Keith Emerson

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Keith Emerson

Jan 2009 2003 2001
The Orchestration of a Legend
By Laura B. Whitmore
Icon of prog-rock and keyboard legend Keith Emerson has just released a new album and is back in the touring saddle with a lineup that is tight, energetic and, well, kicks ass! Emerson shot to fame in the late ‘60s as a member of The Nice, and subsequently went on to make his name in the progressive rock supergroup Emerson, Lake & Palmer (ELP).

Recently back in the states from an Eastern European tour in support of his new release, simply titled Keith Emerson Band featuring Marc Bonilla, Keith shares what it was like to play in that part of the world once again. “It was absolutely wonderful, the reaction we got there. You know, when the Soviet Union was in power, most people only got the music from the west via underground. A lot of the people there had to smuggle in recordings on tapes or something, and they weren’t labeled up. It took them quite a while to work out which was the Rolling Stones and which was the Beatles,” he laughs.

“Decades ago we played in Prague in Czechoslovakia,” he continues. “The whole airport was surrounded by army tanks. The airport had been machined gunned down by the Russians invading Czechoslovakia. Students were being shot in the square. We played there at about 12:00 midnight even though there was a curfew going on. It was a pretty dangerous time.

“Anyhow, It was nice to able to go back and be gratefully received by the Russians. We played at a wonderful Festival of Peace in Kazan. There were probably about 300,000 people. It was really quite spectacular. We finished it all off. There were big fireworks – I think some of it is still on youtube,” says Keith.

Throughout this new project, Emerson has surrounded himself with a lineup that has put a smile on his face. “It’s been very encouraging working with [guitarist/vocalist] Marc Bonilla, or perhaps that’s too light of a word to use,” he shares. “I’ve known Marc probably since 1983 or ‘84. I met him first when he was playing with his own band and also working with Kevin Gilbert. They later went on to form a band called Toy Matinee. I worked with Kevin Gilbert and Kevin was working then with Sheryl Crow. The Tuesday Night Club, I think they called themselves. But through Kevin I met Marc Bonilla. And we jammed a bit.”

This album also includes several other heavy hitters including Gregg Bissonette and Joe Travers (drums and percussion), Bob Birch and Travis Davis (bass), and Steve Porcaro (programming).

Emerson continues, “I think the main consensus with everybody that saw us not only in Russia, but in Japan, they remarked upon not only how tight the band is, but how happy we looked on stage. Which is a great thing. If you’re going to see a show, regardless of the high standard of musicianship, it’s nice to see guys that really do get along. And with my band we not only socialize, we get on fantastically well on and off the road. We’re good buddies, and that’s the most important asset that any musician could ask for when you’re on the road and creating music.”

Keith Emerson Band featuring Marc Bonilla was also recorded in Bonilla’s studio, as Emerson reveals, “Marc is quite a prolific TV and film artist. He’s built his own studio. It was ideal when we started making my new album about a year ago. It was great to have that facility. We recorded most of the album there, but we mixed it and mastered it in other studios.”

Another key member of Emerson’s crew is Keith Wechsler, who is commissioned with keeping Emerson’s rig in top working condition as well as a host of other duties. Wechsler, a personality in his own right, has worked with a who’s who of iconic artists and has garnered engineering and production credits on projects with The Beach Boys, Kenny Loggins, George Clinton, Dream Theater, Spinal Tap, Paula Cole, Fiona Apple, and more. These days you can find him with a soldering gun in one hand and a cell phone in the other as he keeps the Emerson Band’s rig in top order. “I met Keith Emerson in 1994 and I’ve been working with him every since,“ says Wechsler. “Currently, I produced and mixed the latest record, have done some of the programming, and on tour, I’m the production manager and sound mixer.”

Wechsler goes on to describe a typical programming session with Emerson. “Just about the time that things start to get comfortable, Keith will want to add in a complicated bunch of sounds from other instruments, too! He likes a very thick, complex sound. When he gets some piece of new technology that provides some new way of doing that, then he’ll want to combine that and what he had been using already to make it even more complex. So, the more complex gear gets or the more facility the gear has, it seems that we’re always pushing that to the limit.”

