The secret of longevity has always been one of the biggest enigmas, in one's life. Sometimes we believe that an individual may have good genes running into his/her veins, maybe a family gift but some other times, we have to provide to ourselves that food for soul indispensable for our everyday's life.
Artists like New York City's born Mike Garson, one of the most prominent Avant-Garde pianists and composers of the last half a century, find instead the necessary fuel to power the engine of their creativity by working incessantly on new projects, constantly looking ahead to create new sonic layers and shape them into melodies or anything that it is strictly related to that wonderful art form that it is music.
With 60 years in the music business (Garson's first concert took place when he was 14) and one of the most illustrious music careers in the entire music industry, it wasn't surprising at all that our readers chose the American pianist as the winner of the Bluebird Reviews Career Award in 2019.
From his 40 years of outstanding work on many of the late great David Bowie's records to collaborations with absolute giants of the music industry like Seal, Smashing Pumpkins, Stan Getz, Nine Inch Nails, Perry Farrell (Jane's Addiction), No Doubt, Stanley Clarke and many more, Garson has been and still is one of the most revered and respected artists by fans and fellow music artists, for his unique gift and ability to be able to apply his musical vision in a way that complements and enriches the music of every imaginable genre, from Rock to Jazz, or from Pop to Fusion, for example.
Garson is due to start the American portion of his A Bowie Celebration Tour in March 2020, a project that has been running for about three years, now. The American Piano Genius is the driving force of this project, where many of Bowie's Alumni that worked side by side with Bowie and Garson himself, on many occasions, join him on stage to perform pivotal albums of Bowie's career in their entirety and most of his hits.
The reception that fans all around the world have given to the A Bowie Celebration Tour, throughout the three years of this wonderful ongoing project, is truly remarkable and our website wonders whether the success of the Tour was a pleasant surprise for Garson too. "I am pleasantly surprised, but it feels to me, like, David's music needs to be continuously heard through many many different singers. For the last 3-4 years, I worked with close to a hundred singers, all trying to bring their own voices to David's songs. David's songwriting was incredible. If you have never performed any of his songs, it would be worth for anybody just to try and singing his songs, just like you would for artists of a similar stature, like George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hammerstein, for an example. He (Bowie) is an important songwriter and his music can be played in so many different ways. Since I have been doing the shows with the Alumni musicians, to me, it feels much more than being in a tribute band, because it feels like what I remember on stage with David, through those thousands of concerts we did together and all the thirteen different bands I've got the privilege of working with him on, between 1972 and, let's say, 2006, my very last show with him, which was an AIDS benefit one with Alicia Keys, David and myself".
Surely, at some stage, Garson might have considered, among the many live shows played together with Bowie's Alumnis for the A Bowie Celebration Tour so far, to release a live album on CD, sooner or later. "I think that, more than likely, a studio recording is more bound to happen. We have a bunch of live shows that I haven't felt, for any of them, to be quite right and ready to be released to the public but, maybe, going into a studio, with the exact singers that I choose, that can be a possibility. Right now, I am in the process of doing a studio album with some of my favourite singers, but just with the piano. I have already different singers that have already sang songs with me in the past and I am putting, slowly but surely, that album together. Then, I'll probably do a bigger version, as you say, with the great people that have been with me on the road, that love to sing Bowie's stuff. There has been so many, you know, that I worked with on this studio project I just told you of. I recorded a track, few months ago, with one of David's close friends, Gary Oldman (actor and filmmaker) and he likes a song called I Can't Read, which is a beautiful Tin Machine (1989) song and I found out, through him, that he (Oldman) had something to do with the inspiration of that song. Because of the fact that he was such a good friend of David, he wanted to record it and so we did that. I've also recorded several tracks with Evan Rachel Wood (actress, model and musician) and more material with Joe Elliott (Def Leppard) too. I am accumulating a lot of material, for this project, therefore I may consider making few volumes out of it. For the first one, I have in mind of releasing 15 songs, including the artists I just mentioned you of, plus some others that have manifested the will of being part of this project but we haven't managed to get together yet. Going back to your original question, about making an album about the A Bowie Celebration project, it is a fair question and I hope to be able to capture the perfect live performances that I am searching for very soon. You know, there have been some truly amazing live shows, so far, but sometimes, either the sound quality wasn't completely right or something else was not quite what I was looking for but, what you said, it is a great idea and maybe it can happen next year, because it will be the fifth year of David's passing and I'll call it the Five Years Tour".
