Mike Garson

History and true abandon

It is pointless to talk about his ability as a pianist. He is exceptional. However, there are very, very few musicians, let alone pianists, 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.
David Bowie
At sixty-two, virtuoso pianist Mike Garson is still developing his piano style and imagination, through day-by-day dedication and practice. His capacity to come up with something new in the most diverse settings made him a perfect jazz counterpart to David Bowie, with whom he has worked for over thirty years.
Mike Garson is the only musician in Bowie’s live band who is allowed to improvise. Bowie producer Tony Visconti has said about him: “Mike Garson listens attentively, then plays whatever the hell he wants.”. Many new pop groups have hired him because of his unique, often quirky contributions. He has also developed an interest in electronic music and, along with guitarist Adrian Belew, has made major contributions to Trent Reznor’s band Nine Inch Nails.
But Garson is also an all-round jazz musician, who because of the Bowie connection has not received the praise that is his due. A noted jazz colleague once said about him, admiringly: “I won’t forget the night he exploded my piano into thousands of inspired notes finely funneled into the tape recorder.”
An LA-based musician able to absorb and reproduce different styles, Garson took the advice never to become a superficial studio musician from Bowie’s musical director and prominent fellow Spider From Mars, the late Mick Ronson.
There is hardly a stronger contrast imaginable than that between the original, experimental music that Garson puts on his MySpace page for free, and the Music Library recordings that he did as well, and was paid for, copying jazz piano giants. Sometimes, when he turns on the television late at night and catches a Hollywood movie with a jazz score, Garson will recognize his own playing.
Fame and talent are not always on the same page. The music Garson is most famous for and receives emails about every day, he did almost as a joke, in between. Imagine people grasping that other part of him…
Mr. Garson, even though you are primarily a ’serious jazz musician’, you first became known as the antidote of that, a hip rock musician, almost 40 years ago. Were you a child of the sixties, involved with Timothy Leary and all that?
No. In the sixties, I lived in New York and had the great fortune to study with some great musicians. Three years with Lennie Tristano, three lessons with Herbie Hancock -who was playing with Miles Davis at the time- and a long, six hour session with Bill Evans. Another guy that taught me a lot was Hal Overton, Thelonious Monk’s big band arranger. I used to visit him right after Tony Williams did. 
So I was right on the scene and I would see Bill Evans all the time at the Village Vanguard, and I used to see Miles Davis and John Coltrane at the Half Note. I got to play with Elvin Jones in 1970 in Greenwich Village, because his piano player fell off the bandstand, drunk. So they dragged him out into the streets, and saxophone player Steve Grossman invited me into the band. At the time, I also used to play a lot with saxophone player David Liebman, a guy I used to go to high school with.
How did you, being a jazz player, become involved with a avant-garde pop artist like Annette Peacock?
Annette.. she was married to jazz bass player Gary Peacock, and after that to jazz pianist Paul Bley, and somehow she heard of me. I had studied a lot of avant-garde music, classical stuff. Plus I heard a lot of avant-garde jazz music, Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman and such. And I could just play that kind of music very naturally. I was very fortunate, because Annette Peacock recommended me to Bowie. I only recently found that out, by the way.
Peacock was very much into synthesizers when there were not so many around. Robert Moog gave her one of his instruments. However, as a pianist you seem to have not become too much involved with that technology.
I had one funny experience with that. We went into the studio at nine in the morning, and she started setting up the moog with an engineer. This was a long time ago, they had those wires they had to attach to the machine, you know? Well, I spent ten hours waiting, getting paid, you know, union scale. And nine ´o´clock at night she says: “OK, we are ready to go”. And she picks up the microphone, connects it to the Moog synthesizer, and it goes: “pffff”. It totally broke down. (laughter)
What is the story about you getting accepted to Bowie’s band, after playing only eight bars?
Mick Ronson conducted the audition by the piano in the famous RCA studio in New York and David Bowie was in the recording booth, and they had the microphone on. So he wasn’t right next to me, maybe because when he did not like me, he would not have to deal with the embarrassment (chuckles)….
