In my last post for 2016 I promised you, my faithful followers, big surprises, exciting changes, and a new approach for The Concert Closet in 2017...hopefully this first post lives up to the hype. The Concert Closet reached out to pianist extraordinaire Jordan Rudess for an interview, and Jordan was gracious enough to accommodate! Besides being the keyboard master for Dream Theater, Jordan has his hands immersed (no pun intended) in many other projects. Solo work, guest appearances, a music app, and Facebook Live are but a tip of the proverbial iceberg the Mr. Rudess is involved with currently. So as the search for all things prog enters 2017, let us set the bar high...
Closet Concert Arena: First I want to thank you for taking time out of your day for this. Been a fan for a long time and I very much appreciate the opportunity to find out about your world first hand.
Jordan Rudess: Thank you for your time as well.
CCA: Is there a favorite band or artist you enjoyed playing with or being part of? You really have been involved with so much great music. I was actually surprised to learn that your journey includes a stint with the Paul Winter Consort.
JR: You're familiar with Paul Winter? A lot of people don't know that, but a lot of people do know my background is classical piano; I was going to be a classical pianist. I spent so many years being so serious in the classical music world, so focused. At the age of nine I went off to Julliard, and later I began to want to learn other types of sounds, other kinds of music. Then people turned me on to Genesis, Gentle Giant, Yes, and I loved that stuff! I felt I needed to focus on that for a while, and as things came around and I became more comfortable with who I was, I realized I enjoyed doing a lot of different things. Later I was introduced to Eugene Friesen, the cellist for the Paul Winter Consort. He brought me in and at first I was playing piano. I really enjoyed that gig because it wasn't just one thing; it was more of its own blend of jazz, world music...it had a rock energy at times, and of course a classical side; very sensitive music. I met the man I would take over for, Paul Halley. He wrote a lot of the music and I was really inspired by his music and his "musicality." I learned a lot from him and I think about him often when I'm writing. There is a piece on Dream Theater's "The Astonishing" album that has that Paul Halley feel; choiry, open, slightly classical. That was a fun experience and I really enjoyed being part of it.
But to name a favorite would be difficult to impossible; I've played with so many and they've all been so different. Of course playing with Dream Theater--which is my "day job"--is terrific and I love it, but I also worked with Marco Minnemann and Tony Levin on "The law Offices" album which was a great experience as well.
CCA: With your classical training, what led you to the rock 'n' roll arena and progressive rock specifically?
JR: I was always a "closet improviser" when I was a kid, even when studying the serious stuff at Julliard. I would bring some of the other kids into the practice room and play some blues or rock; something that wasn't Chopin or Bach and we would have fun--but we had to be sneaky about it! (laughs). My mom would bring music from show tunes, songs from movies...just the sheet music. I would play parties and it was fun. When I hit seventeen or eighteen years old I finally had my "teenage rebellion" and decided it was time to go off track and check out what else was out there.
Not sure about you, but right about now I could use a shot of Jordan doing what Jordan does best; playing the piano. Here is a sampling of the "Closet Improviser" off on a tangent from the prog metal world. There really are no words, just allow the sound to permeate your soul and embrace it...
CCA: You've been the keyboardist for Dream Theater for 17 years, yet "The Astonishing" is the first album to highlight your influence over the music. The album is also a big step off on a tangent for the band. Was this a planned directional shift for the band to push the music in a different direction, or does the music follow its own lead?
JR: This is the first album to be credited as written by Petrucci and Rudess; I have been a composer since being in the group. John and I basically write the music, but the main difference on this album vs. all the others I was involved in is John and I were in a room together; there was nobody else there and we worked very carefully on structuring and composing this piece. As the producer, John felt that what we wanted to do with "The Astonishing" could be better accomplished if it was just the two of us in the room doing just this, rather than everyone being there. That was the main difference, the biggest change.
