Late last fall, Michael Jones sent me his latest CD, “Echoes Of Childhood” for review. He had found the Solo Piano Publications website, and sent a very nice email along with his request for a review. I was familiar with Michael’s long career as a Narada artist - the same label David Lanz spent many years with - and was flattered that he liked our site. We started an email correspondence, and I told him I was a piano teacher. He offered to send me a copy of his book, “Creating an Imaginative Life,” saying that it was a book that he would have liked to have read when he was a piano student. I loved the book and its many stories about music and creativity, and knew when we did this phone interview that it was going to be exceptional. A very open, sensitive, and caring person, Michael is also especially articulate. Enjoy!
Michael Jones was born in a Canadian military hospital in England. He has three brothers and one sister, and two of his brothers play the guitar. Michael’s mother was a program coordinator in a community college, and his father was an engineer. It was his grandparents, particularly those on his mother's side, who most influenced his early career choices. His grandmother was the first woman in the United States to graduate with a degree in music in 1916, and his grandfather founded a major Canadian university after retiring from business in the 1950's. Michael started improvising at the piano at the age of two, and started composing at three. Formal classical piano lessons began at the age of eight and continued through his second year of college. He learned to play percussion, saxophone, and clarinet as well as the organ, and was an assistant church organist for awhile. He played in rock and dance bands in high school and college, and began college as a music major. His biggest musical influences were Chopin, film music, and the extended jazz improvisations of Keith Jarrett.
After graduating from college, Michael became a business consultant, and did music on the side for enjoyment and relaxation. He played his own compositions for friends and family, but felt the music was too personal to share with the public. After dinner at one of his seminars, Michael decided to play the piano for awhile at the hotel. Thinking he was alone, he played some of his own music as well as some familiar pieces. An older man stumbled out of the bar with a drink in his hand, and sat down in an easy chair near the piano. He listened for a few minutes, and then asked Michael what he was playing. “Moon River.” The man said, “No, before that. What was that?” Michael said it was one of his own pieces. The man asked how many other people could do the kind of consulting work Michael was doing. He said probably 20 or 30. Then the man asked, “How many people can play your music if you don’t?” It was a life-changing moment for Michael Jones. He decided to pursue music full-time, and was the first artist to sign with Narada in 1984. Over the course of the next eighteen years, Michael released ten albums and was included in many compilations. Very highly-regarded in the “new age” genre, Michael is considered to be one of the leading artists in the field. He decided to leave Narada and become an independent artist in 2002, and his first album on his own Pianoscapes label, “Echoes of Childhood” is wonderful! For the past several years, Michael has been combining music with consulting, working with business executives and other professionals to find their creative, softer sides, and to bring what they love into their own work. This interview is a fascinating journey in discovering how one man has carved a unique niche for himself in both the artistic and business worlds.
KP: Was it a difficult decision to become an independent artist after so many years with Narada?
JONES: It was difficult, yeah. I was of two minds, I think. On one hand, I was looking forward to being independent again. I had a good relationship with Narada over those years, but there was just something about trying my hand at it on my own. That’s how I started originally. I was attracted to that, but at the same time, it was like family at Narada since I’d been there for so long. Symbolically, leaving Narada felt like I was also leaving music. At the time I left, I really didn’t have another album ready to go. I was working with music, but I didn’t have a real sense that there was an album there. It was only after I left that things started to come together. That’s happened before. Sometimes I’ve needed to leave a place first, and then the reasons that I needed to leave became a lot more obvious later on. At the time, though, it is an act of faith.
The music on “Echoes of Childhood” is quite different from your previous albums. What was different about how you approached this one?
JONES: Well, for one thing, it had been six years since my last album, “Touch,” so I really had a lot of time to play and just get inside the piano with the musical ideas I was exploring. The other thing is - and this a curious thing - that when I recorded the original “Pianoscapes” in 1983, I didn’t have a particular audience in mind, because I didn’t have an audience at that time. All I had was a piano and a recording engineer, and about ninety minutes of tape. A record came out of that. I didn’t do any editing or try to sequence in any particular order. It was pretty much what came out of me and onto the tape, and from the tape to the disc, and out it went. It was released as an extended-play cassette, and I was just astounded when I sold my first 150 copies. When I left Narada, in a sense I felt like I was at the same point again, without a record label, without that kind of distribution support. I really just did “Echoes” for myself, and I don’t think I’d realized when I left Narada that that freedom made a big difference for me. Narada was always very supportive of what I did - but it was just the idea that I didn’t have anybody listening in on this project. There were no expectations to meet, and nothing else to fulfill other than the music itself. I sat down one evening when I felt I was ready - not unlike how I did “Pianoscapes” - and just recorded the album, pretty much in the same sequence as it went to disc.
