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Classical 'Piano Man'

CD Review: Fantasies & Delusions, solo piano music composed by Billy Joel.


by Mark D. Johnson
December 8, 2001

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Classical 'Piano Man'_Mark D. Johnson-CD Review: <i>Fantasies & Delusions</i>, solo piano music composed by Billy Joel. American composer William Joel, better known as Billy Joel, the pop-rock icon of the eighties, has released an album of original classical music for solo piano entitled Fantasies & Delusions. Though Joel is an accomplished rock pianist, the ten pieces are performed by concert pianist Richard Joo, giving this complex music the required sensitivity that only a classically-trained pianist can provide. One might expect this project to be a so-called “crossover” effort, permeated with pop-flavored melodies, but instead we find a serious collection of highly-listenable works that would fit right in with the programming on your local public radio station. This is real classical music that Joel has labored over for the last ten years, and the result is an album that can be taken seriously by classical buffs as well as appreciated by Joel’s fans who are open to the full range of the piano man’s expanding talent.

Joel’s classical music is clearly influenced by the Romantic compositions of Chopin and Rachmaninoff, and this may cause the more snobbish crowd to scoff and brush it off as “derivative.” It’s true that these works add nothing new to the classical canon, but who can name a truly original classical composer working today? Such critics would probably have more respect for dissonant experimentation, but instead of bowing to the pressure of “originality,” Joel has chosen to write music that pleases the ears of more casual classical listeners without appearing simplistic and ignorant of the Romantic elements of style.

Like Chopin, Joel offers a variety of style within the genre, from quiet introspection to swelling emotive phrasing to blazing technical fireworks. The pieces I enjoy the most are the three waltzes and the short, quick-tempo “Invention in C Minor” and “Sorbetto” from “Suite for Piano.” Only “Air,” which closes the album, carries a hint of a classic Billy Joel melody which could conceivably be adapted to a rock performance. While it still works as a classical piece, I’m glad this was not an album-wide trend. For the most part, the music on this album could easily be mistaken for the work of an accomplished nineteenth-century composer. Does that make this an artistic sin? Well, maybe, but I’m not complaining. No matter how you look at it, this is an impressive musical feat, performed extremely well by Joo.

There’s a story told about the late jazz alto saxophonist Gene Quill. After a gig, a guy from the audience came up to him and whined, “All you’re doing is playing just like Charlie Parker.” Gene held his sax out to him and replied, “Here, you play just like Charlie Parker!” Emulating artistic masters is no easy task, and when it is done well, we should all tip our hats. Fantasies & Delusions is highly recommended.

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