One piece of gear that is the center of Emerson’s rig has been pushed to its limits and beyond. That’s the Korg OASYS. Wechsler shares, “We acquired the OASYS only a week before we started the 2005 Keith Emerson Band tour. Somehow we managed to get it fully programmed and pressed into service as the main keyboard and MIDI controller on top of the organ.” Emerson’s stage setup employs his custom Hammond organ, massive modular Moog synth, a host of Korg gear and more. In addition to the OASYS, he utilizes a TRITON Extreme and multiple TRITON-Racks.

Wechsler reveals some of the behind-the-scenes magic. “We employ the piano sounds a lot out of the OASYS. That’s a large part of the show. That’s the bread and butter piano sound for him. He might grab a fader and mix in some OASYS strings, too. One of the things that’s really nice ever since he’s put the OASYS in as the main controller, is how the pads work. We assign the pads to control things like the gongs and ‘swoops.’ Pad 1 is duplicated in a footswitch. So for songs like ‘Bitches Crystal,’ he can be wailing away with both hands on a honky-tonk piano sound and cover the French horn swoop up with his left foot. This is also how we cover the gongs in ‘Tarkus’ and his Piano Concerto.”

Emerson keeps the TRITON Extreme reliably at hand as well. Wechsler continues, “The Triton Extreme is used as the main keyboard and MIDI controller for the secondary synth sounds. When Keith needs to quickly change sounds, then go back to his main keyboard sound, he uses the TRITON Extreme. I like the Extreme because it has that tube in it. The choral voices in ‘Tarkus’ come from there, and in ‘Bitches Crystal’ for example there’s a French horn brass bridge sound. He’ll use the Extreme for that. Off stage, Keith’s keyboard tech, Marc André Berthiaume, has the ability to change patches by changing the presets in the TRITON-Racks. So Keith can change patches or Marc André can. And they have it worked out who will change patches each time.”

All of this results in the careful orchestration of instrument assignments, program changes, and sound layering that make up a signature Keith Emerson performance. Emerson agrees that his Korg instruments are his first choice. “My Korg instruments are reliable and Korg has a great team that helps me out. Quite honestly, all the Korg keyboards have gone through tornadoes, they’ve gone through playing out in the open air, they’ve gone through extreme humidity and probably are thrown in the back of the truck at the end of the gig. But the next day you just plug them in and they work great. Come to think of it, I can’t remember a time when a Korg didn’t work for me!” he tells us.

And speaking of orchestration, Emerson expresses a hope to work more on his signature piano pieces. He explains, “I would like to concentrate a lot more on writing my piano music and having that published. Because I remember in my formative years it was very, very helpful to me to go and buy Dave Brubeck’s ‘Take Five’ or ‘Blue Rondo a la Turk.’ You could actually get the sheet music. So I’m all for encouraging the younger generation and transcribing my works not only for piano but probably for orchestra as well.”

Emerson’s Piano Concerto #1 is available and transcribed for four hands, two pianos as well as for full orchestra. Keith adds, “It is an incredible thing that a lot of orchestras are adding the Piano Concerto to their repertoire. That for me is a great honor. Some very fine piano players like Jeffrey Biegel are performing it on a regular basis. I have a recording of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, performing it in Australia. To me that’s a great honor – to hear somebody else playing what you’ve written. I think that’s the greatest honor that anyone can get, when your contemporaries take note and make their own arrangements of it.”

With the release of Keith Emerson Band featuring Marc Bonilla available in the U.S. on January 20th, Emerson and the gang are talking about the next leg of their tour. Will they be touring the U.S.? Emerson answers that question in a round about way. “It sort of makes sense at the moment, because all of our equipment is here. I’m sure we’ll be coming up with an announcement of touring all over the place really soon. Check on for upcoming dates.”

And finally, when the conversation comes ‘round to an ELP reunion, he is even more obtuse. “I have this huge pressure to get ELP back going on the road. I don’t know what’s going to happen with that. It’s a shame to disappoint people, but for me it’s the artistry comes first.” You’ll simply have to check frequently on to find out what that means!

  Artist Video  
Keith Emerson plays a Korg M3-88 at Winter NAMM 2009
Keith Emerson NAMM09
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