KP: I read in the liner notes that you did the whole album in one sitting.
JONES: Yes. I really feel that in some ways the music benefits from that. If you can spend enough time and you’re really inside the music, you can do it without having to cut and paste. The other way of recording is to do a number of different takes of a piece, go through and find the parts you like best, and then cut and paste a finished composition. It’s a legitimate way of recording, but Oscar Peterson said that it is really unfair to the listener to record that way, that a recording should be a performance, and you should be at a point in your relationship to your work that you can let it be a performance - natural and alive in the moment. I’ve always gone along with that, and that’s how “Echoes” was done.
KP: Did you do any editing with it?
JONES: Not in the music itself. I peaked in a couple of places, and we we had some digital noise so we edited around those points. There were only one or two very minor edits.
KP: That’s really amazing!
JONES: If I’d set out to do that, I would have been totally intimidated, because some of these are long, spontaneous pieces. It really has to be very much in the moment for a piece to feel that it has coherence and makes sense musically, and is also spontaneous. It’s an interesting balance to explore.
KP: I’ve never been able to be that spontaneous with playing. I worry too much about hitting a wrong note. I know you have to get past that, but I’ve never been able to do it.
JONES: If I hit a wrong note in the first bar or two, it’s really hard to get past that. Sometimes I just have to leave it and come back a day or two later when I have a fresh state of mind. Otherwise you begin playing to the problems you are running into, and things that aren’t problems at all when you’re playing for yourself suddenly become insurmountable problems when you’re recording.
KP: How long have you had your recording studio in your home? It seems like that could be almost a necessity so you can record when you feel inspired.
JONES: That was an important part of it. I’ve been set up here for about ten years. I’ve had the Bosendorfer here for those ten years, and basically just had an engineer come in and set the levels; I went from there. One thing that’s different about “Echoes,” technically, is that I had an engineer come in who has worked with Oscar Peterson for the past couple of years. Oscar has a Bosendorfer, and Lance Anderson, who composed the synthesizer parts and performed them in the background, really learned from him how to capture the fullness of the Bosendorfer sound. It doesn’t mic like other pianos, and it’s incredible to find exactly the right positioning to get the full-bodiedness of the bass as well as the articulation in the upper end. I’ve never felt that this piano has had the full benefit of getting the sound it needs. On the other albums, the positioning of the mic wasn’t quite right in the bass, and we couldn’t get that deep resonance, but it was sure there on this one!
You have two careers going. One as a composer/musician and one as a consultant. Was there ever a time when you did music only?
JONES: I did, yes. There have been different transitions in my life not unlike what I described to you about leaving Narada. Back in about 1985, I realized that I needed to leave consulting. I felt I had gone as far as I could with that work, that there was nothing new or fresh that I could bring to it. Music was becoming a much more significant part of my life, and I decided it was the time to give myself fully to the music and whatever that involved. For the next seven years, I toured, did a lot of composing and recording, and wrote a book (Creating an Imaginative Life). I tried to find a writing voice that went along with my musical voice, and found that for the book to work, it had to come from the same feeling and spirit that the music comes from. I started the book from a collection of stories about my life, but then got embarrassed because I felt the stories were too personal. I began to add more theory on creativity, things I’d read in books, quotations I’d come across from various people, and the manuscript just grew and grew. I took it to an editor, feeling that I’d really accomplished something. We sat down a few weeks later, and I told her that I thought all it really needed was a bit of tweaking. She said, “Well, this is a moment of truth, Michael. There are three different voices in the book. There is the voice of all of these experts; then there are the voices of all the people you have quoted; and then there is your teaching voice. What I miss is the storyteller voice.” I told her the stories were too personal, and she said “If you have the stories, then you don’t need all this other stuff.” I was crushed, but I looked at the manuscript again and realized that she was right - it really was a dog’s breakfast of this, that, and the other thing. So I went back to the computer and just put the “delete” button on! I was pretty ruthless with myself, and deleted everything but the stories. When I was done, I had about 5% of the original manuscript, and started to rebuild it out of the stories, staying as close as I could to the grain of my own inquiry, my experiences, and what was going on for me during those times.
