Mike Garson’s brilliant Bowie Variations for solo piano

Bowie Variations

If you haven’t heard Mike Garson’s brilliant piano album “The Bowie Variations,” then please do yourself a favor and listen to it right now. Immediately. And then come back and continue reading this post. (You can listen to excerpts HERE.)

Mike Garson, who was Bowie’s longtime collaborator, has made an album to show us pianists what we all should be doing with pop tunes: playing them as pianists who aren’t limited by preconceptions of what a pop song is or by the narrow framework of how we usually hear them played.

In this sense, Garson’s open-ended approach reminds me of how Art Tatum played the pop tunes of his day. Rather than start with “this is pop,” or “this is jazz,” or whatever, both pianists seem continually ask themselves, ”What possibilities do I have at this very moment?” and then choose from a broad range of possibilities.

For example, let’s say there’s a given melody and chords. How could it be played? Well, it could be like the original recording. That’s one option. Or the melody could be embellished. That’s another possibility. Or the chords could be changed. Or the tempo could be slowed down and played with a more lyrical piano texture. Or the song could be reinterpreted as a jazz tune. Or harmonized in fifths a la Aaron Copland. Or with Stravinsky-esque clusters and polyrhythms.

Viewed in this way, the possibilities are almost endless and Garson, like Tatum before him, makes full use of this pianistic spectrum while interpreting the David Bowie Songbook.

It’s not that Garson plays in Tatum’s style (Except for a brief, stunning passage at 1:21-1:29 in his Variations on Changes). Rather, he approaches the songs with a wide-open mind and no preconceptions about how they “should” go. Same as Tatum did with the pop songs of the 1930s and 40s.

To fully appreciate what Garson does on The Bowie Variations, it’s best to start with the Bowie songs you already know well. For me, this meant Space Oddity, Let’s Dance, and Changes.

Garson re-imagines Space Oddity as a rubato jazz ballad. He harmonizes the melody with lots of jazzy chord substitutions and finds some wonderful inner-voice motion in a way that reframes but doesn’t detract from the lyrical melody. Later in the song we hear some sparkly high-register textures and full keyboard tremolos that take the music well beyond the realm of “typical” jazz ballad playing.

Make sure you also check out the alternate take of Space Oddity, to hear how spontaneous Garson’s musical thinking really is. Take 2 is completely different from take 1! It’s much freer in pianistic concept, explores a wider variety of textures, and is generally more passionate. Take 1 presents the melody more clearly so I’m guessing that’s why it leads off the album, but I’m really glad we listeners get to hear both versions. Listening to the two takes back-to-back give us a good illustration of the variety of approaches that Garson takes, even with the exact same source material.

Let’s Dance starts off lyrically, reminiscent of the arrangement that Bowie and his band often performed live (I wonder if this was originally Garson’s idea). After the verse, it explodes into full-throttle funk, with the well known bass line given space to be heard clearly. Then Garson takes it to the next level by spinning out jazz lines while still keeping the bass line going in his left hand. If you’re looking to develop your own hand independence, listen to this recording. A lot! It’s pretty astonishing, and at times reminds me of Tatum again in that it sounds like more than one player at the keyboard. I can only describe the ending as a kind of “Ragtime Funk.” It must be heard to be believed.

The final song I’ll describe here, Variations on Changes, is exactly that: a set of variations that use Bowie’s song Changes as the theme. Garson starts off sounding like Stravinsky playing Boogie Woogie, which I think Stravinsky himself would have enjoyed hearing. (After all the great composer himself wrote two ragtime pieces as well as tangos and other pieces drawn from the folk and jazz musical worlds.) It then morphs into jazz, pop, gospel, and a virtuosic ending with Garson’s fingers flying up and down the keyboard. Amazing stuff!

(BTW: While listening to Bowie’s song Changes played on piano without vocals, I noticed a similarity between its chords and a progression that runs through Mozart’s The Magic Flute. It’s very catchy in both instances!)

The rest of the album is wonderful too, and I’m in the process of going back to Bowie’s original recordings so I can fully appreciate what Garson did with them.

As much as The Bowie Variations is great to listen to, the most important thing we pianists can do is to use it as a role model for our own playing. We don’t have to be limited by stylistic conventions when we play pop and rock tunes. We can play anything we like. Mike Garson does, and we can too!

HERE are some free piano improv lessons to get you playing your favorite music more fluently and with ease. Have fun and remember: “The sky’s the limit!”

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