Jordan Rudess is, put simply, a legend of the keyboard and piano family. Not only do his fingers move with the speed light and grace of an angel, but his beard is also rumoured to contain magical powers. Alongside casting his spells through the progressive rock giants, Dream Theater, Rudess also develops app-based instruments through his company Wizdom Music; modern day wands, if you will. Ahead of his Bach to Rock, solo piano tour, I had a chat to him about what the tour is all about and how life has led up to this point.
You’re about to tour three continents including Australia with your solo piano tour, but first I’d just like to hear about you as a younger person. A lot of our viewers won’t know that you started studying piano at the prestigious Juilliard school of music at the age of 9. Where did you learn the discipline to do that?
Well I started playing the piano at 7 and then luckily through some friends of the family, I managed to get to a teacher who had the idea that I should go to Juilliard. First of all, I had to prepare an audition even at the age of 9. I did so successfully, and I managed to stay there from the age 9 until 19. So, I went there for the whole of what they call the preparatory school. When it came to the college age I went to the reaudition, got in again but only stayed there about a year until my career went in other directions.
What were those first two years like from 7 to 9?
When I stated out, I had this teacher, one of these guys that comes to your house, comes for like 30 minutes once a week. He quickly realised that I was pretty good at picking up melodies and chords without any music, so he abandoned the usual kind of lessons and decided that he would just show me all of the chords. When I started out it was a whole lot of fun. Then people realised I was catching on really easily to things like that and improvising. They decided to send me somewhere for more serious lessons. That’s now back to the person who ended up forwarding me over to Juilliard.
It’s been a long road from there to now. Let’s talk about what’s happening in the near future. In this solo performance, how are you going to grace us with the Dream Theater songs we’re all so familiar with?
So, this solo performance is called Bach to Rock. It’s a chance for me to sit at a piano and tell the story of this long and interesting journey from the Julliard days through to what I’m doing now which is of course with Dream Theater and all that good stuff. So yeah, I’m at the piano and I get to play a whole lot of different music. I literally start with Bach. I go into some Chopin, I play some you know, progressive rock that influenced me, I play Dream Theater songs. When I pick the Dream Theater songs it’ll be a combination of what’s going to be effective coming from the piano. I’ve also arranged a well-known really progressive Dream Theater song called ‘The Dance of Eternity’. I’m definitely going to feature that on this next run as well.
Speaking of Dream Theater, in September you guys let out a video saying the next album is finished now, so will this concert leak out any small riffs or ideas that will feature on it?
Well when I improvise, you never know what’s going to come out. But if I played something like that I wouldn’t tell you anyway. There should be no leaks haha. It’s not on the plan to play anything of the new Dream Theater album, because that wouldn’t be cool. When you hear the first Dream Theater album you should hear it from Dream Theater. But we’re really excited about the album. We’re mixing it as we speak, and it will be coming out at the end of February. Fairly soon we will have a nice press release to let everyone know what’s going on with it.
Some of the covers that I saw you are going to play are from artists like David Bowie and John Lennon. What sort of connections do you have with these artists to choose their songs?
Even when I grew and up and was really into classical music I also was being turned onto The Beatles. I used to have a small draw near my bed that I would reach into when I was a little guy. I’d grab a 45 and put it on my turn table. The Beatles were a big influence, so I’ll play a beautiful song, like a John Lennon song, like ‘Image’. I’m not sure if I’ll play it but it’s a song that I’m just really connected to musically and spiritually. The Beatles sound good on the piano. David Bowie and I have a unique connection because I played on one of his albums. I played on the Heathen album and although I didn’t get to know him very well, we did spend about 12 days together up at a studio in the middle of nowhere. So, I managed to connect with him and it gives a little bit more of a meaning to me when I play the song. Oh, and if I do ‘Space Oddity,’ one funny story from the studio. We were working on a new song together and he just wanted to run it through with piano and vocals. At the end of the song, there was this thing I played with a couple of chords, and he started to sing the words to ‘Space Oddity.’ I was like Oh My God, because they were similar chords to ‘Space Oddity,’ which was trippy because it’s such an iconic song.
Is there a particular artist you might feature who got you more into the progressive side of music?
