'I simply do what I know I can do': Prog god Rick Wakeman takes an organic approach to his art

For Rick Wakeman, who’s preparing a new tour of New Zealand and a reissue of Journey to the Centre of the Earth, the approach to music remains steadfastly organic: “It,” the prog god offers, “sort of happens.”

When it does, people take notice: Wakeman, who rose to fame as a member of Yes, ended up playing with that legendary progressive rock band five times during four separate decades: from 1971-74 and 1976-80, then from 1991-92 and 1995-97; and, finally, from 2002-08.

In between, he issued a series of intriguing solo albums, including The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, and The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, all between 1973-75.

Wakeman was also part of an offshoot group called Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe in the late 1980s. More recently, he has been mentioned as part of a new collaboration with fellow Yes alums Jon Anderson and Trevor Rabin.

Oh, and that “prog god” stuff isn’t hyperbole: Wakeman was officially designated a Prog God earlier this month at the first annual Progressive Music Awards.

Wakeman takes it all in stride.

Asked to explain the inner workings of his music by Liam Naden of GoNewZealand.About.com, he said: “I try not to really think about a style. To be honest, I simply do what I know I can do. It sort of happens and it’s the only way I know how to do things. Obviously music develops over the years because instruments develop, sounds develop and recording techniques develop. So that makes things change. I don’t think the basic style has changed, it’s just the way you do things — and obviously you’re able to do a lot more with current instruments being so unbelievably clever.”

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Long before Yes, Rick Wakeman was an ace studio musician. We examine his genius first-take contribution to David Bowie's "Space Oddity."]

As for that lengthy project to revive Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Wakeman said it stretches all the way back to 2009. First, he had to restore some of the music, which had been missing for more than three decades. Once recovered, it was in shocking disrepair, and had to be painstakingly restored. The process revealed additional music, which will now be a part of this expanded forthcoming reissue.

Wakeman will perform from October 6-8, 2012 in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.

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Here’s a look back at our recent thoughts on Rick Wakeman and Yes. Click through the headlines for more …

RICK WAKEMAN – IN THE NICK OF TIME (2012): If there is a central image of prog rock’s excesses, it is likely the cape-sporting Yes man Rick Wakeman surrounded by a semi-circle of towering keyboards. But strip away at the pomp, the pageantry and, yeah, the cape, and there remains just as much musical brilliance, something you’re reminded of all over again with this never-before-released live date from 2003 with the New English Rock Ensemble. At times, In the Nick of Time has an almost unquenchable propulsion, as Wakeman works in furious bursts of creativity — moving from classically inspired fugues to gnarled rock squalls and back again, with all of these winkling squiggles of color in between.

JON ANDERSON AND RICK WAKEMAN: THE LIVING TREE IN CONCERT: PART ONE (2011): Anyone expecting the cosmic prog-rock journeys of this duo’s work as members of Yes must have been a little disappointed — and not just with the spare instrumentation. More striking than the lean, guitar-free musical structures was how intimate, even grounded this concert performance was. If anything, though, this album speaks to both the individual trials and the shared will to overcome for both singer Jon Anderson and keyboardist Rick Wakeman. Each has had to grapple against some terrifying health problems, even as Yes continued on without them.

SHOWS I’LL NEVER FORGET: RICK WAKEMAN, JUNE 21, 2006: I admit I was quite skeptical when the opportunity arrived to see Rick Wakeman’s 2006 Grand Piano Tour. I was expecting dinosaur rock ‘n’ roll from a dinosaur musician but instead we were all treated to an outstanding night of music from a man who is a true keyboard virtuoso. Wakeman played alone on his grand piano all evening. He didn’t have a band and he didn’t need one. He performed music from all phases of his career and regaled us with extremely humorous and detailed stories about every piece. We heard music from his days with the Strawbs. He played two Yes classics, “Wondorous Stories” and the lengthy but superb “And You And I” from Yes’ Close To The Edge. He played half of his 1972 solo album The Six Wives Of Henry The VIII and an instrumental version of “Morning Has Broken,” the Cat Stevens classic.

SOMETHING ELSE! FEATURED ARTIST: YES: We dig back into deep cuts and favorites from Fragile, Relayer, Drama, and 90125 — including “South Side of the Sky,” highlighted by “Chris Squire’s gurgling bassline. Listen closely: Bill Bruford is also mesmerizing behind the drums. It seems simple but it gathers steam as the song wears on, packing in more twists and turns than seems necessary and yet seems perfectly sensible. Rick Wakeman compliments all of this with organ and, in the breakdown, a beautifully elegant piano line. On top of it all, Jon Anderson’s airy vocals narrate a polar expedition gone tragically wrong.”

Something Else!

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