Music Post: Rock stars working classical

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James Pankow in concert with Chicago.

James Pankow, the trombone player with Chicago, has formal training. Jazz fusion star Chick Corea briefly attended Juilliard. Yes keyboard player Rick Wakeman has some classical piano training. Beatles arranger George Martin had schooling in piano and oboe.

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Keith Emerson, left, and Rick Wakeman, right.

Keith Emerson of Emerson Lake & Palmer was mostly self-taught, however, learning jazz from listening to Dave Brubeck and George Shearing records and then studying sheet music, while Yes guitarist Steve Howe credits the records of Chet Atkins with inspiring him to learn to play all kinds of music on guitar. Paul McCartney, the most famous left-handed bass player of our time, is also entirely self-taught.

All of these musicians, regardless of education, were to become important in the history of rock music while also composing music in classical forms.

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Jon Anderson, left, and Steve Howe, right.

The self-taught Jon Anderson, the voice of Yes – even his recent successors in the band had been hired from Yes tribute bands, hence hired for their ability to sound like Anderson – has composed a couple of hyper piano-driven pieces which appeared on his album “State of the Union,” also notable for Anderson having written words to the first movement of John Adams’ “Shaker Loops” – with Adams’ approval.

Steve Howe, not an original member of Yes but a member of the band for most of its decades-long run, has recorded a series of solo albums that include acoustic tracks that fit in with any classical music program. In the spirit of Chet Atkins he also routinely learns actual classical pieces, and seems to have a particular affinity for Vivaldi.

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Paul McCartney at the White House.

Paul McCartney, now in his seventies, has been composing classical music for more than a quarter century, mentored by George Martin (he died last year), and I like hearing his gentle overture “A Leaf” and the mostly instrumental (wordless vocals, discreetly added, do adorn it) “Interlude (Lament)” from the middle of the choral work “Ecce Cor Meum,” or, “Behold My Heart.” McCartney’s album “Working Classical,” the title a play on his working class roots, includes “A Leaf” and other orchestral work, with string quartet arrangements of McCartney pop hits for filler.

George Martin’s classical chops are best represented by his score for the Beatles animated film “Yellow Submarine,” which parodies a variety of different kinds of music. “March of the Meanies” is a favorite of mkine, and I once considered making “Pepperland” the theme of my show.

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Chick Corea.

Chick Corea and Keith Emerson both composed piano concertos. Corea’s “Spain,” based on the famous slow movement theme from a Joaquin Rodrigo guitar concerto but mostly original anyhow, is an excellent jazz-classical work. Emerson’s piano concerto, while derivative here and there, is a work I have returned to many times, and I am pleased to tell you it now exists in two recorded performances. The original with Emerson himself playing the solo part is ragged here and there but full of energy. A more recent version with Jeffrey Biegel as soloist – Biegel is an American with a broad knowledge of classical, jazz and rock music that serves him well in music with crossover influences – has more polish.

Ellen Reid of Crash Test Dummies supplied a bonus track on the album “God Shuffled His Feet” called “Crash Test” which is a splendid miniature for piano.

James Pankow, who wrote “Make Me Smile,” “Colour My World,” “Just You ‘N’ Me,” and “I’ve Been Searching So Long,” did horn arrangements for Chicago, including “Canon” and “Once Upon a Time” from “Elegy” on Chicago III.

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