The caped crusader might now be best known for his piano work. What he did for “Morning has Broken,” he is now doing for carols.

Label:     Sony Music
Time:     14 tracks / 51 minutes

When Rick Wakeman was topping readers’ polls for keyboard players in his ‘70s heyday, it was because of his dazzling synth runs and the zinging colours he brought out of his vast array of keys, particularly his Mini-moog. Piano pieces were occasional, somewhat vaudeville and felt like second class Wakeman.

That all changed when he released The Piano Album in 1995. It featured the songs his piano work helped make famous – Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and “Life on Mars,” Cat Steven’s “Morning has Broken” – along with Yes favourites and solo compositions. It was one of his best collections.

In the wake of Bowie’s death in 2016, Wakeman’s piano tribute on BBC Radio 2 grew so popular that it led to him releasing it with other famous tracks, from Beatles pieces to classical sketches, on Piano Portraits. That was it; his piano work had become a brand.

So a Christmas album was always on the cards and this continues the style with some great, established tunes as his core material.

At first, his exuberance can seem a little wearing (why leave a space when you can fill it with twelve notes?) but those rippling arpeggios and tumbling fills are largely the appeal of Wakeman’s style – and he does tone it down appropriately for “Silent Night.” He also slows down “God Rest ye Merry, Gentlemen” enough to give it an unusually strong dose of gravitas.

As the collection settles, what stands out is his fluent musical brain and the natural variations he builds around the melodies. Opener “The First Noel” beautifully displays this, with elegant improvisations between verses. Like clematis around an autumn tree, these extras transform the appearance of these familiar pieces, turning them into something almost completely new.

So fluid is his playing that when he ends a line in “Deck the Halls” with three staccato chords, it stands out like it has been hit with a spotlight.

Most of the carols you expect are here, but every now and again Wakeman throws in a surprise. Generally, the sunny, Caribbean “Mary’s Boy Child” tends to jar a little among all the snowy tunes; but here, where all is piano, the freshness of its melody lifts the collection. The other pleasant surprise is covering David Essex’s “A Winter’s Tale.”

Altogether, there is plenty here to enjoy here; it is authentic, original and festive, and will enhance Christmas.

Derek Walker
My 4-part account of 50 years of CCM begins here