Jordan Rudess: Keyboard Wizardry on The Road Home

The latest solo release from keyboard wizard Jordan Rudess, The Road Home, is a progressive rock masterpiece that features Jordan and a collection of outstanding musicians reinterpreting some ‘70s era classic prog rock tunes from the likes of Genesis, Gentle Giant, Yes, and ELP.

In the wake of Jordan’s new CD release, had the opportunity to meet up with Jordan over a casual cup of coffee during a brief visit home to New York in the midst of the European leg of Dream Theater’s Systematic Chaos world tour. Our discussion covered the musical direction chosen for his new CD, the guest contributions to the project, the ongoing evolution of Jordan’s keyboard setup, programming, and technical style.

Aside from Jordan Rudess’s undeniable excellence in keyboard performance and composition/orchestration, one could not help but notice the level of intelligence and knowledge he commands. Jordan was extremely forthcoming with us (as usual), sharing a vast amount of information. Though our schedule with Jordan was limited, we could have easily sat with him for hours or days in order to cover all that he has to share.

As with all project beginnings, Jordan opened up the conversation explaining how he came about deciding on the path of his new solo CD. The first decision was to decide on a direction – “Is it going to be a concept album, an instrumental album, what will be the musical style?” He explained, “The most important decision was based artistically on what I wanted to accomplish at this point in my career, what would feel right, what would best fit in relation to timing.” Other considerations included: What kind of record company will be supporting the project, and what is their marketing ability? As Jordan commented,

Everything needs to align and a decision needs to be made based on all of those factors.

Jordan’s first idea to spark this initiative was based on his desire to record his own version of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’s classic, “Tarkus.” From there, the album would consist of a twenty-three minute version of “Tarkus” and then contain a few original selections to complete the CD. As an artist under Magna Carta Records, Jordan bounced the idea off of label heads Peter Morticelli and Mike Varney who agreed with the idea. From there, Jordan then began to think, “Maybe it would be great to do an album of remakes consisting of my major musical influences including Yes, Gentle Giant, King Crimson, and Genesis,” to name a few. With the consultation between Jordan and Magna Carta Records, the decision was solidified to make a compilation CD consisting of (primarily) remakes.

The next decision was to decide on orchestration of the songs and, more importantly, who would perform on the CD. During his discussions with Magna Carta Records, one theme that remained constant was to have different guests/artists appear on his solo albums. Jordan explained, “Having different artists appear on each album added complexity and really defined the characteristic of each song selection by providing individual creative input. From a record company standpoint, having multiple artists/names on one album added to the promotion, and ultimately the marketability of the album.”

In the beginning of his career with Magna Carta Records, Jordan explained that most of the decisions and direction were provided for him in regards to orchestration and guest artists to appear on the album. For example, Jordan had to have a bassist on his past solo albums opposed to covering the bass’s sonic textures on keyboards. A guitarist was needed to make it sound more “rock.” As his relationship evolved, Jordan was given more liberty to make those decisions — evident on The Road Home, where you won’t find a bassist in the instrumentation, nor will you find a rhythm guitarist. And had we not just informed you of this detail, you would not have even noticed the absence of a “true” bass or rhythm guitar due to Jordan’s excellent command of orchestration and sound programming.

As Jordan points out,

“I am extremely comfortable covering bass and have every sound available at my disposal, plus I enjoy having total control of orchestration… What I do like is having a live drummer because, you know, there’s nothing like having Rod Morganstein or one of those kind of guys working on a project.”

In speaking with Jordan, it’s clear that he has a great relationship with Dream Theater and a deep respect for the talent encompassed within that band. However, in deciding on artists to play on his solo album, Jordan had to rely on Magna Carta for input and suggestions. When it came to filling the drum slot, Jordan took advantage of his long-term relationship with Rod Morgenstein, whom he has recorded other albums with. Jordan knew that Rod would provide exactly what he was looking for, nailing the parts with vitality and maintaining the energy needed for the album.

In deciding the rest of the guest artists, Jordan and Magna Carta records commissioned guitarists Ed Wynne, Ricky Garcia, Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal, Marco Sfogli, and vocalists Kip Winger, Nick D’Virgilio, Neal Morse, Steven Wilson, and Bert Baldwin.