And Mick, who was a well-trained musician and also a great pianist, gave me the chord changes to the song ‘Changes’. He put it up to the music stand. And I think I played only six or eight bars, six or seven seconds, and he says: “You have got the gig!”
So in the beginning you were wondering: why did they pick me?
Yeah! Well, I have to tell you, I teach a lot of music and, whether it is classical music or jazz, if somebody plays four bars I know everything about their playing. And he knew. You know, maybe the chords and the voicings and the arpeggio and the jazz influence… It was all there in those seven seconds.
What was bizarre about the whole situation, was that an hour earlier I did not know who David Bowie was. I did not have a clue. And I just took it as kind of a joke. And, to be honest, I accepted the job partly to be away from the heroin-oriented jazz scene.
But then Bowie already had Annette Peacock’s recommendation. He was probably half-sold before I got there. That’s what happens a lot: artists recommend each other who to hire for their new band. Miles Davis always worked like that.
How did the world-famous piano solo on ‘Aladdin Sane’ come about?
Well, I did tell Bowie about the avant-garde thing. When I was recording the famous ‘Aladdin Sane’ track for Bowie, it was just two chords, an A and a G chord, and the band was playing very simple English rock and roll. And Bowie said: “play a solo on this.” I had just met him, so I played a blues solo, and then he said: “No, that’s not what I want.” And then I played a latin solo. Again, Bowie said: “No no, that’s not what I want.” He then continued: “You told me you play that avant-garde music. Play that!”
And I said: “Are you sure? ‘Cause you might not be working anymore!” (laughter). So I did the solo that everybody knows today, in one take. And to this day, I still receive emails about it. Every day. I always tell people that Bowie is the best producer I ever met, because he lets me do my thing.
Well, a lot of people started listening to jazz because of that particular track…
Exactly. And even a lot of guitar players, including Reeves Gabrels, who played with Bowie, he built his style based on my piano playing. I had no idea, because I did it almost as a joke.
The ‘Aladdin Sane’ solo stresses certain bits of the jazz idiom, makes them ironic in a sense?
 Very much so… I just played what I heard! I had never played a solo like that on my jazz gigs, I was playing be-bop! And very seldom do I even do it on gigs now. I may do some introductions to songs, very abstract. But what I play mostly is straight-ahead jazz, swing. Only in my classical pieces I use those devices… But Bowie loved it, and I never heard the solo for twenty-five years.  
You never heard it?
No! Because I didn’t know anything about rock and roll, and when I stopped working with Bowie in 1975, I got back to playing jazz with Stanley Clarke and others. I did not get back with Bowie until 1992, when I again listened to ‘Aladdin Sane’, for touring. It is only history that has proven it to be…  this famous solo. Because I do get these emails every day, and I don’t understand it! (laughter) I mean, honestly, I thought nothing of it. It might be connected with time, and that it was very new to rock and roll…
I remember in the London Times On Sunday at the time they asked David Bowie about me, and right on the front page of the paper it said in the title: “Mike Garson, the best Rock Pianist in the World, because he does not play rock”.
Then there is this other Bowie song featuring Mike Garson, that seems to touch people a lot, ‘Lady Grinning Soul’.
That’s the other one. I get an email about that one every week.
The thing about that track is that a pop pianist could have done sort of the same thing, but that it moves people because it is a jazz player doing that…
I think partially that, and I use a lot of the romantic style of playing like, you know, Liszt and Rachmaninov. It has those very flashy kind of arpeggios and runs, that kind of emotion, not very familiar in rock. It was more of me as the classical pianist, with a jazz sensibility with the harmonies, and then using some of my virtuoso technique. Mild, but it was enough for what they needed for that song. Again it was one take.
So it was the same thing, the same sort of magic that happened two times?
I think so. And then there is that other song out there called ‘Time’. There I play a Vanguard stride piano from the 1920s, and I turn it upside down a little bit.
You mentioned re-discovering those signature Bowie songs much, much later. How did you yourself feel about them, hearing them after such a long time?
I knew I played well, but I honestly did not appreciate it to the degree that others did. I thought I was just doing my job as a session musician. I knew it sounded good, but I was a little bit of a jazz snob at the time, so I did not think much of it. Again, history has proven it to be something that is interesting to people with a certain sensibility. I did not think much of it.
