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01/29/12

Mike Garson
The Bowie Variations
Reference

Having immersed yourself in an album that purports to be an extension on assorted musical themes by rock composer David Bowie, you might be surprised to find yourself not thinking about Bowie at all. Albums of this nature sometimes function as glorified tributes, adding a dollop of original artistry to go along with artistry that has long existed. Pianist Mike Garson’s achievement, though, is to have created something that is quite nearly autonomous, save that it owes its inspiration to the good Mr. Stardust.

The most Bowie-esque moment—from a standpoint of melody—occurs with “Heroes,” but Garson compacts Bowie’s original riff so that it grows in urgency, like some piano-based directive. That riff crops up throughout the album, and each time it reoccurs, the overall work feels less like a collection of variations sourced from songs and more like a piece composed as a whole.

The delicate, autumnal-tinged playing of “Life on Mars” suggests Rachmaninov—in subdued mode—more so than Bowie, but when the pace quickens and some note clusters begin to rain down, we are met with that kind of grand, panoramic sweep that one finds in Gershwin. And if you were never a fan of the ubiquitous “Changes”—perhaps Bowie’s shoutiest, showiest number—the variations here are apt to do your head in with how far afield they go. After one minor-key passage, a jaunty English air commences, only to be proceeded by a propulsive, all-American, railway-type rhythm. We go from one vista to another, sans checkpoints and borders, which was Bowie’s preferred mode of musical travel, as Garson well knows.

Originally published in January/February 2012
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