Now that we have done "The Astonishing" I believe we will go back to doing things with everyone together in the studio. It's usually very open and the other guys bring their energy, and everything is really good. One of the things about Dream Theater--even in the Mike Portnoy days--is John and I were the composers of the music on the instruments. Mike was certainly influential in the music, he had a big voice in the music, and he produced, but as far as composing, that came down to John and I.
Seems like the perfect place to insert a Dream Theater fix. This cut is one of my favorites from "The Astonishing," a piece called "Ravenskill." Let Jordan's delicate keyboards wash over you like waves lapping the shore as the song opens and James LaBrie's vocals rain down like a summer shower...of course the the sky opens and Mike Mangini's drum work rolls out a burlap carpet for John Petrucci's guitar to pour down like thunder from Mount Olympus, kept true by John Myung's bass work. Yes, the magic continues and it is so real...
CCA: Dream Theater is about to head off on a European tour; will there be a leg through the United States once you return stateside?
JR: We are heading to Europe very soon yes, and while we haven't finalized any dates as of yet, I think we probably will plan some shows in the US. Nothing is finalized or scheduled, but I think the idea to do that is there.
CCA: How does a tour with Dream Theater affect other opportunities to perform/tour with other artists? You mentioned the album with Levin and Minnemann among others; do you try to schedule other tours; exactly how much time do you want to spend on the road?
JR: Yeah, I love performing but it is a lot of road time. I've actually put out some energy to do more piano things. I love when I work with orchestras; I was in Poland not that long ago doing my explorations piece with one of the city orchestras there. That kind of thing is something I would like to develop more of.
CCA: You were voted "Best New Talent" in 1994; what affect did that have on your career path?
JR: That was Keyboard Magazine, and it was very helpful. They used to follow me; all the writers and editors. Before I had my career, I used to play all the big music conventions and I would write something kind of progressive and cool, and they would say, "Hey, this guy's cool!" (laughs). But it was helpful because it got my name to other musicians who were already in "the door" of the music business, which I wasn't yet. The guys from Dream Theater noticed, and it's one of the reasons they called me.
CCA: Do the demands of the different bands you play in affect your style or how you approach your music?
JR: It all does, I mean music is my life, my hobby, it's what I do. I kind of "morph" through different stylistic things for every situation I'm in and whatever musician I'm in it with. I will call on different techniques and flavors that I can offer, so yeah it is different each time.
CCA: You have a software company called Wizdom Music, which is very innovative in the electronic music app industry. You actually "create" different instruments and sounds for musicians of all ability levels; can you elaborate on this?
JR: I started Wizdom Music some years ago because when I discovered the multi-touch surface
thing, mostly through my experience with the iPhone and even before that, with a product called the Lemur, the items were very expensive. Today things have shifted to where we are all walking around with multi-touch devices. There is a fairly well known story where I got my first iPhone and it had a very preliminary kind of sound "thing" where you could make silly little wave form sounds. I was sitting around with it and became inspired because I thought, "What could I do with my fingers to express sound?" This was around my 50th birthday and my wife and I had just purchased a beautiful Steinway grand piano, and she sees me playing with this ridiculous sound and she has no idea what I'm doing and she says, "Why are you playing with that horrible noise when you have this beautiful piano in the other room?" I'm telling her I have something in my mind, and she thinks I am absolutely crazy! Of course it was the one time I could say, "I was right!" (laughs).
A year or so later I partnered with a guy named Kevin Chartier, a brilliant programmer, and we created an app called MorphWiz. MorphWiz was my first app and it won the Billboard Best Music App Award when it came out [October 2010]. That helped get the company on the map, and the idea was to be able to express notes on the touch surface of an iPhone, and much like a violin your finger would remain in contact with the sound, and you could affect the tambour of the sound, create different pitches; it helped showcase my vision of what the future of musical instruments would be. That was the beginning of a whole adventure for me which still goes on to this day.
