Keyboard Legend Rick Wakeman: The Rare Improvisatory Genius of Yes

With the release of his new CD Piano Portraits this year, Rick Wakeman reminds us all that he is, and always has been, a brilliant pianist. His new CD includes 15 tracks played on his favorite grand piano; a Steinway. Most are titles he’s recorded or performed quite often before. There are also a few gems which are first recordings. These include one of his own new compositions “Dance of the Damselflies” and E. Stewart’s “I’m Not in Love”. As is characteristic of Rick’s pianistic expressions, the well-known melodies are easily recognized but exquisitely stamped with his own improvisatory style.

A constant in Rick’s solo performances has been the combination of popular covers, improvisation, and elegant arrangements of favorite classical works. This remains true for this CD, though it is ear-opening to hear him performing on acoustic piano. His mastery of electronic keyboards and reputation as the court jester of rock music brought him fame. Now his fans can hear the skills he developed over years of private piano lessons and musical studies at The Royal College of Music, London.

Here’s Rick’s amazing pianistic cover of Help:

Here’s Rick performing his version of Claire De Lune:

Also included on the album is a tribute to David Bowie. Rick and David Bowie were neighbors and one time, and they were also very good friends. Rick and David used to meet regularly in the Museum Club in Switzerland. They worked together on Life On Mars. In fact, Rick was the first person to hear the piece. Bowie asked Rick to play the piece, improvising as he chose. Rick often created piano stylings for David Bowie. He thought Bowie’s works to be some of the best he’d ever heard. Rick was stunned, unable to speak, when he heard of Bowie’s passing away. Bowie had lost his battle with cancer.

Here’s Rick performing his versions of Space Oddity and Life On Mars:

Rick joined Yes the first time in August 1971. The first rehearsal was above a shop in Shepherd’s Market in Mayfair, London. It turns out that the shop was a brothel. He said that the first rehearsal was like fitting together the parts of a jigsaw puzzle. Each band member brought his own unique skills to contribute to the rehearsal. Rick’s job was to pull all the parts together to make a cohesive whole. He said during one interview that as his work with the band evolved, his primary job was to improvise on acoustic piano whenever the power went out while the band was on tour. When the band’s electronic equipment had problems, which happened frequently, Rick improvised on piano, entertaining the audience, until the problem was solved. Rick would go on to play with the progressive rock band until 2004, alternating five Yes tenures with solo performances and album releases.

Rick had planned to become a concert pianist, but his talents were in high demand as a session musician. He played on recording sessions for Elton John, Cat Stevens, T. Rex, Junior’s Eyes and David Bowie and Black Sabbath. He also was a member of the band Strawbs before he joined Yes. By 1998, Rick had worked as a session musician and record producer of over 2,000 tracks for various artists.

Throughout the years, Rick’s performances created legendary respect for his high level of skill with keyboards. He performed on electric piano, Minimoog, pipe organ, the Mellotron, numerous models of synthesizers as they were developed. His current arsenal of keyboards features the new digital Memotran which updated the older Mellotron, the Yamaha Montage and the Kronos from Korg. Words are often not sufficient to describe the dazzling technique Rick has with these instruments, but classic performances are available.

Here’s Rick burning up the keys on his magnificent trademark keyboard array:

Rick improvises on the 1972 excerpts from The Six Wives of Henry VIII:

Rick’s career has been, and remains, rich and varied. He is the author of “Say Yes! An Autobiography”, “Grumpy Old Rockstar: and Other Wondrous Stories”, and “Further Adventures of a Grumpy Old Rockstar”. His discography includes a long list of studio, live, solo and compilation albums. He has performed as a guest artist more than 20 times with Lou Reed, Cat Stevens, Elton John, David Bowie, Al Stewart, T. Rex, Ozzy Osbourne and many more. He continues his work as a songwriter, television and radio presenter and keyboardist, encompassing classical, new age, Christian, ambient and progressive rock genres.

Rick became a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2017, as a Yes member. He has joined former Yes members to form ARW, named for John Anderson, Trevor Rabin, and John Wakeman. The three musicians have been touring together since 2010, and recently completed the tour “An Evening of Yes Music and More”.

With Rick Wakeman, there’s always more. He’s presented “The Other Side Of Rick Wakeman” which gives fans not only great backstories about his life, but some stellar performances and incredible improvisation sessions.

Here’s Part 1:

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