Mike Garson obviously takes the piano very seriously, but he can chuckle over some of the contradictory paths that a versatile mastery of the keys has led him down.
Maybe the unlikeliest of all is the one he's embarking on Saturday at Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa, where he'll lead 44 instrumentalists, augmented by a 55-voice children's choir, in the premiere of his "Symphonic Suite for Healing."
Even an accomplished musician like Garson, who's best known as a key sideman during David Bowie's 1970s rise to superstardom but who usually plays jazz or a jazz-classical fusion when left to his own devices, can laughingly confess that what he's doing isn't brain surgery or as important as finding a cure for cancer.
But now he's partnered with Dr. Christopher Duma, a Newport Beach physician who does brain surgery routinely (with rock music piped into the operating room) and who is, indeed, trying to find new treatments for brain cancer and neurological conditions such as Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's.
Duma's nonprofit Foundation for Neurosciences, Stroke and Recovery commissioned Garson to write "Symphonic Suite for Healing," and Duma road-tested preliminary recordings of the music with 100 of his patients to see which of the pianist's 30 compositions helped them feel better or, in certain cases, worse.
The project is ambitious: a $300,000 budget to compose the music and rehearse and perform the concert while capturing it with audio and video recordings that Garson and Duma aim to make available to patients in hospitals and other therapeutic settings. Duma says the intent is also to raise general awareness of music's medical potential while exploring possibilities for further research into how it can help improve life for people with neurological conditions.
Garson, 68, was clad all in black during a recent interview at his hillside home in the San Fernando Valley community of West Hills, and with his shaved head one could be tempted at first glance to size him up as a consciously arty type. But not after he begins talking.
What comes out is pure Brooklyn, even though he's been a Valley resident since 1979. Coming up in Flatbush tends to inoculate against pretentiousness, and so it seems with Garson.
Sitting on the patio between his house and the former horse barn he converted into a recording studio, he mentioned in passing that one of his many piano students was the late Nicky Hopkins, who came to him in the early 1980s for jazz pointers in hopes of breaking into film composing.
Hopkins sat at the pinnacle of rock pianism during what was almost inarguably the peak era of rock creativity, recording brilliantly with the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, the Who, the Yardbirds and the Jeff Beck Group when they were all in their prime. Although Garson makes nothing of it, if anything ever certified someone as the piano player's piano player, teaching Nicky Hopkins would be it.
He can't help laughing a bit about the anomalous side of his latest career move — and it's been a career with its share of anomalies.
Starting at age 14, Garson spent seven summers playing Borscht Belt resorts in the Catskills, where he'd back the likes of Jackie Mason and Mel Torme. Enlisting in the Army as a music specialist "because I was going to get drafted and I did not see myself with a gun," Garson found himself marching down Manhattan's 5th Avenue on parade, beating a glockenspiel.
In the 1980s, he plinked a piano for the "Pee-wee's Playhouse" children's show on CBS. The day after rocking behind Bowie at New York's Madison Square Garden during the '70s, Garson recalls, he had a moonlighting gig "schlepping a heavy Fender Rhodes [electric piano] through the door to play a bar mitzvah in Long Island."
After his discharge from the Army in 1967, Garson made his way as a jazz musician and piano teacher in New York while also establishing rock music credentials with Brethren, a band whose manager, Sid Bernstein, had promoted the Beatles' famous 1965 concert at Shea Stadium.
A recording engineer who'd been in on an avant-garde jazz session involving Garson touted him to Bowie and guitarist Mick Ronson, leader of the singer's backing band, the Spiders from Mars. They needed a pianist for the American leg of the 1972 "Ziggy Stardust" tour — a career-making landmark of rock theatricality in which Bowie presented himself as an androgynously ambisexual alien. The audition lasted less than a minute, Garson recalls, before he was handed the gig. He played on Bowie's next four albums, and a 1974 tour that cemented the singer's stardom. Bowie would call him back periodically thereafter, most recently for a brief set in 2006 at a benefit concert in New York for AIDS-stricken African children.
"His playing is like Rachmaninoff on acid, don't you think?" Bowie told the Sydney Morning Herald during a 1995 Australian tour with Garson in his band. Nine Inch Nails, Smashing Pumpkins and No Doubt are among the younger stars who concurred, enlisting Garson for recording sessions, concerts and, in the case of Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins, as co-composer of the soundtrack to "Stigmata," a 1999 horror film.
The record-buying masses first pricked up their ears for Garson when he threw hammering staccato riffs from "Rhapsody in Blue," a dram of "Tequila" and assorted avant-garde atonal maneuvers onto the canvas of Bowie's 1973 song "Aladdin Sane," the title track of his first album to reach No. 1 in Britain and crack the Top 20 in the United States. The 90-second piano solo, over a surging, two-chord guitar vamp borrowed from the Drifters' "On Broadway," evoked a mind in frightening disarray.