In January 2013, Keith Emerson made a rare foray onto UK national radio, as a featured artist selecting 10 tracks which have influenced his career. In a carefully curated selection, tailored for an audience of shop owners, construction site workers and long distance lorry drivers, his pick still betrayed the bemusing range of styles which infused a career where playing more of the same was never an option. At one end of the range were the music royalty, Jimi Hendrix - who nearly turned ELP into HELP and Joni Mitchell whose performance at the Isle of White festival seemed to have gone down worse than ELP's own. (John Peel who came to be an arch nemesis of progressive rock in later years famously remarked that ELP were 'A waste of electricity.') At the other was the purely bonkers - I'm Henry The Eighth, I Am- Emerson's karaoke song would you believe and the pub piano stylings of Russ Conway whose popularity was incomprehensible to anyone under 80 outside the keyboard playing fraternity. All by way of jazz and orchestral film scores for good measure.
I mention this because it seems apposite in the context of Off The Shelf a reissue of Emerson's patchwork collection of pieces originally published in 2006, another selection reflecting the master keyboard man's immense variety and restless desire not only to take in new styles, but also to stamp his own imprimatur on them. It is impossible to overstate Emerson's influence as a pioneer of synthesiser music, but also as one of the few keyboard players who was a true band leader. The range of material on display runs from nods to the past with a revisit to Abbadon's Bolero and a selection of themes from Pictures At An Exhibition, an alternative take on America, featuring Pat Travers on guitar, and a BBC session version of The Nice's Lumpy Gravy. This latter mischievously leaves in the voice of disc-jockey, John Peel at the end. I can imagine Emerson smiling ironically given the stick that was to be meted out later by the influential broadcaster, famous for playing pretty much anything on his late night show. Almost as if he wanted to underline that he was still putting out new work long after the pub bands of the 70s and 80s favoured by Peel had gone back to their office jobs.
This is far from a retrospective though, the carefully curated pieces shifting in carefully grouped sections between modes. In the introductory orchestral section, And Then January would be the standout, showcasing Emerson's jazz tinged-piano and foreshadowing the standout central series of jazz pieces with the London Jazz Orchestra. Here the opener Au Privave is as joyous as anything I've heard since Miles Davis and the Gil Evans Orchestra struck up on There's A Boat That's Leaving Soon For New York from Porgy And Bess. There is straight up rock'n'roll and blues, all delivered with Emerson's lack of concern for convention.
One of Emerson's choices in that BBC Radio interview was a pop tune called Some Nights by Fun which underlined the sheer delight which he took in making music and yes, there is room for some novelty tracks in here. Rio does samba by way of Speedy Gonzalez and of course a bit of East End pub honky-tonk. There is also the brilliantly bonkers as The Blockhead's classic Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll gets a bit of Brain Salad Surgery added to the mix to exuberant effect, (Yes I know there's a rude joke in there. If you don't get it you'll have to look up BSS, I'm not explaining it here). and might have even got a grunt of acknowledgement from the churlish purveyors of the so-called New Wave.
Nor is this a randomly collected selection of filler tracks. Every track on this collection demands to be heard, offering a new perspective. Keith Emerson was never one to pay attention to purists and the music world is a lot better for it. He is one of the few who can comfortably add electronics to an orchestral arrangement, or add spiky, modernist atonal soloing into a 12-bar blues and make it work. As a whole it is ample reflection of a wildly diverse musical mission, and a restless, uncompromising artistry. So 'Ave!' Keith Emerson, musical magpie, knife wielding gentleman of the keyboards, pioneer and rock and roller, 'Ave atque Vale!'
***** Andrew Cottrell
Where to buy?
All Rights Reserved Background Magazine 2018