In the early stage of Garson's career in the music industry, American composer, producer and singer/songwriter Annette Peacock has been pivotal in pushing Mike Garson as further as possible in the music business. Peacock was the one who introduced Garson, in the early 70's, to Mick Ronson (Producer and Bowie's guitarist in the early 70's) and David Bowie, during the time of Bowie's Aladdin Sane album. Since then, Garson and Peacock have never worked again and our website is curious to discover whether the California-based Piano Maestro has ever considered the possibility to record again something together, after the I'm The One record, released back in 1972. "We haven't discussed the possibility of recording something together but we have been in touch, sometimes by e-mail, some other times when she came to one of David's live shows, it must have been around late 90's or early 2000. She's always in my heart, because, she was actually the true catalyst to make this magic happening, with David. The funny part of it (and many people don't know about this), it is that David actually asked her first to play piano on the 1972's Tour (between the Ziggy Stardust and the Aladdin Sane period). She can play a little piano, but she was working on her own career as a solo artist, at the time and I had the feeling that she didn't feel she could really cover the parts requested by David in the same way that I could, because she was more of a kind of songwriter/pianist instead, in the same way David was. This is something you can certainly get by, on a show, but it turns out that, you know, knowing David so well, he was more looking for somebody like myself, to the more flamboyant side of me, with more virtuosity and able to bring in elements of history of Classical, Jazz and Avant-Garde music, to be put on top of his music. A bit like putting whipped cream on a cake, I guess! I suspect that some kind of divine intervention must have taken place, at that time, when Annette decided she didn't want to do that Tour, otherwise I would have never met David. Because I didn't even know anything about him, when he called!".
Garson kept on working with Bowie until 1975 and, after the Young Americans album, the American composer heavily focused his attention on working on more and more Jazz-infused projects, for the following 15-odd years, apart of few exceptions, like working on Mick Ronson's solo albums or working with David Essex. And sure enough, for a Jazz lover like Garson, it must have been quite special working with such charismatic fellow artists like Stanley Clarke and Stan Getz. "Well, the thing that's interesting, it is that when David hired me, at the time, it was supposed to be for 8 weeks only. When I then realized that I was enjoying that band (Spiders From Mars) and David's great singing and entertaining ability, I made a decision, internally, that I wanted to work with him for two more years. In which case, we did those five other albums, Young Americans, Diamond Dogs, Pin Ups and what have you, you know and after those two years, he went off doing The Man Who Fell The Earth movie and I went back to the Jazz world. But I never understood why we didn't resume what we had done and then I realized, three-four years later, that in the back of my mind I had wanted to do those two years working with him, which was indeed what happened. However, as the years progressed, I realized that we were not done, because I wanted to do more work with him, so I reached out to him, as my wife did too, which was the time that coincided to when we started working together on the Black Tie, White Noise album and the Buddha Of Suburbia's soundtrack (both released in 1993). As far as playing with Stan Getz or Freddie Hubbard, who was an amazing trumpet player, Elvin Jones, who was John Coltrane's drummer or Stanley Clarke, still a good friend of mine, well, to work with them, it is a different universe. It's a different world, a heavier one, much more intellectual. It doesn't exude all the emotions and the feelings that you can get from artists like David Bowie or John Lennon, for example, but you certainly get a lot of brilliance, in terms of virtuosity, harmonic structures, depth of improvisation, rhythm and melody, at a very high level. But that reaches, sadly, a much much smaller audience, because you have almost to be educated to follow something of that grand Jazz that I was doing for many years. I still do it and I still love it, but my reach now seems to be bigger, when I am doing the stuff with David or these extended versions of his songs, now that he has passed".
