As the music world mourns the death of Emerson, Lake & Palmer keyboardist Keith Emerson, Dream Theater keyboardist and friend of Emerson Jordan Rudess talked to Rolling Stone about the musician’s immense influence on his style and the affable, funny personality behind the music.
It’s been a very rough night for me personally. I’m still reeling from the news of his death. I’m feeling really bad for Keith Emerson’s family. The tears were streaming down my face until just a little bit ago.
I just wasn’t expecting this at all. I just saw him at the NAMM [musical instruments] convention in January. We were taking pictures together and he seemed OK. I don’t know where this came from. His music meant so much to me and he was a friend and a really nice guy.
The story of how I discovered his music is interesting. I grew up as a classical pianist. I was a very serious young protégé from the age of nine, going to Julliard. I knew nothing about rock music. That all changed because a friend of mine in high school brought over Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s Tarkus record and played it for me, and I couldn’t stop listening to it. I thought it was incredible.
I knew about the kinds of harmonies Keith used, because I’d listened to classical music that had those kinds of chords, but I never heard them in a rock context. And I’d never heard keyboards in a rock context like that. It opened up all these possibilities for me. It allowed me to think about the keyboard as an instrument that could be really powerful in a rock context. It was the beginning of a big transition in my life, and an important one, too. If I hadn’t heard that album, I’m sure that things wouldn’t be as they are right now.
“The harmonic sound that he was bringing into rock music was completely original.”
What blew me away were his harmonic concepts. He was really into suspended chords and fourths, things that nobody was doing. It was a whole harmonic sound that he was bringing into rock music. It was completely original. And then there were his sounds. He was opening up doors with synthesizers, like that classic sound in “Lucky Man,” which everybody knows. That sound is infamous and I’ve used that sound as a tip of the hat to him on some of my albums, as well, knowing that it strikes a chord with people.
Tarkus made such an impact on me that I covered the whole suite on an album called The Road Home in 2007. The original meant so much to me that it was difficult to do. I wanted to do it justice and maybe have him be really pleased with it. Later, he said to me, “Jordan, I really don’t like when other people cover my music, but your version of Tarkus is just amazing and my girlfriend, at the time, dances around the house to it and we love it. Thank you for doing it.” That was really touching to me.
The story of how we met is funny. It literally took me seven or eight times of meeting him about 20 or 25 years ago before he remembered me. I would say hello to him because he was my idol; my keyboard hero.
“His music meant so much to me and he was a friend and a really nice guy.”
I had done a tribute album on the Magna Carta label with a whole bunch of artists and I went up and introduced myself again. And he said, “I know who you are. I hated that album.” I went, “Oh, my God.” [Laughs] He said, “The only thing I liked was the thing that you did.” I went, “Oh, my God. That’s a relief.” [Laughs] That’s when he really took notice of me. After that, I was invited to his birthday parties, and we’d hang out and see each other and he was always very friendly.
I learned a lot about his playing from redoing that record. For one, his organ swipes – when he would run his hand over the whole organ and create that sounds – he had a way of doing that that created a sound that’s hard to get. It’s really hard to get. I’m still working on it to this day, trying to get it right. I ask everybody who knew him, “What was he doing? How did he do that sound?”
And of course, he had a great left hand. His left hand and his right hand were almost the same in that way. He was the master of doing an ostinato. That’s not something I so much learned from Tarkus, but his whole way of setting up a figure in the left hand and being able to maintain it while he did whatever he wanted to with his right hand, that’s still something to this day that I have carried on, and it’s something I use to teach students. It’s a a real keyboard player thing, too, because what other instrument can you do that with where the left hand and the right hand are playing totally different things?
Another thing about Tarkus is the way he took his Moog and tuned it to another note. It wasn’t ever just a single note. He would do something where he would tune it to fifths or he would include the fourth, so he could have suspended chords if he was playing single notes. There were a lot of things that made his sound very, very unique.
He was a friend. He wasn’t somebody I saw a lot over the years, but whenever I saw him it was very friendly and we had a lot in common. But he was a very funny guy. I don’t know if people realize just how gentle and funny he was. He had a great sense of humor. When you were with him, it was kind of hard to remember that, “This is Keith Emerson,” just because he was always looking for the humor in things. He was always really kind and really gentle and nice. He would always stop and say hello to people and take pictures. We hung out sometimes at the MoogFest in New York City. He was always nice with everybody there.
If there’s one keyboard player on the planet Earth that has affected my life this much, it’s him. There are other guys who have certainly had an influence, but nobody as powerfully as Keith Emerson.