Jordan did make it a point to elaborate on two of the artists featured on his CD which may not have the level of notable success as some of the players above. Guitarist Ricky Garcia was a contact Jordan made during his time studying at Berklee College of Music. “Ricky had a very definable style about his playing that appealed to me.” Jordan recalled thinking he might like to call upon Ricky one day for recording – and he did! Vocalist Bert Baldwin was actually an assistant from years ago who later became videographer, as well as lighting technician, for Dream Theater!

The next step was to get the album recorded. As Jordan pointed out, “This would have been extremely challenging years ago, but now with the ability to FTP (File Transfer Protocol) files via the Internet, recording can happen at everyone’s convenience, location, and time frame.” One of Jordan’s key assistants on this project was Dani Koesterich. Dani plays a part in running Jordan’s online conservatory and publication, Accent. He was responsible for keeping this project in motion and maintaining the flow of communication.

For the recording/engineering aspect of the project, John Guth set up the FTP site for the recording, enabling electronic transfer of recorded tracks and collaboration between artists. This included audio, MIDI files, text, notation, and scheduling information. This technology was a very important component in getting this album completed as Jordan, for the most part, did not have in-person contact with any of the artists during the sessions! Everything was done online with the exception of working in the studio directly with Rod Morgenstein.

“I didn’t see these guys and they did a great job, just banged out their parts and posted them online and the next thing you know, everything is cool – so, that’s how you make an album.”

We next spoke about the contrast between Jordan’s first solo album and The Road Home. We commented on his current release as being a very musical rock album opposed to being tagged a “keyboard album,” which led to our discussion about orchestration for the CD. As Jordan pointed out earlier, there wasn’t any bass or rhythm guitar performed on this album. And simply finding a bass patch does not fit Jordan’s approach to substitution. Jordan stated, “I look for a bass or guitar element and then make it a part of a larger sonic structure to cover those instrumental spectrums.” He may use a combination of three different synths in order to obtain the desired bass spectrum. Jordan defined this as “a true construction of sound… It must answer to what I want to hear in the bass and how I want it to respond. And even though it may consist of layers of sound, it still needs to remain sonically organic. The goal is not to imitate a bass player, but to create a sound to support the bottom end.” The only drawback to this process is that he may take a while until he finds the right sound or line, whereas in the past, he stated, “Dave LaRue would come in and nail the bass parts at first take playing exactly the right part for the song.”

Jordan’s playing style and technique is incredibly complex. In listening to his performance, he has the ability to make the keyboard breathe and take on a living form. One of the most influential techniques adding life and dimension to his playing is the use of the pitch wheel. As Jordan stated, “the pitch bend stems from the guitar world. However, influences of Jan Hammer, Patrick Moraz and George Duke introduced pitch bending to the keyboard world and definitely had an impact on my style… I’ll draw from the Hendrix energy and listen to John Petrucci and Steve Vai and say, ‘Oh, well you know, I can do some of that, but also do some of this’ – certain kinds of bends and things and modulation that the guitar can’t do. I try to take advantage of using the guitar information and also apply my own background and creativity to creating leads.”

Taking Jordan’s lead style and sound a step further, we wanted to find out how his sound evolved. Jordan reflected that his lead sound started to evolve years ago while working for Kurzweil. There he met with Chris Martirano, Director of Products Development, and listened to his approach to lead lines and the use of the pitch wheel for vibrato. Most players were bending the pitch and then applying the modulation wheel, which achieved a more canned/controlled sound that produces the same vibrato speed all the time. Chris used the pitch wheel alone to gain better control and produce a more effective type of vibrato. Jordan found this technique to be more effective and incorporated it into his own style.

At the time, Kurzweil was a very powerful leader in the keyboard industry – they were the adventurists when it came to creating new keyboard sounds and applications, according to Jordan. He worked with Chris to develop his ultimate lead sounds. “We spent month’s exchanging files online to collaborate and make adjustments to find just the right sounds.” They incorporated the use of the slider to bring in additional harmonics; added a lag to slowly bring in harmonics where it would drop the fundamental tone and cycle through the harmonics. Many of the lead sounds they created were used when Jordan started with Dream Theater. At that point, Jordan became very conscious of the heavier aspect of his sound and how it blended with the guitar. He worked towards developing a more grungy/cool, almost metal sound, and always wanted to make his sound bigger. Jordan also had a lot of sounds he created on the Novation SuperNova, which was a twelve-voice instrument that had a cool distortion effect. Using primarily Kurzweils at the time, they had to program and sample the sounds of the SuperNova into the Kurzweil.