But did it move you when you heard it again?
Oh, ‘Lady Grinning Soul’ still does. And the ‘Aladdin Sane’ solo actually shocked me when I heard it again and I realized… that it was pretty good.
Did jazz musicians think that you were selling out at the time?
Yeah, they still do. I have a very funny story about Dave Liebman. We went to high school together. I am a year older than him, and I used to give him jazz lessons and turned him on to Lennie Tristano. To make a long story short, when I went off with David Bowie he went off with Miles Davis. And for over thirty years he totally discounted what I did, and thought of it as a joke and was mad.
Well, last year… Now he has a daughter that is sixteen and she became a Bowie fan. And she was liking my music more than her father’s. So she turned him on to ‘Aladdin Sane’, and so after thirty-five years he sent me an email, saying: “Oh, that was pretty good what you did there!”
But he was such a staunch jazzer that he did not realize… You know, the spirit of jazz, if you really think about it, was meant to continue and move on. It was not meant to stay as Bud Powell, Bill Evans, Herbie and Chick. I took it even further and I am still improvising now, but I am improvising now classical music that has elements of everything. Problem is, it is so new, that I do not get accepted in the jazz world or the classical world. And the only time I make any money is when I play rock.
Did Bowie use you for new inspiration in the 1990s, when you came back together?
Yeah, especially when we did the Outside album. Me, Brian Eno and Reeves Gabrels. And it took him out of a slump, because the eighties were not good for him.
One solo piano record that you did in 1979 has been praised by critics as well as jazz players. Avant Garson, which unfortunately is no longer in print. Can you tell a bit more about it?
It was done in Chick Corea’s house, on a beautiful Bosendorfer. And I just improvised for an hour or two, and he sat there, mesmerized. It came out on a very famous jazz label, but somehow it disappeared.
How did you come to meet and work with Chick Corea?
He produced some of my albums and played on them in the seventies and early eighties -they are all out of print (chuckles). I knew him back in the sixties, visiting his concerts, and then we did a tour in Israel together, we did two pianos.  Sometimes I would be in a jazz club and he would play synthesizer or minimoog. Also, my wife was his agent in the eighties.
There is an interesting remark that Chick Corea said about your musicianship. He said: “he mixes history with true abandon”.
He sort of got how I play. He even seems to have been influenced a little bit by my solo piano in the early seventies. I heard some things where he was using some things that I was doing in terms of the complete scope of the piano, whereas he was using a smaller section of it. And then  he started -not playing like me, because he has his own style, he is a genius- he started using the piano in a wider way.
‘True abandon’ also means that you are not controlled, like many musicians are, by what you know…
That’s an interesting point. I think I studied very formally for many, many years, both classical and jazz. And at a certain point I just threw it all out, and just sort of played how I heard music and how I felt. But then, at an early age, at twelve, I also changed the music of the classics. My teacher at the time told me I had delusions of grandeur. He was very offended when I messed around with Chopin and Mozart, but I thought nothing of it.
Speaking about modifying the classics… I read somewhere that you played the piano parts for a 1988 ABC television movie about flamboyant piano star Liberace.
Well, I wasn’t too keen on that job, but when I got the call and they chose me from hundreds of pianists…. When I was seven years old, like in 1952, I used to hear him on television. And, you know, when you are very young, you absorb better. And I absorbed his style and could actually imitate him. But when I moved into jazz, I disqualified it. So many years later, after he died, and I was asked to do this, I appreciated that he actually was a great pianist, it just wasn’t my musical aesthetics or sensibility. But I had to spend a lot of months learning how to play like him for that movie. I had to learn Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto, and Debussy’s ‘Claire de Lune’, and Chopin pieces, plus how he played boogie-woogie and popular music. I had to do all that in his style.
Were you like a method actor in a way, re-tracing Liberace’s steps?
I do happen to have that skill, I can imitate any piano player if I want. There is a company in Hollywood that asked me to play every jazz piano style, from Jelly Roll Morton to Herbie Hancock and Cecil Taylor for a musical library. So I had to tool that for that project. Which was very fascinating, because I have such a love for the history of piano. Nobody knows that recording, but sometimes when I am in Europe and wake up in the morning, turning on the television, I think: ‘hey, that’s Oscar Peterson or Bud Powell’. But then it turns out that it is actually me playing!