Jazz is and has always been a great love and passion, musically speaking, in Garson's career. Between 1990 and 1993, Garson released two authentic musical pillars of Jazz and Avant-Garde, called Oxnard Sessions Vol.1 and Vol. 2. Those albums captured perfectly Garson's philosophy on pushing musical boundaries beyond unimaginable frontiers and Bluebird Reviews is keen to find out whether the amazing job done by the American Piano Maestro, on those sessions, together with the superb array of musicians he surrounded himself with (Brian Bromberg on bass and Billy Mintz on drums on the Volume One or drummer Ralph Humphrey and saxophonist Eric Marienthal on Volume Two), was the result of total free-form improvisations or was there maybe some pre-planning behind the scene instead, before starting the recording process of those albums. "Those sessions were totally improvised. I hadn't rehearsed with that group of musicians before, until we got to the recording stage. I had few ideas in my head, of course, but basically, what you hear on those albums, it is the result of total live improvisations. We didn't even record in a studio, but we recorded in a town about 60 miles north of Los Angeles, called Oxnard, hence the name to the albums. We recorded in an auditorium, were the Oxnard Symphony Orchestra plays and these people I played with, they were very particular about the sound and they didn't even want recorded that polished sound that you can get in a studio, but they rather wanted that organic sound coming from a concert hall like that. This is something that is sometimes difficult to do, because you get so much reverb on the drums and you don't have the control that you want of the reverb, due to the nature of the room. But they did succeed in getting the sound they wanted to do and, personally, I love those two albums a lot. To be honest, nobody talks to me about those albums and I think that they might have sold just something like 10000 copies, which, you know, if you put this perspective down in a planet of seven billions people, it is nothing, really. I think that the Serendipity album, that I recorded with Stanley Clarke (1986), it sold about 50000 copies, which sounds much better but, in comparison to the Rock or Pop world, it is still a drop in the ocean. But I loved the Oxnard Sessions. They were, to me, very fulfilling albums. I still want to record more Jazz, in future but I'll see what happens. With me, it is always difficult to tell, because my mind moves always so fast and I don't like to commit to something, three or four months earlier and then change my mind, because it would be hard on a record company, but I shall certainly be recording new material, after the A Bowie Celebration Tour".
For such a creative artist, a forward-thinker like very few in the music scene like Garson, it was almost kind of inevitable to start working on composing music scores for films and TV series, something that Garson started doing since the mid 90's. Something that may get very challenging, sometimes, especially when it comes to be able to balance, in his compositions, the right amount of imagination, creativity and suspence, in line with the screenplay of said scores. "To be honest with you, if I like a movie, it's no problem. But if I don't like it, I usually don't accept the project. If I like a movie, the music normally just pours out of me, when I watch it on the screen. I had a very funny situation, when I finished working with The Smashing Pumpkins around early 2000. It might have been either 2000 or 2001, where one of these agencies signed me to write music scores for films for them. They must have sent me something like 20 different scripts and I turned down all of them. All my musician buddies thought that I was really out of my mind when, finally, this company/agency dropped me because I didn't accept any of those scripts (laughs). You know, when I read those scripts, I really didn't hear anything in my head, didn't feel anything about them or having even any sort of emotional connection to them, therefore, how could I have possibly delivered the goods, if I didn't feel connected to any of them? If something inspires me, I can write music for sure but, if it doesn't, like few years ago, when there was trouble with some of my personnel and I was putting Bowie's stuff together, then I don't. What happened, it felt terrible to me; all that music disappeared and in my mind, body, spirit, there was a scary feeling, because, I am not like a normal musician, where I always sound good. I have to sound amazingly good and inspirational but, if there is a bad situation like the one I just told you of, I can really sound -0, because there is no real drive or intention behind it, hence the reason why I am always very careful, on not accepting things that I don't like or feel uncomfortable with. In the early stages of my career, there was 90 per cent of the work that I did, back in the 60's, that I hated and 10 per cent that I really liked. Then, I made a decision, somewhere in the 70's, that I was going to reverse that trend, playing 90 per cent of stuff that I really liked and 10 per cent that I didn't. And I stand to that decision even now and I feel it is a good and a healthy thing for me. You see, what happens, in the industry, is that certain directors, for example, or artists, they like to micro-manage. When someone starts telling me "Do this, do this, do that", I just literally fall apart, because the music comes through me almost like a channeling process and through God's wisdom and divineness that passes through. So, if somebody's yakking at me like that, it interferes with that channel, that flow. It took me a long time to understand why I didn't work well with people who micro-manage like that. David Bowie, on the other end, he would only give me an overall vision of what he wanted to achieve; even nothing, sometimes! But because of that immense trust that I felt from him, anything that I could play for him, he was able to find it useful somewhere, when we were working together. Anything I could play for him, any style, genres, from Avant-Garde, Gospel, Jazz, Punk, straight Rock, David was always able to find an element, something, that could fit in one of his songs. The reason David was what he was, it was because he was hugely open-minded. That's why, in many ways, he was the best producer I ever had and probably, some of my greatest works on his albums, they are due to the inspiration that he provided me with, through his trust and by being so open-minded about music".