Shortly thereafter, the Kurzweil business began to get sketchy and Jordan decided it was time to switch to another keyboard – The Korg OASYS. Jordan was then faced with reprogramming everything once again. To help him with this task, he hired Peter Schwartz whom he worked with during his time at Kurweil. Having been a programmer at Kurzweil, Peter worked on Jordan’s lead patches to spec. Jordan communicated what equipment/programs he used to have and what he needed. Peter and Jordan passed program files back forth, tweaking and massaging until Jordan felt they achieved the “ultimate” sounds and reprogrammed them into the OASYS.

Jordan also incorporated the Roland V-Synth into his setup. Jordan was hired by Roland to create a bank of lead patches for the V-Synth. While working on this project, Jordan discovered one cool feature of the V-Synth: a feedback oscillator. Instead of having a pure tone, you have a feedback-generating oscillator. Depending on the amount of depth, the oscillator would provide other harmonic tones and create a grunge effect. He applied the joystick to remove the fundamental tone and add harmonics by moving the joystick forward. This produced a bizarre and cool feedback effect. The V-Synth is currently the sound generator he uses with the Continuum MIDI controller [more about this unique controller in our other Jordan Rudess interview].

Going into the studio for the recent Dream Theater release, Systematic Chaos, Jordan’s arsenal of equipment included the Kurzweil rack, the OASYS and the V-Synth. Jordan explained that this really gave him a multitude of choices and the ability to layer/blend all three keyboards giving him an extended sonic pallet for creativity. The Continuum actually came into play previously when Dream Theater was in the studio working on Octavarium. Drummer Mike Portnoy is a big advocate of trying new things and suggested that Jordan play a lead on the Continuum. Everyone was amazed at the sound – so amazed that the Continuum was used on the beginning of Octavarium as well as during the solo on Systematic Chaos’s “Dark Eternal Night.”

Jordan has also incorporated a few other instruments in his tool belt. While Dream Theater was on tour with Yes, Jordan became intrigued with the lap steel guitar. He observed and grasped as many techniques as possible to help him learn the instrument on his own from watching Steve Howe. Upon return to New York, he purchased his first lap steel guitar, a 1953 Fender model, and began playing on it. During the Octavarium rehearsals, Jordan brought the lap steel to rehearsal. Again, being an advocate of trying new things, Mike Portnoy got him to break it out. They found a slot for it on a song selection and Jordan rehearsed it until he was prepared to go on tour and play it live.

Another cool instrument Jordan is playing on the current Dream Theater world tour is the Zen Riffer – an arguably cool strap-on keyboard controller created by Charles Tentindo. Jordan was turned on to the Zen Riffer by a contact at Korg. He checked it out online and contacted Charles for an in-person look at it. Charles brought the Zen Riffer to a Dream Theater rehearsal in Los Angeles. Time was limited, so they weren’t sure they would have time to check it out, but a slot opened up long enough to generate a positive first impression. “He takes it out of the case and says, ‘Oh no, don’t look yet’” as he’s polishing it and then presents it. It’s this amazing, beautiful, thing. I strapped it on and connected it to the Roland V-Synth. It had a very cool look and provided a pitch/modulation wheel as well.” Jordan had concerns about how the band would receive it – after all, these types of controllers had a chance of conveying the “Eighties cheese” vibe. But as with the Continuum and lap steel guitar, Mike Portnoy wanted Jordan to take a solo on it. It sounded cool and looked equally as cool, or at least menacing, with its dagger edge that seems poised to hack a classic Roland strap-on controller into tiny little pieces. The decision was made to leave the Zen Riffer in Jordan’s care to take on tour.

Jordan was headed back to Europe to resume the Dream Theater tour, and upon return from the tour, he’s got a lot of big things planned for his online conservatory, the most significant perhaps being that they will be adding a guitar program! Jordan informed us that Rusty Cooley is the commissioned guitarist to lead the program, and Charlie Zeleny from the band Behold the Arctopus will be leading drum sessions. Jordan also plans on developing other elements that will include live teaching sessions conducted in real time. And last but not least, keyboard players can look forward to a new edition of Jordan’s Accent magazine.

To read our other feature stories on Jordan Rudess, click here.

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