Mike Garson was Bowie’s most enduring collaborator. Garson began playing piano for Bowie in the early 1970s, and continued through the 2000s (though he doesn’t appear on Bowie’s last two albums). Today, Garson leads a group of musicians, some of whom also played with Bowie, performing Bowie songs as the “Celebrating David Bowie” tour. I have seen that show twice— it is excellent. Bowie is clearly a big part of Garson’s professional identity. Since he did so much work with Bowie, I don’t think he’s exploiting the connection— I think its a gift to fans that Garson is helping to keep the legacy alive. Garson’s contributions to Bowie’s music are distinctive— for instance his piano solo on the song, “Aladdin Sane,” which he has said he is asked about every day. I’m glad to have the opportunity to still hear him play.
“The Bowie Variations” is not a live album from the “Celebrating Bowie” tour. Instead, it is a series of piano instrumentals of mostly well-known Bowie songs. Somewhere between classical and piano jazz style (more like the latter than the former), these pieces are nice to have. Garson’s contribution here is that he adapted these songs for piano, and as the title of the album implies, adjusted them to make them sound more like piano tracks than the piano part of songs that are otherwise missing everything else.
At the very least, all of the pieces are pleasant. “Pleasant” is not necessarily the first word to come to mind in association with most Bowie music, at least as originally performed by Bowie. In that respect, some of these songs are challenging adaptations. The first song, “Space Oddity,” as well as another of Bowie’s best known songs, “Let’s Dance,” fall into this category. The rest work pretty well and more or less flow one into the next. The high points are a medley of some of Bowie’s more recent songs, “Battle for Britain/Loneliest Guy/Disco King” (“Bring Me The Disco King” is the most recent song performed in the “Celebrating David Bowie” tour), as well as a piece called “Tribute to David,” which I think is a Garson original and is not based on a Bowie song. In general, the less recognizable the song, the better it works on this particular album— “Ashes to Ashes” and “Heroes”— they work, “John, I’m Only Dancing” — not bad, but slightly forced.
Taken together, this is a nice collection that easily could be playing in the background at a dinner party, or a restaurant featuring a piano player. While not a major work, this album gives further evidence that Bowie’s music has life on its own beyond Bowie. Thus far I have commented on Bowie’s music performed as classical music, sung in Portuguese, adapted for children, given the Phillip Glass treatment, and simply covered by other artists. I look forward to more adaptations, which I can imagine continuing indefinitely.