KP: The book gives an inside-look at many different phases of and events in your life. I really enjoyed it!
JONES: It’s a book that I think I would have found helpful to read when I was younger because there were things I was experiencing musically that I couldn’t figure out. In a way, the book was helpful for me to make sense of some of my musical experiences, why they were important, and maybe why they happened as they did. I hope that others might find it to be of some help.
KP: The book is out of print now - I read someplace that it will be coming out again in the fall?
JONES: I’d hoped it might. At this point, I’m working on another book, and I’d like the next publisher to do both of them - to reissue the first book. They could be companion books, so I’m just letting the first book sit for the moment while I get the new one figured out. There are some used copies of the book available at various bookstores and I believe Amazon has some.
KP: Tell a bit about how you are integrating your music into your consulting work, and what the consulting work entails.
That’s an interesting journey. Originally, I didn’t bring music into my consulting work at all. I was pretty self-conscious about my music, and it was something I did for myself. I’d play for a couple of hours at night to help drain off the stress of the work I was doing during the day. When I came back into consulting, I was invited in largely through the music, so it had a place. That was important to me because I felt when I went back into consulting that I wanted to have all of myself in the room this time and not feel the split. Until I started doing that, I always felt that there was some part of myself that just didn’t fit in, which is probably not at all uncommon. Originally, the music didn’t fit into the consulting work I was doing, and I felt its absence. When I was doing concerts, the teaching side - the part of me that likes to communicate - didn’t fit very well. I shared stories in concerts, and people enjoyed that, but I felt that it was incomplete. When I went back into consulting and brought the piano, all of me was in the room.
The piano helps in a number of different ways. Some of the focus in the consulting is about leadership development, and my sense is that leaders are particularly effective if they can lead from their gifts and what makes them unique as people. Having the piano there demonstrates how I try to bring my own uniqueness into my work. I was amazed at how many people began telling me what for them was their music - poetry, sculpture, writing, backpacking, or something that was really special in their lives that they’d love to devote themselves to. They’d ask how they could bring this quality into their work. One man thought he’d take his guitar to work, but his co-workers didn’t take too kindly to that. Then he thought about the quality that awakens in himself when he plays the guitar, and THAT he could bring to work. It would give him a different way of looking at things and make him more sensitive to what was going on. Music really starts to open up that vein for people. I play from what inspires me, and sharing that with people helps them begin to see more of the aliveness in world around them. It awakens them to a different way of seeing. Also, playing music while people are working with journals and reflecting seems to really help to deepen the experience. A lot of the emphasis is on people finding their own voices - not so much a musical voice, but a language - a way of expressing and seeing things that is more uniquely their own.
KP: Do you find that there is much resistance from corporate people to finding and nurturing their creativity?
JONES: Oh yeah, I think so. Many organizations are engineering-cultures, and they are very technically-driven for the most part. There is a general suspicion of the softer side of things - around the imagination, feeling and innovation, and around being in questions rather than answers.
KP: Are your performances mostly improvised, or do you go back and learn what you’ve recorded so you can play those pieces again?
JONES: I don’t go back to the recordings to find pieces again. It’s an interesting idea - I’ve never thought of doing that for some reason. For one thing, I don’t try to keep a lot of my catalog up because I’m not in settings where people are expecting me to perform that music. There are only a few recorded pieces that I’m likely to play because they are pieces that are part of what I usually include in a presentation or a workshop. When I finish an album, I’m right onto the next one. That’s just naturally where I go - that’s where the music is happening. I have to take so much time living inside this music that, if time allows it, that’s all I’m doing. If I’m expected to go back and perform from the catalog, I can usually reconstruct a piece in my mind. I just have to get the feel of the piece going, and then it starts to come together again.
KP: Are you able to recall most of your recorded pieces?
JONES: No, I think I could recall immediately and play probably only about 10% of the catalog.
KP: Pieces you have really strong emotional ties to?
