From Bach to Bowie, east coast to west coast, piano keyboards to computer keyboards, Mike has worked to make the world a more creative, compassionate and compelling place. He remains a man of many talents and limitless inspiration. No artistic medium is off-limits to this avant-garde individual to whom the word no is quickly – and seemingly effortlessly – transformed into the word now.
Best known for his impressive skills as a pianist, he is a respected composer and a budding computer artist. Embracing the idea of the Renaissance Man, Mike continually experiments with new ways through which he can communicate his humanistic ideals.
Mike’s story begins at the age of seven, when he began to study the classics. He was drawn magnetically to the piano and by his fourteenth birthday Mike was modifying complex Chopin and Mozart compositions to suit his ear for embellishment.
By his late teens, Mike discovered jazz and the allure of improvisation – a pivotal moment in his artistic development. Mike is now considered one of the greatest musical improvisers of his era.
In fact, his exceptional improvisational abilities were a highlight of the January 2004 Keyboard Magazine cover story featuring Mike.
Mike’s love of improvisation is most evident in the signature style of musical composition he has developed under the NOW! MUSICÆ brand. Unveiled in 1995, this innovative approach to contemporary composing transfers his knowledge of improvisation into the classical realm. Using a Yamaha Disklavier piano, Mike composes sonatas, nocturnes, ballades and concertos in real-time. The result is refreshing, inspirational and always original music.
Mike’s inaugural NOW! MUSICÆ album, released in 1998, was followed by the 2004 release of Homage to My Heroes, another independent album recorded in a similar style. He has also recorded twelve traditional solo albums including Admiration, Avant Garson, Gershwin Fantasia, Jazzical, Mystery Man, The Oxnard Sessions, Volumes I and II, Serendipity and Remember Love.
Beyond his NOW! MUSICÆ pieces, Mike has many years of traditional composing to his credit. Over the course of his career, Mike has written several thousand pieces of music in a variety of genres. While many artists prefer to remain within one genre, Mike remains open to artistic expression in any format.
If I am truly passionate about what I do, that feeling can inspire people who receive my art, Garson believes. As a musician I’m not concerned with whether I play jazz, rock, classical, or pop so long as it’s creative.
It stands to reason that, when Mike sits down at a keyboard, the result is usually a passionate musical performance. However, while touring with the Smashing Pumpkins in late 2000, Garson discovered another creative outlet: the computer keyboard. Using various programs on his MAC laptop, Garson has designed imaginative imagery in much the same way that he composes his NOW! MUSICÆ. On April 12, 2004, Portland’s Brian Marki Fine Art Gallery hosted a premiere reception of his avant-garde artwork.
Titled From Pianos to Pixels: The Improvisational Art of Mike Garson, the event showcased Garson’s improvisational musical ability and engaging visual artistry – challenging him to compose music for pieces of art chosen by the audience.
Individuals who purchased pieces at the reception – or at any time during their display through the end of April – will receive a collector’s edition CD of the one-of-a-kind performance. Garson’s artwork was well received by the Portland community. According to John Foyston of The Oregonian:
If Mike Garson is not a renaissance man, he’ll do until one comes along, because this longtime keyboardist with David Bowie’s band is also an accomplished visual artist in his own right. The images range from Kandinsky-esque splashes of color to what look like tweaked photomicrographs of crystals. They’re all fascinating pieces and suggest that Garson has at least a second career ahead of him.
Of course, Mike remains committed to his first career: music. In 2002, Mike completed his first symphony entitled Symphony 5.1. Mike structured this piece based on the form of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony out of infinite admiration for the renowned composer. Two years earlier, in 2000, Mike also finished his first piano concerto.
A philosopher at heart, Mike’s music reflects the often arduous world in which he lives while communicating hope for an improved existence. In response to the tragic events of September 11, 2001, he composed a moving piece entitled Prayer for New York. To commemorate the arrival of a new century – and a new millennium – Mike composed Requiem for the 20th Century.
1999 saw the release of the MGM film Stigmata for which Mike co-composed the score with Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins. Among their collaborations was the haunting hit Identify, which was performed by Natalie Imbruglia. (Mike also performed with the Pumpkins during their 1998 Adore tour and their final concerts in 2000).
Further demonstrating his flexibility, Mike has also composed ten pieces for Andres Cardenas, concertmaster of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and improvised a series of duets with saxophonist Dave Liebman. In 1998, Mike was commissioned by Eddie Daniels, Larry Coombs and Ricardo Morales to compose a clarinet suite performed at the Ohio State University Clarinet Festival.
After playing only eight bars for Mick Ronson in late 1971, Mike was asked to join David Bowie’s first North American tour. In the more than 30 years since, Mike has made his mark on Bowie albums such as Reality, Earthling, Outside, The Buddha of Suburbia, Black Tie, White Noise, Aladdin Sane, Diamond Dogs, David Live, Pin-Ups, Young Americans and Ziggy Stardust the Motion Picture. He has traveled thousands of miles on Bowie tours for 33 years, including his 2003-2004 A Reality Tour, Bowie’s first world tour in 20 years.
It is pointless to talk about his ability as a pianist; he is exceptional, Bowie says of Mike, However, there are very, very few musicians, let alone pianists, who naturally understand the movement and free thinking necessary to hurl themselves into experimental or traditional areas of music, sometimes, ironically, at the same time. Mike does this with such enthusiasm that it makes my heart glad just to be in the same room with him.
Mike’s solid reputation for creativity and quality has motivated many other musicians to invite him to record on their albums. Trent Reznor – whom Mike first met during David Bowie’s 1996 Outside tour – featured Mike on several tracks of Nine Inch Nails’ The Fragile. Mike can also be heard on Seal’s Human Being as well as a bonus track at the end of No Doubt’s Return of Saturn album.
From 1982 until 2004, Mike was a member of Free Flight, a jazz and classical ensemble featuring renowned flutist Jim Walker. In addition to serving as the group’s pianist, Mike composed most of their music. Free Flight appeared four times on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and performed a concerto with the L.A. Philharmonic.
For the 1988 ABC television movie Liberace, Mike performed all the piano works in the style of the flamboyant performer.
In his youth, Mike studied classical composition with Leonard Eisner of Juilliard and earned degrees in Music and Education from Brooklyn College. He also studied with Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Hal Overton, Robert Starer and Lennie Tristano. He has played with Stanley Clarke, Elvin Jones, Lee Konitz and Freddie Hubbard.
A lifelong learner, Mike has taught students at master classes and through private instruction. Mike has appeared at universities around the world where he has both guest lectured and performed for numerous music students and public audiences. Currently, masters and doctorate-level music students at the University of Southern California taking a course in 20th century classical music are required to perform one of Mike’s classical pieces. He has also authored seven musical instruction books published by Warner Brothers and Alfred Publishing Company.
He performed and taught at the 2002 World Piano Pedagogy Conference where he received a standing ovation after a series of improvisations based on a Paganini theme. In recognition of Mike’s mastery of the piano and his composing skills, he was appointed to the Board of Directors of the world-famous Beethoven Society.
Embracing the idea of creative, spiritual and professional growth, Mike continues to explore new avenues through which he can use his multifaceted talents to provide healing, enjoyment and inspiration to people.
Ironically though he is publicly known for his skills as a pianist, composer and artist, it is his selfless love for family and friends that has made Mike the happiest.
And so, as he celebrates his 60th year in 2005, Mike remains grateful for the enduring gift of friendship and family and looks forward to many more decades of meaningful music and creative contributions. According to Mike:
If I am truly passionate about and love what I do, I believe that feeling can be transmuted to and inspire the people who receive my art.