Well there was the whole progressive rock movement for sure that was influential, but as far as the artist that got me into this… The biggest influence in my keyboard playing was Keith Emerson, who was of course from Emerson Lake and Palmer. I remember getting turned onto the Tarkus album and hearing it over and over and over again. I’ll definitely talk about and play some of that in my show.
Okay, how does the whole solo piano concert appeal to those music lovers that don’t really play piano?
Well luckily piano seems to be an instrument that is very comfortable, entertaining and enjoyed by so many people. I mean I’m not playing a concert of bagpipes which might have a slightly more limited audience. Also, the piano for me is like coming home. It’s a great way for me musically to really express myself. I feel like people who don’t play the piano aren’t necessarily going to have any trouble getting into a piano concert.
Is the concert going to integrate any technology developed in Wizdom Music?
Yeah, actually although the majority of the concert is piano, in the middle of the show I do bust out my multitouch IOS instrument, my app called GeoShred. GeoShred is my latest invention with a team that I met at Stanford University. I take a little break, I get up from the piano and my story telling is definitely part of it. I’ll call up GeoShred and rock out a little for everybody.
Have these instruments you’ve developed really affected your approach to music?
They have. For many years I’ve been thinking about expressive music and ways to integrate our human experience with the way we make music. It has led me down this path of being very involved with people who make music instruments and having my own company of making music instruments. In that, there is a lot of learning, there’s a lot of things you find out. You develop an instrument and all of a sudden you go WOW, that really is affecting my music making. It’s like a dream come true when all of a sudden something you were imagining, like an interface, comes a physical reality. So, it totally affects the way you play.
The modern technologies have obviously affected and kept your music flavours up to date. How do you draw on the classical background to aid your approach to music?
Well my classical background is the element of what I do. Any time I touch the keyboard regardless of the style, I make use of the structure and foundation of everything I learned. So yeah, I was lucky enough to go to Juilliard and have the top training that was possible for anybody. Whether I’m playing in Dream Theater or if I’m playing blues or anything, it all comes back to that, the Juilliard classical training.
With so much classical training in your background, how do you break out of following all of the rules and making so much original and interesting music.
Well I’ve never had any problem with that. That maybe was a problem with some of the people I was studying with, in a sense that I didn’t grow up in a generation where improvisation was necessarily appreciated. I was always the improviser, but I used to hide it a little bit in the Juilliard school. I used to go down to the practice room furthest down the hallway away from everyone where I would proceed to play the blues or boogie woogie or whatever I was playing, either for myself or I would bring in some Juilliard school mates that wanted to loosen up a little bit. For me, making music without the constraints has always been very natural, very fun.
You’ve played with a huge number of people and some very big names: David Bowie, Steven Wilson, Dream Theater. So, what would you say you’re aspiring to at the moment?
The kind of musician I am isn’t like a fashion musician or a commercial musician, it’s more: this is my life work. For me and even everyone in my band, we’re always trying to not only keep whatever technique we’ve developed over the years up, but also to reach another level. That’s who we are, that’s who I am. I want to play the piano, I want to play the keyboards as well. So, I work on things like technique exercises or now I recently said I would commit to playing an all classical two piano concert with Judith Stillman. She was an old Juilliard friend of mine. So yeah, that’s kind of my path.
To wrap things up, are there any Australian keyboard prodigies to look out for?
Ah that might be a question that might stump me. Although I know a lot of keyboard prodigies around the world, none of them that I know of are Australian. I do listen to a lot of the prog and the newer prog around the world though, like Animals as Leaders, or Periphery or a young prog band named Haken. Although he doesn’t play the keys, I am a fan of the Australian guitarist Plini. He has such nice flow!
Interview by Kurt Boldy
Get your tickets to Jordan Rudess’ Bach to Rock HERE
Jordan Rudess’ Bach to Rock – 2018 Australian Tour
Wednesday Nov 21 Brisbane – Triffid
Thursday Nov 22 Adelaide – The Gov
Friday Nov 23 Melbourne – Art Centre Playhouse
Sunday Nov 25 Auckland – Tuning Fork
Tuesday Nov 27 Sydney Opera House Studio
Wednesday Nov 28 Canberra – the Basement