JONES: I have to have strong emotional ties to any piece I record because I spend so much time with it before I record it. But then after it’s recorded, my relationship changes, and there are only a few that I’ll keep those ties with for a longer term.
KP: In other words, it isn’t straight off-the-top-of-your head improvisation that you record - you do work on the pieces quite a bit.
JONES: What happens is that I take a lot of time with a piece, and then when I record it, I sort of empty my mind of the piece so it has a chance to have a fresh interpretation during the recording process. I’m listening for an aliveness in the music. That is a clue for me that I’m really connecting with the sense of what the music can be. There’s always an improvisational aspect to it, but there are limitations because if I really let myself go, the tape will end before I’m finished. You always have to have one eye intuitively on the clock so you can work within the limitation of that sixty or seventy minutes. I was really amazed with “Echoes of Childhood” because it just dropped into place and fit right into that time sequence. It’s the elaboration on the music that has been the centerpiece for me. When I first had the experience of being played by the music, I found that there was another dimension there, an intuitive dimension to the music that was new for me, and yet it seemed so much of a foundation of playing into the moment. In concerts, I have the time and the latitude to open up. If I only played off my repertoire, just the straight tunes, I’d probably be done in twenty minutes and it would be a really short concert. That’s why I used to get so nervous - I never knew if I was going to connect into the deeper spirit of the music, and I didn’t know what conditions might lead me to be too inhibited to do it.
KP: I remember reading an article quite a few years ago in a Narada mailer that was asking for suggestions for unusual concert settings for you. What have been some of your more unusual venues?
I think the ones I’ve enjoyed the most have been outdoor settings - particularly during the day. The birds and the breezes are there, and things are happening. It’s nice to have the stillness of the evening, but I like the aliveness of the day. I feel that outdoors, the music becomes a part of a much larger sound environment. I can delight in that and have it also play back to me. I remember one Sunday afternoon concert I was doing by a lake in Maryland, where the ducks literally swam right across the lake and came close to the shore where I was playing and started to quack! Those kinds of things are really delightful. Another memorable performance was playing for a group of men in a music appreciation class at Lebanon Penitentiary. There was a moment when one of the men walked out of the chapel where the class was held. I thought he’d left and that some of the others might follow, that I just wasn’t going to connect with this group. That really didn’t surprise me - I felt what I was doing might not be the kind of music that would appeal to them. But then the man came back in a few minutes later with a glass of water. He brought it up and set it on the piano for me. What that symbolized for me was very important because I struggled a bit with the value of my own music and bringing it into public settings. It had been my own music for so many years and how it was received was always in the back of my mind. That was a gesture not only for that moment, but for the difficult moments to come.
KP: He wanted to give something back.
JONES: That catches the essence of it. It’s playing in places where there is the opportunity to have something come back, whether it’s the ducks quacking or the man with the glass of water - those are special moments, I think, for any artist.
Another very memorable experience was when I was doing a tour through New England, and was doing a fund-raising performance for the Crotched Mountain Foundation, which supports a school and other programs in the New Hampshire area for severely emotionally and physically handicapped children. Since I was in the area, I said I’d be glad to play at the school. They were a little hesitant because they hadn’t done much with the children and music, and they weren’t sure how they would respond. They were afraid that some of the children might act out and disturb the experience for others who weren’t as severely handicapped. They decided that they would bring all of the children into the room, and if some of them started to act up, then staff would quietly take them out. All of them were in wheelchairs, and they didn’t act out at all. In fact, I think for about an hour there was absolute silence in that room. It was entirely new for the staff - they’d never experienced these children to be so still. Diane Almond, who traveled with me on that trip, and who was with Narada for many years in Artist Development and Marketing, was there, and she said that was probably the most special moment for her. She’d been in the music industry for many years, and said it’s such a jaded business that you sometimes wonder why on earth you do all that you do. Then you have a moment like that, and it all makes sense. It did for both of us. There was one young boy who had his hands in a prayer position and just moved back and forth with the rhythm of the music. Afterwards, the staff was incredulous, and said, “We never knew that music could do this.” Diane said she’d have Narada send them all of their recordings so they could use the music in their program. We could see how valuable it was. At that time, they worked mostly with reinforcement programs to try to manipulate the children to behave in certain ways. They were given rewards or withheld things, but they hadn’t realized what music could do. There is an idea out there that music has to be really slow and simple to have a calming effect, but my sense is that it just needs to flow. Music really activates the imagination. These kids were describing images that they were getting, and I think that’s partly where the healing was for them and why they were so quiet. They would just close their eyes and these images would come, and it was very calming. Their imaginations took them past the limitations of their bodies.
