Tickling The Piano with Greg Rogove

By: Dennis Cook

The East Coast leg of the Alone Together Tour with Greg Rogove, Billy Martin (Medeski Martin & Wood) and Sarah Neufeld (Arcade Fire/Bell Orchestre) begins this Saturday, April 7, in Brooklyn, NY. Read about the tour and the upcoming West Coast leg here.

Gregory Rogove by Mariana Garcia
Perhaps more than any other instrument, the piano lends itself to solo performance. The musical and emotional range available at one’s fingertips and toes is simply unparalleled. We’re compelled to lean in and open up a bit when a single piano plays, a welcoming intimacy readily apparent in the conversation between listener, instrument and performer. That sumptuous range and quick closeness suffuses Piana (released January 31), a new collection of solo piano pieces by Gregory Rogove performed by MMW's John Medeski. It’s not exactly what one expects – a spare, emotion saturated, bittersweet song cycle – from the drum pummeling Devendra Banhart band member, seductively devilish Megapuss co-founder, and potently psychedelic Priestbird fellow. Yet, Piana exhibits Rogove’s natural inclination to explore the outer reaches of his (and others’) comfort zones. It’s a work that straddles the worlds of classical, jazz and rock in a limber, category dispelling manner, which is further accentuated to the positive by Medeski’s delicate, masterful playing. Piana is accompanied by a packed DVD featuring exotic, stimulating visual interpretations of the pieces and a series of remixes/reinterpretations of the piano pieces by The Bees, Billy Martin, Hecuba, Devendra Banhart and more, most of which radically deviate from the originals. Altogether, it’s an ambitious, adventurous project and one JamBase was delighted to talk to Rogove about just as he sets off on the inaugural tour behind this material.

New Album
JamBase: This is a record that veers outside of expectations, but the way you play piano has always exhibited a really crazy passion for this instrument.

Greg Rogove: I started on piano when I was six but I didn’t take to it. Then, I started on drums at ten and fell into that and kept going. When I was 17 or 18 I came across these Erik Satie pieces and they just blew my mind – so beautiful and so simple and so direct and pure. It hit me profoundly, and because they aren’t technically difficult I thought I could pull them off if I just worked at it a bit. So, I got into the routine of learning a new piece every few months, and I used the piano to write in general.

The pieces [on Piana] aren’t really from leftfield for me. My band Priestbird in its early days used to be called Tarantula, and the sketches for Tarantula songs would come from piano pieces like these. Then we’d bring them into the band arena and arrange them for cello, guitar or violin. For me, it was like coming back full circle to what I was doing in the early 2000s but keeping it really minimal.

JamBase: It’s a challenge to write something simple that doesn’t come off as simplistic. You hit that Satie-like balance a lot on Piana.

Erik Satie
Greg Rogove: I’m almost scared to even mention Satie because anyone who does simple piano tunes is compared to Satie, which sucks because you’ll never be Satie. I was never trying to be Satie on this album. It’s more the colors, types of melodies, the sentiments…there’s a sense of sorrow and hopefulness at the same time. That’s what I like about his work, and Debussy’s Preludes do a similar thing. Those guys were buddies and lived in the same time, and there’s something about their work that really moves me.

It’s always a little nervous making when it’s suggested one is operating on the same level as some giant.

Those guys are my heroes and such an inspiration for me, and they continue to be. Even after all these years of studying and enjoying their work, I’m still just as fired up by them. It’s from the end of the 19th century and it’s still meaningful today. That’s what great works of art are like.

Something special happens when you focus on a single instrument.

Gregory Rogove by Mariana Garcia
Definitely. You can almost do it with any instrument but some lend themselves to it a little better. Piano is just AMAZING. It can have so many different personalities, and how much ground it can cover. That’s perhaps why in classical music they’ll do a piano reduction for orchestral pieces so you can understand it. You can cover most of the ranges of the orchestra, even if not all the tones and colors.

I’ve often said a piano is like having an orchestra at your fingertips. You can build complex rhythms and melodies simultaneously… …and all the colors and cluster sounds. You can get noise out of a piano if you want to.

Oh yeah, that’s Cage, Eno, even Monk, all guys who went after interesting fuckin’ sounds. They could appreciate what a hideously out-of-tune piano was capable of producing.

Totally! One of my favorite pieces of all-time is LaMonte Young’s The Well-Tuned Piano. The whole story and conception of it is incredible. He takes the Pythagorean tuning, which is basically the geometry of the universe where everything is built on ratios - the fibonacci sequence and the golden mean are the same thing. So, he takes this piano tuning that they don’t use anymore after Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier. After that piano music changed, but Young went back to this ancient Greek tuning which creates these really weird dissensions and harmonies. Not to sound too hippy, but it’s the resonances of everything in the universe [laughs]. It’s crazy. It’s a five hour piece and you’ll listen and hear horns, insects, strings…you will go on a journey. It’s really powerful because it hits resonances in your body that are really ancient. Oh man, I’m totally sounding like a hippy, but I am in my heart [laughs].

