuring Garson’s piano on I’m the One below:

From what I’ve read and heard, I sense that you’ve taken piano playing to another level. Does this kind of playing come from wisdom or just playing for many years?

The thing is, I’m obsessed … with the piano. Some people, they orchestrate, they conduct, they played four instruments, they play drums, they play guitar, they play bass, they sing, they write harmony parts. I don’t do any of that. My whole life has been dedicated to the piano, and it’s on-going. So, I’ve looked at so much music and listened to so much music and sight-read so much music, and, personally I’ve composed like 4,000 pieces, of which half are classical.

When I was in Brooklyn College, going to school, I used to bring home music from the New York Public Library. It was the Lincoln Center Library. I’d bring home stacks and put them in the trunk of my car, and they’d let you keep it for two weeks. Then I’d bring it back, return it, bring this much back again. I used to carry it like this, walking through the streets, and I would just sight-read them. I’d only play the pieces once, so I would sight-read composers like Messiaen and Legeti and Bartók and Hindemith and Noles, Liszt and Chopin and Bach and Mozart and Godowsky and Busoni, and I would just read them like people read books, and I’d only just play them once just to absorb it. I was practicing my sight-reading abilities, but of course I was also absorbing music.

What age were you then?

It was between 21 and 25, maybe started even younger. So what I’m saying is I’ve just submerged myself in music. I wasn’t just a jazz pianist or just a classical pianist or someone who played pop or rock or casual gigs or club dates. I just did it all. Whatever came my way. I liked Vladamir Horowitz. I like Arthur Rubenstein. I like Glenn Gould. But I loved Keith Jarrett. I loved Bill Evans. I loved Wynton Kelly. I loved Art Tatum. I loved Oscar Peterson, Bud Powell. So I was submerged in the jazz world, submerged in the classical world, submerged in what the composers wrote. I was writing my own music, and I even like commercial pianists like Roger Williams and Peter Nero and Ramsey Lewis. In other words, I had a specific love for the piano, both playing and composition. Like Chopin, for example, wrote mostly piano music. He only wrote like one concerto and a couple of orchestra pieces, but unlike Wagner or Beethoven, who wrote tons of pieces for orchestra, Chopin wrote for the piano. I’m very much like that. I have 2,000 classical pieces that I’ve written, sonatas and nocturnes and all kinds of pieces.

I’ve heard little bits of them on your website.

Yeah, there’s some things on there. I’ll give you a record. I stuffed one in my suitcase. It’s not out yet, it’s called Homage to my Heroes (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon).

Those are the clips that I heard

But there was some earlier versions. This is a new one. There’s two volumes.

So, if I’m understanding this right, this is basically some of the musicians you mentioned, and you’ve taken their style and done it your own particular way?

Not even that. It’s more like they inspired me at a certain point in my life, whether it was for one day or for a month or for a year. When I wrote the piece I might have just been thinking about them. They all really sound like me and very seldom someone would say that sounds like Messiaen or Bach or this and that. Once in a while it’s obvious. They’re me, but it’s more that they inspired the music, as opposed to copying, but the whole concept behind the album. See, I was trying to figure out what type of legacy could I leave in music that would be different from Leonard Bernstein or Gershwin or Beethoven or Bach or Chopin because they all wrote music this way, by hand, so they composed the pieces, but I had spent 30 or 40 years improvising, so I started writing classical pieces as improvs, but into my Yamaha Disklavier player piano, so it would record all the data and then I’d give the MIDI files to this guy who works with me, and he prints out the music. Something that might have taken me three weeks I’ve done in one shot. I would play on a regular grand piano, and it will record the data, and then they would put it in a program called Finale. It prints it out, then you have to finesse it a little bit. Then I give those pieces to concert pianists, and they play them. I never have played these 2,000 pieces. I just improvise them once, so they might sound like this…

Listen to Gason’s demonstration

… so my whole concept behind music is if you can capture how you feel at any given second, you are being totally true to yourself and the music but very seldom do I get a chance to create like that. When you’re in a band, you have to play parts. Now, with David, I get more improvisation time than any of the other members because I’m sort of sitting on top of the guitars and bass and drums, so I’m like the whip cream on the cake. So I can improvise a little more, but I still have to play some parts exact.

* * *

In part 4 of this ongoing interview series, I went a little deeper with Garson into what exactly he might be thinking when he plays the way he does.

I’ll leave you with a YouTube video Mike shared of one of his more recent jazz performances (no embed allowed so copy and paste):

This is continued from Part 2: From the Archives: Mike Garson on working with David Bowie, the later years (Part 2 of 5)

This archival interview series continues here: From the Archives: Mike Garson on playing the piano (Part 4 of 5)

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)