Mike Garson may be best known for his extensive collaborations with David Bowie on disc and in concert, yet his credentials as pianist, composer, and arranger embrace a wide stylistic scope. You can’t really pinpoint his virtuosity within any genre, because he interweaves classical, jazz, and pop traditions organically and fluidly. What is more, he evolved a technique blurring improvisation and composition, where he would improvise fully-formed works, recording directly onto a Yamaha Disklavier, bypassing the notation process. He’d usually record at slightly slower tempos, and then use the Disklavier’s technology to play the pieces back faster. Over a period of about 10 years, Garson amassed around 3200 piano pieces this way, of which roughly one out of ten was a “keeper”.
Garson often takes his cue from preexisting pieces. The nearly eight-and-a-half-minute 3X18 uses Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit as a jumping off point, although some of the compound two-handed arpeggios border on Sorabji-like atonality. Homage to Chopin and Godowsky is a brilliant, freewheeling fantasia inspired by Godowsky’s transcription of Chopin’s C major Op. 10 No. 1 Etude, and may be more dazzlingly difficult to play.
Imagine a David Bowie ballad effortlessly merged with a Fauré Nocturne, and you’ve got Garson’s Nocturne in D-flat. Although the Hommage to Ligeti mirrors that composer’s restless rhythmic asymmetry and use of registers, the music’s rhapsodic lyrical qualities are pure Mike Garson. Actually, Garson’s Tribute to Keith Emerson sounds more authentically “Ligeti-like”, even though it’s superficially rooted in the opening of Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s Tarkus.
The point is that Garson’s magpie temperament and eclectic outreach never yields formulaic or clichéd results. There’s a consistent freshness to his inventiveness, and he rarely repeats himself. You can’t say that about many contemporary composers who write a lot for the piano.
Along with his brilliant technique, Danny Holt is able to imbue each composition with a distinct character. He gets exactly the right rhythmic feeling for jazz and pop oriented works, yet brings a wide dynamic range and sophisticated voicing to more complex selections. It would be interesting to hear Garson’s original Disklavier renditions of the 17 pieces selected for this release, yet one would miss the imprint of Holt’s own musicality and multi-leveled, even transcendent virtuosity. Holt provides detailed notes about the process of learning, assimilating, and recording this music under the composer’s supervision. A major and, needless to say, unique piano release, not to be missed.