My latest app, called the GeoShred, is a big focus for me because I partnered with some people I met at the CCRMA (pronounced karma) Institute at Stanford University. I was able to work with some very interesting people by going to Stanford and showing whatever new musical instruments I was involved in. GeoShred is really cool and winning a lot of awards; it just won the Electronic Magazine Editor's Choice Award. It is the one instrument you can really shred on that is a serious musical instrument for the iPad, and soon to be available for the iPhone as well. I use it a lot; I used it on the Levin Minnemann Rudess and the Dream Theater albums, I play it live, so it has been a big focus. The latest feature is an update which includes Midi, which for musicians is important, both the standard and the MPE. The MPE allows for a lot of flexibility in the way it controls and receives sound.
Wizdom Music is important to me and I also do consulting with other companies. I endorse Korg instruments as well as consult with Roli, a company which makes an instrument called the Seaboard. And I work with CME, which makes an incredible mobile keyboard called the Xkey. I stay busy keeping my hands in that arena, working with and developing instruments that interest me.
CCA: You have been a guest musician on several albums and had many guest musicians on yours; is this something that helps expand you as an artist or is it just a fun way to release energy?
JR: There are lots of reasons to do it. There are a lot of young artists that are extremely talented; Zach Kamins with An Endless Sporadic is one. If I find a gifted artist that I think stands out and I can help them get noticed or support them, I'm happy to do it. I also played on Fire Garden's latest release and Zee Baig is another guy that is very talented. I have played with Billy Sherwood on several projects, so there is always something out there to be involved in. Even Steven Wilson, I am happy to work on his records, and if the opportunity presents itself he would play on mine.
OK; one more clip for those so inclined. I hearkened back to "An Evening with John Petrucci and Jordan Rudess" for the song "State of Grace." The guitar and keyboard flow so beautifully together on this piece...every time I hear it I just close my eyes, sit back, and become one with the stereo as my headphones melt into my auditory canals...Jordan and John feed off each other's energy in a way that is almost cosmic; you feel as though you are party to something not just special, but poignant. In Dream Theater world, these guys tear it up like no other. Yet here, they display a magnificent "alter ego" if you will, a duet that encourages one to lift the other, making both larger than life. An absolutely sublime piece.
CCA: Any musician dead or alive you would like to play a gig with?
JR: It would have been fun to be alive in the Jimi Hendrix era and trade solos with him; that would have been amazing. I thought it would have been fun to play with Steve Vai. We never really had a chance to make that happen; maybe one day we will.
CCA: Any words of wisdom or encouragement for those starting out and seeking to make it in the prog rock world? As you may know, my blog is aimed primarily at the up and coming prog artists who are trying to get their foot in the door; anything you can offer them?
JR: This is a very interesting time in the music world as I am sure you know. I have so many friends that have really good bands yet they are having so much trouble trying to find their way...it's like "Where are you going with this? How do you survive, get gigs?" It is difficult and I don't have a magical solution but I do have, even in my own musical life, challenges and difficulties because we do live in an age where people expect music for free. Everybody is grabbing as much as they can without paying for it, and that makes for a very difficult situation. I may be guilty of that myself; I give away music because everybody loves music and I love to share music. Just last night I turned on the camera and started playing the piano for about 25 minutes.
As far as tips for young people; I don't want to discourage anyone because I have seen and heard so many good bands that just couldn't do it. What I do think is that it's really important to understand what is going on; there are different ways, different avenues to get into music. It helps to get some education; you may want to go to school and learn about how the music business works and the many ways you can survive in it. You can work for a house that does music for licensing, get involved in something related to music, and discover all the possibilities out there waiting for you. But if you just focus like an arrow on one thing it is a little tricky in today's world.
You also need to understand the Internet and the different ways to get your stuff out there, realizing people expect more than just the "sound;" they want to see you and have something visual. There a lot of good cameras that have good audio now and you can record your band so it will sound good and look good as well. Put some imagination into it, make sure people know what you're doing. You don't want to waste your shot so be certain there is enough information and it's well produced enough to showcase who you are and what you do. One of the mistakes I made starting out was making a demo tape that had about eight different styles on it and I sent it out to people. The response I got was they didn't know what I did, what direction I was going; it was too confusing.
