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Mike Garson: David Bowie Always Chose Good Musicians

Nenad Georgievski By

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By comparison, rarely anyone has ever had as diverse career within the music business as pianist Mike Garson. A jazz pianist and a teacher, he went to become one of singer David Bowie's most trusted and longest working sideman. At the start of the '70s, he was touted to Bowie and The Spiders from Mars who were in need of a pianist for their "Ziggy Stardust" tour in America in 1972. After a very brief audition, he was hired for the gig. What followed were four outstanding albums in the '70s starting with Aladdin Sane, where his glittering piano works are still spoken in awe of, Pin Ups, Diamond Dogs and Young Americans including the tours that followed. All of these albums and tours were happening during a tremendous creative burst for Bowie, a period that cemented his reputation and stardom. After that period, they did not work together until the Nile Rodgers' produced Black Tie White Noise. Since then, he has worked on the records that followed in the '90s such as Outside and Earthling and then Hours,Heathen and Reality. Behind them were successful and lengthy tours and unique performance which were captured on Bowie at the Beeb, VH1 Storytellers, and Reality Tour. He was there supporting Bowie at his last performance when they performed "Changes" at a charity gig. But their story did not end there. In 2011, Garson released the solo piano album Bowie Variations It is a collection of Bowie songs performed on a piano with Garson's signature style. Very quickly Bowie's songs begin to take new dimensions as a result to these focused and beautifully crafted improvisations. Garson's musical intelligence is second to none and the songs reflect a mind awhirl in creative reverie. It easily is one of the best tribute records by any artist. In this conversation, Garson is reflecting on the music and the moments he has spent with Bowie.

All About Jazz: During your career as an artist, one of the longest associations you had is that with the great David Bowie. You worked with him during different stages of his career. Please talk about your friendship and working relationship with him.

Mike Garson: He was one of the most creative guys I've worked with. He never rested on his laurels. He was never happy in a comfort zone. As soon as he created something and it was achieved and others experienced it, rather than repeating it, he moved onto the next thing. He did this his whole life and that's something to be well respected. As a friend, I think David truly appreciated who I was and how I created. We saw eye to eye on the creative process which helped to really connect us as people.

AAJ: What was your initial impression of David when you met him for the first time?

MG: When I initially met him, I thought his looks were weird. But when we talked he was very bright. Intelligent and not weird at all. It's just that he had a look that was coming from England at the time and it was pretty wild. I was a guy from Brooklyn dressed in a t-shirt and jeans and he and the guys were all decked out. But then we talked, endlessly, while driving through the States in his limo. He was very well informed about many subjects-philosophy, art, books, music, etc. It was very unusual for a rock musician to know so much about jazz including a lot of other things besides. David played baritone sax and he loved Charles Mingus and Stan Kenton. He was a great artist and we got along very quickly.

AAJ: How much of a transition is it from playing jazz to playing rock?

MG: I've never had a lot of boundaries connected to my music. I'm able to find the coordinates. Once I find what somebody's music is about, I'm able to find the right piano parts—be it jazz, classical, rock or a mixture.

AAJ: What are your thoughts about the time you spent with him and the Spiders? During that period, he (and the band) sounded like the sort of leader that would be fun to play with.

MG: I had never played with English rock musicians. I was a New York jazz musician. Maybe it's where I'm similar to David—I welcomed new opportunities to stretch my own boundaries. While they were coming from a different musical sensibility, their musicianship was extremely high and they were very tight as a band so putting the piano in there was like adding whip cream to a cake. It was very natural.

AAJ: Your performances on Aladdin Sane are still spoken in awe especially "Lady Grinning Soul" and the title track. What is the greatest reward that you took with you as a result of your participation on this recording?

MG: When I did the album, it was just another recording date to me and I didn't think about it for another twenty years. I played it. I knew I played it well and they liked it. I was happy to have delivered a good product and I moved on. It wasn't until the internet when people started talking to me about it that I had even heard the tracks. It had been a great day in the studio and it's been history that has shown it to stick. You never know what will stick over twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years, let alone a hundred or two hundred.

AAJ: When you listen to a recording like that now, what goes through your mind?

MG: I was in the zone that day.

AAJ: Since you have worked with Bowie during different periods and stages of his career, what is your favorite period of Bowie's music?

MG: Believe it or not, each period brought a certain joy. Playing with the Spiders in the early days was great. Playing with the Young Americans band, when I was the musical director, was phenomenal. Doing the "Diamond Dogs" tour when Michael Kamen was the musical director was a joy as was the "Outside" tour. The Reality tour was amazing. I don't think I ever had a bad experience on a tour or album with David.

AAJ: What are your recollections of the "Diamond Dogs/Young Americans" tours when the bands consisted of Michael Kamen, David Sanborn, Herbie Flowers, Tony Newman, Luther Vandross?

MG: That was an amazing set of musicians. We went from the east coast to the west coast with that band. But then, when we came back from the west coast to the east coast, it was a different band and I remained through both. There were no English musicians -there was no Herbie Flowers, Tony Newman or Michael Kamen. It was an all-American band. We came back doing the Young American tour.

AAJ: You are probably his longest working sideman. What was it like for you to see the evolution of Bowie's personas?

MG: That didn't mean anything to me because he was always this creative spirit making music. I wasn't particularly into the persona aspect. I just felt I knew who this artist was and that he was always going to come up with something fresh.

AAJ: During the '70s, you worked with him as his musical director for various projects. How did he channel the musicians' talents and strengths into music?