Scrolling throughout the discography of Mike Garson, either as a solo artist or collaborating with other fellow artists, it is remarkable the way that the American Pianist and Composer managed, not just professionally but also personally, through the years, to create and maintain a perfect balance with each of the members of one of the most celebrated Rock’N’Roll bands of the 90’s, The Smashing Pumpkins, at the time that the Machina/Machines Of God album came out and subsequently, by collaborating with each of the band members, after they disbanded. On their Sacred And Profane 2000 Tour, in particular, when Garson joined the band on what supposed to be, at the time, their last ever Tour, there were rumours of tempers running high, among the band members. It must have been, therefore, very difficult, for Garson, to find himself in what seemed to be a very destructive scenario, at the time. "I was sort of, like, the outsider. There was so much insanity going on, but I stayed free of it all. They all would share, individually and vent to me and I sort of stayed neutral. I think I was a kind of helpful, guiding force for them, at the time. I remember that, at the last concert we did, before they retired (and by saying that, you know very well that the majority of rock bands retire at least five times, in their careers (smiles)), in Chicago, a real Tour De Force show where we played for something like four hours-plus, a show where there were a lot of guest artists joining us on stage, a show where they even made a DVD of it that never got released, when we took the last bow and walked off stage, BIlly (Corgan) hugged me and said to me "I couldn't have done this without you". In short, because I wasn't part of the group, I didn't have to deal with all the egos, finances and publishing issues. I was just this guy that came, played with them, got the salary and not dealing or getting involved with any of those things. I was free of all that. It didn't bother me all that was going on. It upset me, at the time, only from the viewpoint that got to my mind, which was "Why couldn't these guys get along?".
One of the most cohesive working relationship that Garson had and still have, in terms of carrying a similar musical vision, it is the one with Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor. They both met at the time of touring David Bowie's Outside album (1995) and, since that time, they have been working together up until last year, when they worked side by side on the HBO TV Series' soundtrack of Watchmen. Given the organic working relationship between Garson and Reznor, we asked the American pianist and composer whether he has been sharing a mutual musical vision and approach to composition with Reznor since the day they met, or was their working relationship something that increasingly grew stronger and stronger, as the years went by. "This is a great question, because one would never have thought that we would work together, one day. In the mid 90's, when David told me that Nine Inch Nails was going to be our opening act, while touring in America, I started reading about them and I felt kind of strange. I guess I went into shock, because it seemed horrible what I was reading (about the band), things like, a guitar would fly across the stage in one of the other band members' face and they'd be on the floor bleeding, while the show was still going on. It just sounded like insanity, to me. I just didn't want to have anything to do with it. But then, when I watched them playing, I knew this guy had something special about him and David Bowie said to me "D'you know, check this out, this guy is gonna be one of The Next Guys for sure". So, when we were rehearsing, during the sound-check for the first show, Trent was always there, listening to our rehearsal and to my piano playing. I hadn't met him yet but I could sense him, listening intently to everything I played. Then, I walked to my dressing room and I would see him walking the other way to go for his sound-check and we just nodded to each other, without any other forms of communication. One day, in one of the music magazines in America, somewhere around 1997 1998, he was asked to with who he'd like the most to collaborate with and he said "Mike Garson". Two years later, he called me to play on his The Fragile album (1999) and then, as the years progressed, Nine Inch Nails was also going to retire, I believe, around 2005-2006. Trent invited me to play at one of those shows in Los Angeles, of what meant to be their last ever Tour, at the time. It was actually shocking, because he said, that night, to the audience, that I was his biggest inspiration. In some ways, I had no idea of how that could be possible, because we come from such different worlds, musically speaking. Then, as the years went on, he would just call me for different projects, the most recent one being the Watchmen Soundtrack (HBO TV series) and the piano piece he asked me to write, it opens up the first three minutes of Watchmen. We also worked together on the Gone Girl movie soundtrack. He seems to call me every few years, when there's something that I do that he can't do and that he wants, if that makes sense. Trent is a very accomplished musician, an excellent film composer and an equally excellent front-man. I am the outsider in this Rock'N'Roll world, the film world, the Jazz one, the Fusion world etcetera, because I sort of marched all the time at my own pulse, my own beat and my own style, in my career and, if it seems to fit with some of these artists, they just call, as in Trent's case, for example. Or, if it doesn't, they don't call. I feel that my career is still very much in motion and, in some ways, it is almost feels like the beginning, because, back in the days, when I was younger, there was a certain naivety about me, where I didn't recognize how good I was, let's put it that way. I knew that I was good, because I practiced so much, but I didn't know that I have such a powerful effect on people who ended up listening to my music. Like, for example, I met this girl, about three months ago, who was going to commit suicide and then she heard my piano playing on Aladdin Sane and she said to me that specifically, the piano playing on that album, healed her and saved her from killing herself. That's pretty monumental, at least, to me. Maybe it's a blessing that I didn't know that I have this gift, in my twenties, because that feeling it might have gone straight to my head and I might have become an asshole, you know. But thankfully, at the age of 74, I am Ok with it, I can welcome that and still use my gifts to help or serve people as best as I can, a little like a steward, you know (smiles)".
