Mike Garson, piano – The Bowie Variations – Reference Recordings

by | Oct 29, 2011 | Pop/Rock/World CD Reviews

Mike Garson, piano – The Bowie Variations – Reference Recordings HDCD RR-123, 49:22 [Distr. by Allegro] ****: 
The versatile Mike Garson, who last year had a very nice previous Reference Recordings CD with jazz flutist Jim Walker, served as David Bowie’s pianist on and off (1972 to 2006) for some years. He also did work with Smashing Pumpkins and Nine Inch Nails, so he is no stranger to rock and pop.  Another of his Reference Recordings was Serendipity, with bassist Stanley Clarke and drummer Bill Mintz. As with Christopher O’Riley’s solo piano improvisations on Radiohead tunes, Garson felt it was time to explore the “maximum freedom within a confined discipline” which led many famous classical composers to write variations on themes. He’s not the first to do this: Justin Levitt and David Glass have a piano four hands video on YouTube of some Bowie music.
Bowie, who now lives a retired life in NYC under his birth name, once said of Garson that he was “…the best rock pianist in the world because he does not play rock.”  So it seems Garson is highly qualified to do these interpretations of Bowie’s music. He actually helped define the sound of some of Bowie’s best-known tunes. He doesn’t perform all of them solo piano; some just have too much going on for that. On “Let’s Dance” and “Heroes,” he overdubs with up to three pianos. The latter was from Philip Glass’ variations on Bowie themes, so this is variations on variations, and of course follows the obsessive Glass minimalism, but with some jazzy twists.
I’m not a big Bowie fan, so the most familiar of his tunes here to me was his “Life on Mars.” It remains faithful to the original tune, which I liked, but also has some very clever variations and ornamentation. Garson doesn’t just do straight jazz treatments of these tunes; he moves thru classical, pop and even avant-garde genres here and there. Most interesting. And if you have proper HDCD decoding on your player, preamp or receiver, you’ll be hearing the best possible sonics from 44.1K CDs, living up to the audiophile standards of Reference Recordings.
TrackList: Space Oddity, John I’m Only Dancing, Life On Mars, Heroes, Ashes to Ashes, Variations on “Changes,” Let’s Dance, Battle for Britain/Loneliest Guy/Disco King, Tribute to David (Garson), Wild is the Wind, Space Oddity (Take 2).
—John Henry

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