The larger-than-life keyboard maestro strips it back for this excellent set of classics. Bowie, Beatles, 10cc, hymns, Gershwin, Yes and Fauré – all these and more are here in Wakeman’s distinctive style.
Label: Write Notes / Universal
Time: 15 tracks / 61 mins
Over the years, of all the Wakeman releases that I have heard (alongside, inevitably, Six Wives...) one of my favourites has been The Piano Album, where he simply plays good tunes on a piano, several of them written or originally played on by him.
Four of those make a repeat on this superb disc: Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and “Life on Mars” as well as “Morning has Broken” – all singles on which he originally played keys –and “Wonderous Stories” from one of his times with Yes. As you would expect, “Space Oddity” retains the qualities that he brought to the original, with very little overplaying.
This release came about through the Bowie connection. Soon after Bowie’s death, Wakeman played “Life on Mars” on solo piano for BBC Radio 2 as a tribute. The powerful audience reaction led to this project.
I am a little surprised at his choice of opener: “Help“ is not the most melodically strong or intricate of the Beatles’ many works. His trademark flourishes certainly add to the tune, but the source material is weak – that is until he redeems it with a seamless transition into a brief section of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” to close the piece. It is a fine piece of musical sensitivity.
He ends the selection with another Beatles piece. His take on “Eleanor Rigby” is startlingly brisk and it could almost have been segued into his Yessongs solo set.
Other strong tunes include the excellent “Stairway to Heaven,” 10cc’s gorgeous “I’m Not in Love” (how could he go wrong with either of those?) and “I Vow to Thee my Country.”
The classically-trained pianist shows sensitive restraint on “Clair de Lune” and offers a well-balanced version of Faure’s “Berceuse.” It is true enough to the original, with just enough of his own character coming through. It is a similar story with “Amazing Grace” and we are now probably more familiar with his take on “Morning has Broken” than with any other version.
At times – such as on “Summertime” – his style can be a little dense in that he can fill in so many spaces and use so many (technical term alert:) twiddly bits. There is also a small character change in (oddly) one of his ‘own’ songs. I tend to think of “Wonderous Stories” as a magical track, rather than a jolly one. Here, the left hand seems to trivialise it a little in places. But this is one of those small personal niggles that others may not experience.
Overall, this does all that The Piano Album did and probably a little more. It is a wonderful evergreen selection and should settle as one of his most popular releases.