KP: You mention often that nature is a big part of your music. Do you want to talk about that?
JONES: I’ve found that nature is really helpful because I think that at some point any artist needs to find out what his or her real inspiration is and what moves them. The first time I really wanted to find a musical voice was when I spent some time in nature. I had a chance to go to a camp up the near-wilderness of central Ontario. We got into some back-country that very few people had visited since it had been logged some years back. I found I was so captivated by what I saw there that I wanted to find a musical language so that I could convey to others what that experience had been for me. These were canoe trips, and when you’re in a canoe, you really feel things around you - you’re very immediate. I loved watching the way the light played on the chop of the water in the afternoon sun, the feeling of the canoe on the water, the sounds of the wind going through the pine trees at night - that kind of thing. I had never had as visceral an encounter with nature as I had there. When I got back home, I dropped everything else I was doing and began to really focus on how I could play something on the piano that gave a listener the feeling of rain or the feeling of wind - not as an idea or a concept, but as an actual experience. When I discovered Debussy, I was really encouraged, because he said he tried to liberate the piano from its hammers to convey those kinds of impressions and images. And then Chopin, who was so focused on the art of touch, underscored that because his lyrical lines were so beautiful. Everything was around the art of touch. I was finding that in order to convey these impressions, I had to devote a lot of time and attention to how I worked with touch and weight on the keyboard.
KP: Quite a few pianists in the genre have found that their recordings sell better in the Asian countries than in the US. Has that been true of your work?
JONES: That’s a good question. I don’t know how it’s breaking down. This market has matured in the States. This music has been around for a long time, and I think it probably peaked here in the late-80’s or early 90’s - as a genre, anyway. Individual artists continue to do really well, but I think the genre has peaked. That may not be true in Asia since the music got a later start. When I did concerts in Korea and Japan, it felt like I went back in time a bit to where everyone had a piano at home - that it was an honored instrument and people really loved to listen to it. I’m wondering now, because we live in such a highly-accelerated culture where the need for immediate gratification is so much stronger and more expected, how many people are willing to devote the ten or fifteen years of piano practice you need before you begin to get a sense of something coming back?
KP: I’ve noticed a big change in students over the past several years - some of the kids are much less willing to put in the time because they’re doing so many other things, and most of those things bring quicker results. It has made teaching much more difficult.
JONES: I grew up in a time when we didn’t have a television for the first few years, so I got well-grounded in piano practice. I lived in a small town, and there wasn’t a whole lot to do besides play the piano, but I don’t know how on earth I’d do it now. I guess I’d do it if I loved it enough. I do play a lot now, as a composer, and because I just like playing, but there are so many other things I could be doing.
KP: Exactly - it’s something I enjoy so much, but an awful lot of the time, I feel guilty sitting there playing.
JONES: And both of us make a living from it! If we feel guilty, think of how it is for others who don’t have as much of a reason to be there.
KP: When I’m playing because I’m learning a piece for a student or practicing for a specific event, I don’t have a problem, but if I just want to sit down and play for myself or to unwind a little bit, I feel guilty.
JONES: I find that, too, and I say, “This is nuts.” I’ve been doing this for twenty years professionally, and I still feel, “Gosh, I should be doing something responsible right now!” I think it would be good for people to hear that this is an epidemic that affects all creators. Being creative feels like something you can do when you retire and before you grow up. Those are the two times in life when you get permission to just fiddle around and enjoy yourself. It’s a hard thing to shake.
KP: Since the world has gotten so fast and so busy all the time, I wonder what music is going to be like in another 25 or 30 years.
JONES: I’m curious about that, too. Part of it is, as we were saying earlier, about how much time people are willing to devote to mastering an acoustic instrument, and whether that same motivation will continue or if people will lean more towards things with a quick return or immediate gratification. It could be that people will have such a reaction to music that they will want the depth that comes from practice and really devoting yourself to something over a longer period.
KP: I hope so!
JONES: I do, too. I think we’d be making a big sacrifice if we left that.