Given Garson's long standing artistic collaboration with David Bowie throughout different decades, our website is curious to discover Garson's immediate memories about working with Tony Visconti, Reeves Gabrels and Brian Eno, all highly skilled producers but with completely different approaches to production and musical mindsets. "Interestingly enough, you didn't mention the one who I felt was the best producer for me, Ken Scott. Listen, I am a little prejudiced with Ken, because he recorded Aladdin Sane, right? He did such a good job on things like, how to place the piano and how to compress the sound just right, to make it sound like it was cutting through a Rock band, you know, something that usually the guitar player does. Ken made it sound like it was a piano-driven type of album. Now, that being said, Brian Eno is a very gifted genius, Tony is another big, big talent and so is Reeves. I tend to be able to co-create and make music and work with anyone that has the slightest passion for what they do and has also an equivalent skill, in either playing or producing. So, each of them, were very inspiring to play with. I had to be honest with myself, at one time; the one that really, in a quiet way, got the best results out of me, it was of course David but with Ken Scott, who was involved in the production, on Aladdin Sane. With Mick Ronson being in the studio, being always very inspiring as always and writing out the chord progressions for me of songs like Time, Aladdin Sane and what have you. I felt blessed, in all those years, because all the people that you mentioned are so, so different, you know. For Brian, his own instrument, it is actually The Studio, that is his instrument. Reeves, he is a wacky guitar player and I always remember the day he told me, almost as a confession, after working with him for a year or two, that he built his guitar playing based on my piano style! He even drew a picture of who he wanted to play with, when he was in High School, when he grew up and those people, they were David and myself, something that I found very touching. I asked him why he waited until the end of the tour to tell me that and, typical Reeves, he said he didn't want that the compliment would go straight to my head (laughs). He is a total character".
In few days, there will be the release of a Bowie posthumous EP of remixes and alternate takes of tracks previously recorded at the time that Bowie's Earthling album was published (1997), called Is It Any Wonder? Our website was curious to know whether Garson is looking forward to listen to it. "I heard they (Producers Mark Plati and Reeves Gabrels) were releasing different things from that period. I am under the impression that there will be a remix of a song called Stay. In that song, there is a little piano from myself, in the middle-section of the song, very subtle, amidst all the very strong dance beat. I suspect that I may be present on a couple of tracks of that album, given the set-list announced for that record, but you never know. The Earthling album was a great time too. There was a song, on that album, called Seven Years In Tibet and David said to me, right after I did that, that in his opinion, what I did on that song, it was the best solo I have ever played since Aladdin Sane. And it was an organ solo, but he loved it!".
Before parting company with this exceptional and hugely talented pianist and composer, Bluebird Reviews would like to ask Garson whether he has ever thought of his 40 years in-and-out experience working with David Bowie, as something that helped him lifting even further Garson's freedom of musical expression. "When I first joined him, my Jazz Community friends and perhaps, a little bit myself too, thought of it as a downgrade kind of experience, not an upgrade, because we all thought "now here there is this Jazz/Classical musician playing with a Rock band". Time has proven that there was a lot of depth, to that music and, while that music might not have had the most complex vocabulary, the intention and the depth of the musical feeling was as great or even greater than the things that I had done in the Jazz or in the Classical world. That thought didn't get revealed to me until recently, in some ways, because I was kind of brainwashed, as a Jazz musician and I'd be on a stage, playing for 40.000 people with David, and in my mind, I was wishing that I was rather playing in a Jazz club, in that moment. This thought would have been in my mind even as late as the 90's! Until, one day, I realized "That's pretty crazy!" I was so entrenched, in that music but I didn't realize that I was using all those skills and all in the right places, in David's music. So, I am grateful for that kind of training but I am not grateful for other aspects related to the snobbery connected to certain aspects of the Jazz and of the Classical world, running in this business. Thankfully, people like David, Trent or Billy Corgan, for example, they had a much wider vision and understanding of how well you can fit, in a more amplified musical umbrella, something that helped me to realize that I was lead in the right direction.
A Bowie Celebration Tour full schedule is now available at Mike Garson's Official Website