It makes it all the more fascinating how you could “abandon” all these things that you learned…
It is fascinating, I still learn about my own creative process. I was very uncertain of myself, because most musicians did not see music like me. And so, it would have the appearance that I was a jack-of-all-trades. It would look that way, because one day I would do a pop thing, something for a movie or television, and then I would be doing a classical thing or backing up Nancy Wilson, Mel Tormé.
But the truth of the matter is, in each of those areas, I would delve into very, very deeply and spend a lot of time on that. For fifty-five years, I have just been working on mastering the piano and everything connected with it, but beside that I have my very own style.
I will tell you a funny story about Mick Ronson. I remember standing outside a bus with him, before going on a tour, somewhere in 1972. And he said: “You can make a lot of money in the studio, and you would be great studio musician. But I recommend you don’t do it.” And I listened to it.
After the 1980s, other prominent pop acts than Bowie -Seal, the Smashing Pumpkins, Nine Inch Nails- have asked for your services. What do they look for when they hire you?
They all want me to play like on ‘Aladdin Sane’ or ‘Lady Grinning Soul’. There are many elements as to  how I feel about music, but these two seem to be the ones that stuck with these groups and kind of people. Last night, I did a jazz trio concert and I could see that some people were shocked who came only because of Bowie…
Because you are sort of the guy who makes jazz accessible to people who hate jazz?
Exactly. I played with Freddie Hubbard in the late eighties and nobody knows that, because there is no recording. I played with Lee Konitz in the seventies, but there is also no recording. Michael Brecker, Lenny White, Dave Liebman, Steve Swallow, Eddie Gomez, Charlie Haden, the list continues…
That would have been no problem at all in our age, with YouTube, MySpace and all…
Well, the next part of my life, I will be dedicated to getting my music out there, digitally. I do not really care about if people pay for it or not, I put a lot on MySpace. The things I did with Bowie that are well known now…
Do you know that at first I was hired by Bowie only for eight weeks? I ended up working for him for two or three years. By the time I went back to playing jazz, it was almost  too late, because everyone was getting established. When I got called to do Bowie, the same night I was called to go out with Woody Herman. And a few weeks before Freddie Hubbard and Joe Henderson, I turned both those gigs down, because a lot of heroin was being used and I did not want to be around that environment.
Plus I sort of recognized early on that David Bowie was a genius. But because of my jazz-oriented ideas I did not get it the way I get it now.
Well, you just do things, and afterwards you understand what they were.
Isn’t that the truth?
How did your collaboration with the Smashing Pumpkins come about?
That was so wild that I almost died… I felt that it would take me out of my comfort zone. I recognized that they were also very talented and had something going. But it was a different something than what I had. So I thought it could enhance may viewpoint of music, although I did not like all of… well, some if it I liked…
But you do appreciate Nine Inch Nails?
For the Fragile album, I actually recorded fifteen tracks. They only used three. So when I met Trent Reznor once, I asked him about it. He said he might bring them out separately, but that the truth of the matter was that the style was so strong and reminiscent of Bowie that it would take away the attention of his style. And I said: I am pissed at you for not using it, but I respect your integrity.
The title of your last solo CD, Conversations With My Family, seems very personal and soul-searching…
Very personal indeed. I wrote the compositions on the  CD over many years, from the beginning of my marriage to the birth my first grandchild. It works like a suite from beginning to end, and I have interludes between each piece, made by Kuno Schmidt. He collected and re-arranged bits done by the Vienna Symphonic Orchestra. There is a bonus-DVD of me and drummer Peter Erskine and a bass player. We are playing standards, and it was the first time we played together.
At first he did not even want to, because he only knew me from Bowie. Most jazz musicians can’t get the idea that if you play rock and roll, you can also play jazz. And that is probably true in most cases… Well, finally, during the session on the DVD, you can see his face light up while we are playing a standard, Autumn Leaves or something. It is more interesting to watch him, than even to listen to me… He looks absolutely shocked by… how come I never met this guy before?