CCA: You mentioned Facebook Live; I wanted to talk about that with you also. This is a great outlet; you play beautiful piano and it really is a pleasure to listen to.
JR: Facebook Live is really a great thing, whether you are a musician or anyone really. You just turn on the camera and broadcast to your followers. For me, I appreciate this fan base I've been lucky enough to have built over the years, and because I love to make music...it is a way to heal myself and become in tune with what's around me.
Part of the beauty of making music is sharing it; I really do love to do that. If I can play something and people connect with it that's great. The problem is this is how I make my living. I know a lot of people think, "You guys in Dream Theater have it made, you're rich." But things have changed; it's not like that anymore. The internet and things like Spotify make it more challenging. I'm not starving--don't get me wrong; that is not what I'm saying. What I mean is there needs to be a way to bring it all together. Perhaps I will continue to stream live, but after a minute or two a pop-up will ask for payment, a dollar or two, to continue listening....maybe a subscription type thing if people want to continue watching. Of course I will continue to post things on Facebook Live for the fans, but the whole idea of music for free has got to change. Otherwise it will get harder and harder, even impossible, for people to make a living making music.
CCA: I believe the smart fans know and understand that. One of the things about Spotify is the fact that an artist needs so many hits to get any kind of compensation from it, and it becomes a moral dilemma for people like me; do I listen for free--or at a low monthly rate--or do I buy the music and support the artist directly?
JR: But at least people are paying a monthly subscription rate for Spotify, it's better than expecting music for free. Because really it goes deeper than that; managers, lawyers, producers, and all the people taking their cut off the top while the musicians are the ones out there touring and performing. Musicians need managers, and we are fortunate in that we have great ones, but the system has to change.
CCA: Well, I believe I have taken about 45 minutes of your life and I appreciate you giving me your time. I think it is great that someone of your stature is willing to give your time so freely.
JR: As I said, thanks for the interview, I appreciate the opportunity.
And that my fellow progheads, wraps up one of my bucket list items. Jordan Rudess is arguably one of the most respected keyboard players in the progressive rock world, and he graciously took time out of his schedule, right before starting a major European tour, to spend time in the Concert Closet. I hope this was as much fun for you my faithful followers as it was for me.
Jordan's music and talents speak for themselves; I was just grateful he was willing to share his thoughts, insights, and feelings in a such a humble setting. I know I've said it many times and I probably sound like a mundane tape loop, but one of the things that separates the prog garden from other sections of the music world is the connection the artists make with the fans. That Jordan Rudess would make time and be so readily available to talk with me (after one simple Tweet) speaks volumes of his character. To rise to his level in the prog world and not forget those who helped him get there, makes me realize the prog garden is truly in good hands.
There are multiple options for connecting with Jordan Rudess; his website Jordan Rudess, the Dream Theater website Dream Theater, and his Wizdom Music website Wizdom Music. Jordan also has a Facebook page FB Jordan Official and Twitter @Jcrudess.
To sum up my conversation with Jordan Rudess I would say it was refreshing to talk with someone who has achieved so much success in the prog garden that is so unassuming and at such a grass roots level with his fans. My mother-in-law is now one of his newest followers thanks to Facebook Live! So a sincere and heartfelt thanks to Jordan for granting me this interview.
Now as the Concert Closet moves deeper into the unknown realm of 2017 in search of all things prog, there has been a few other changes. First, the search for all things prog is now a Facebook page where I hope to build a following of bands and artists looking for another outlet to get their sound out to the masses...of course it will help to follow the advice Jordan offered earlier...and a Closet Concert Arena Instagram account to follow and help promote as much as I can the bands I review here in the Closet Concert Arena. Of course none of this means anything without you my faithful followers, so thank you for staying the course and helping me live this dream...and as always, until next time...