Rick Wakeman takes the listening on an amazing 15-song journey of solo piano pieces on his 2017 release, Piano Portraits. The record was prompted by the overwhelming reaction Wakeman received after playing David Bowie’s “Life On Mars” on BBC Radio in 2016 (the track was released to aid Macmillan Cancer Support). The fact that Wakeman played the piano on the original recording only elevated its attraction.
“Life On Mars” is featured here, with Wakeman unleashing a very strong attack — though there are lilting moments — to catch the full drama of the song on just piano (he tackles Bowie’s “Space Oddity” later). The cover of 10cc’s “I’m Not In Love” was the record company’s suggestion, and the keyboard wizard turns it into his own. Wakeman’s instantly recognizable piano work on Cat Steven’s “Morning Has Broken” is also here. He has jokingly mentioned at his solo concerts that he was never paid for the session that produced “Morning Has Broken.” Maybe with this record, he’ll even the score.
The classical pieces on Piano Portraits include Gabriel Fauré’s “Berceuse,” with Wakeman employing his quick trills as much as interwoven halting lines, as well as popular favorites like Debussy’s “Clair de Lune,” and Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.” The album’s sole original, “Dance Of The Damselflies,” is a light-on-the-higher-octave little classical-tinged piece. I would have appreciated maybe one or two more originals of this caliber. A jaunty cover of Yes’ “Wonderous Stories,” has Wakeman’s piano runs sounding more like speed exercises. The album ends with a fast read of the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby.” Upon release, Piano Portraits made the Top 10 UK albums chart, Wakeman’s highest charting record since 1975. There may be hope yet for the appreciation of pure musicianship.
~ Ralph Greco, Jr.