In practice and attitude sure but with none of the stinky, icky connotations. You (and I) like a thumb in the eye and vulgarity more than most hippies. At heart it’s about love and harmonious resonances and all that crap [laughs].

These are the foundations of our being - the makings of life. Who doesn’t relate to that in some way, even if unconsciously?

John Medeski by John Margaretten
When you conceived of Piana what made you want to work with John Medeski?

There’s a big difference between writing something and being able to perform it well. Obviously, that’s a no brainer in the classical and film worlds, where composers often don’t perform their pieces. And it wasn’t a pretentious kind of decision on my part, it’s just that John has SUCH an incredible touch and imagination that I thought, “Why not have a master play these pieces and make them sound the best they can?” Parts of them, even though they are simple technically, will benefit from someone like John who’s spent a hundred thousand hours on the instrument. He’ll be able to express it better than I can.

On any keyboard, but especially piano, there’s very little separation between the instrument and the man operating it when Medeski is at work. The way he moves his body, his expressions and gestures are all reflected in the sounds coming out. That kind of symbiosis is wonderful, where a human being is bringing forth every possible good thing this magic box has to reveal. And Medeski has shown himself such a magician in so many different contexts over the years.

That’s another reason I was excited about working with John. If I had a straight classical guy it would sound rigid. If I had some avant-garde guy it might not be as elegant. He can do both and so much more.

Gregory Rogove at NYC soundcheck
There’s so many nice reference points on Piana. We’ve already discussed the classical stuff, but one picks up on the heavy right hand of New Orleans and there’s definitely an avant-garde streak. But everything is done in brief, where no one element is given sway for too long. It kinda speaks to your roots in the rock world, where you’ve always insisted that the genre be as flexible, diverse and just plain strange as it promised to be in the 60s and 70s. It ate up country, blues, everything it could get its hands on, and your work – even here – reflects that omnivore perspective.

I just love music. It’s not about being classical or rock or Afrobeat or avant-garde or conceptual. All that stuff, if done well, is beautiful, and it all relates. It’s all a means of communicating.

Doing that wordlessly creates another challenge where you don’t have the crutch of lyrics to convey ideas and emotions.

I really like that world and getting to step out of words, but by the end of this project I was ready to just write some songs and play drums! It was great to focus in, to peer through the ferns, looking straight ahead and not to the sides to all these other options that you love. You look through this one window and walk that way. It was fun to explore this very finite territory.

Then you take the next semi-logical step of giving these works to others to do their own interpretations. That’s a double layer of stepping back, where first you give the pieces to Medeski to play and then take another step to allow the material to be shaped, warped, etc. in radically different ways.

Gregory Rogove @ L.A. River by George Augusto
I know it was a solo piano work but I kept thinking about how one piece might sound great with horns or another piece would sound good with strings. But no, this is a piano record, and I kept that limit on myself but allowed others the freedom to explore these other ideas. That was the impetus for the remixes and interpretations. I was also interested in seeing how these friends and artists I admired who don’t usually work with piano pieces would respond to the material.

It’s like having someone painting next to you as you play music onstage.

I like all the remixes but a couple of them blew me away. The Bees’ version of “Carolyn” had a bit of serendipity to it. They have this amazing horn section, and their trumpet player came in talking second line horn sections at New Orleans funerals and Paul, their lead singer, instantly knew which tune they should do.

The remixes/revamps have an international flavor, and not in that goopy World Music way. It’s simply music without borders.

Since the advent of recordings, music has spread out everywhere. It can be anywhere now, and with the internet that dynamic is increased one million fold. It’s daunting at times but it’s so great. There’s a downside in that some of the indigenous music from around the world gets lost because of recordings. Like in Ireland, there are all these pockets of traditional styles of music like Country Cork style or the Dublin style. They used to be very different and personalized but with the advent of recordings they began to mix. That’s what happens with imperialism and colonialism. It’s a little sad that you lose the personality and integrity of cultures sometimes.

The positive upswing of that is American folk music, which comes from this great hodgepodge of reels, German beer songs, sea shanties, etc. It’s such a unique thing that only happens with this free-for-all mingling of cultures and styles. The purity of the original sources may be lost but something else is gained. However, the Smithsonian archivists have long been wary of their influence on cultures as they do field recordings and how it changes things, just their presence and the act of sticking a microphone in people’s faces.

That’s what Alan Lomax talked about. And since you mentioned it, I’m planning an album of German beer songs [laughs]. Maybe I’ll get to open for David Hasselhoff.

Gregory Rogove Tour Dates :: Gregory Rogove News

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[Published on: 4/4/12]

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