MG: By staying out of the way. He never micromanaged. He gave you an overall vision and then got out of the way. David knew who he was choosing and he trusted that we would deliver the goods. Everybody he chose delivered those goods. Think about it: Luther Vandross, David Sanborn, Dennis Davis, Willie Weeks, Andy Newmark, Carlos Alomar. Zach Alford, Sterling Campbell Gail Ann Dorsey etc.

AAJ: Having played with him live all throughout the '70s (and serving as a musical director) and the '90s can you compare and contrast the touring bands from different ages that you were part of?

MG: No. David always chose great musicians. He was the ultimate casting director. A mistake people can make is to compare instead of taking each thing as it is -or else you get into trouble.

AAJ: One of the most interesting records that Bowie did in the '90s was Outside. The process of making of this record was as unique as the final result. What do you recall about the improvisatory sessions in Switzerland and the process of making of this record? Please describe the creative process that informed this record. How did the collaborative ideas evolve into Outside and its narrative?

MG: David was trying to get back to his center or his true self as an artist. He felt he had compromised a bit in the 80s and he said to me that he wanted to put a band together of the most influential musicians he'd ever worked with in his life" So he chose myself, Carlos Alomar, Reeves Gabrels, Sterling Campbell, Erdal Kızılçay and Brian Eno. We all became one-sixth composers of the music because we improvised for a few weeks and they took these improvisations and cut them up into great songs. That was my most favorite project to do because we improvised for so long. I loved doing all the albums, but the magic of the improvisation for three or four hours every day for weeks with musicians you trust—it just doesn't get any better than that.

AAJ: Several years ago you did a unique solo piano album based on Bowie's songs The Bowie Variations. Please talk about the challenge and thrill of playing solo (as opposite of playing with a band or orchestra)?

MG: Nobody really heard that album except a few thousand people. It's pretty advanced musically. Even if you knew Bowie's songs you might not recognize what I was playing. I took liberties that a classical composer or a jazz musician might take, making true variations on those songs of his. I loved making that recording and even wrote one tribute to him not based on his songs. All the others were based on his songs and tracks like "Let's Dance" and "Heroes" I treated as I was the guitarist and did two or three piano overdubs. As much as I'd like to think it was two hands, you're hearing four and six hands on some of those tracks. It was a fun album and maybe in a hundred years once I'm dead more people will hear it.

AAJ: Please describe the impetus behind this record.

MG: I had been thinking about it for years. I want to do another album for him now. Maybe not solo piano but with a band. I'm still thinking about it—I haven't figured it out yet.

AAJ: A lot of the music featured on the album was part of the repertoire you played with Bowie. How did you approach selecting material to perform in a solo context?

MG: A lot of the pieces on that album weren't played by me in their original versions. I had played on many of them in live situations. I didn't play on the original albums for "Changes," "Heroes," "Life on Mars," "Let's Dance," or "John, I'm Only Dancing." It was fun to choose tunes that I didn't originally play. I didn't choose "Aladdin Sane" or "Lady Grinning Soul" or "Time," though I did do "Bring Me The Disco King" and "Loneliest Guy" and I took it way out.

AAJ: The core of your playing successfully balances jazz and classical influences. Can you describe how you negotiate between the two styles in your playing?

MG: I don't have barriers in my music. I don't think to myself, "I'm going to play classical now" and then switch to jazz, or vice versa. Instead, whatever I'm feeling in the moment is what I play. I understand some people subdivide it but that's not how my mind works.

AAJ: How did you begin the process of developing the piano sound that we have come to associate with you?

MG: I just play the piano. I never thought about it. Don't forget—before I met Bowie I had been practicing eight hours a day for ten years. I never thought about anything other than this is what's coming out. If you know who you are as a person, develop yourself and are being honest—it's reflected, hopefully, in your music.

AAJ: What was his reaction to your record and tribute?

MG: He sent me an email. He liked it.

AAJ: What are some of your favorite David Bowie pieces regardless of whether or not you have played on them?

MG: "The Motel," which I did play on from Outside. "Quicksand," which I didn't play on the original, but I love it. Also: "Life on Mars," "Changes," "Time," "Lady Grinning Soul," "Aladdin Sane," "Battle for Britain," "Dead Man Walking," "I'm Deranged," "Bring Me The Disco King," "A Small Plot of Land," and "Strangers When We Meet." "Conversation Piece" and "Shadow Man."

AAJ: Across Bowie's 50-year career there hasn't been a lull in interest in his music. Why do you think listeners are so loyal?

MG: He was honest and didn't compromise his integrity. He was always creating and not resting on his laurels like some artists do.

AAJ: What are your thoughts about his swansong Blackstar?

MG: Pretty revealing. A knowledge that he was dying. What can I tell you?

AAJ: Should we think of Bowie as more of an avant-garde artist than a pop star?

MG: Definitely he was both.

AAJ: When looking back on working with him what do you see as your most important accomplishments?

MG: Those would be Aladdin Sane, Outside, Diamond Dogs and Young Americans.

AAJ: Where do you position his recorded legacy in the pop music pantheon?

MG: I've said for thirty years that in one hundred years we'll know him, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, probably U2, definitely The Beatles. The rest will fade away. So, pretty high up. Bowie will be very close to the top.

AAJ: Do you think a phenomenon like Bowie will ever likely to appear again?

MG: We're all unique. We all have our gifts. You don't want more than one of him. Don't forget, each clone gets stupider. There will be other great artists. After Bach, they didn't think anyone could be better. After Mozart, they didn't think anyone could come close. Then Beethoven emerged. They're all phenomenal. Again, comparison is a dangerous thing. Let's just say David was great. Period.

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