James Rhodes: Piano Man

I still like having a video store to pop into. I still call them video stores; that's how far off I am from this downloading caper that's changed everyone's world - and I guess, in particular, the world of the video stores!

Aro Video is my local - and it's a good place to pop in. As with (still) shopping for music in actual stores it's about the chance encounter as much as anything. You turn up to see what has turned up. And Aro Video was always a good place to find music documentaries and concerts - as well as all sorts of TV shows and films. I take my chance there every week or so, sometimes I find a gem. Often I'll settle for the obvious fare, whatever is on the new release wall that might take my fancy. Many times it will disappoint. But the journey - the actual trip to the video store - still brings with it the hope of finding something I wouldn't just scan for online.

So, one time I saw this DVD James Rhodes: Piano Man. I didn't know anything about it - but I decided I'd take a look.

James Rhodes is changing how people approach classical music - but he's not really changing the way people listen to it. He's a pianist, one with phenomenal talent and a passion for the instrument and the music. But his Piano Man TV show was a chance to subvert the normal stuffiness that scares and bores people in equal measures.

So Rhodes, in seven short episodes (20 minutes without ads) talks through some of his favourite composers and then walks through some of his favourite pieces. The playing is beautiful. And the episodes are easy to digest. It is essentially just interview snippets broken up with performances. But in the context that Rhodes offers we find out stories about Mozart and Bach and Beethoven and Chopin and the usual suspects. But we also find out about Rhodes. He brings his baggage to each show - and that ultimately informs how we understand the ways in which he found this music; how he then has absorbed it to present to us. We find out his stories about their stories.

Rhodes is shown playing classical pieces, reading music off an iPad. It is little touches like this that show how a simple gesture of updating can break away at the stuffiness. In one of Rhodes' favourite interview lines he just wishes it was called music. He doesn't like the term classical music. We use that as a catch-all anyway, an umbrella term to describe a range of classical musics, a variety of instrumental form from across the centuries. He's right of course. It is, after all, just music. And that is entirely what this show is about.

I watched all seven episodes in one sitting. By the end of the weekend when I rented the disc I'd watched them again - and then purchased my own copy.

Lately I've been going back through the episodes. And I've taken to YouTube to get a fix between times. Watch here as Rhodes plays Etude for the Left Hand, Op. 36 by Felix Blumenfeld. As the title suggests this is a piece he plays with just the one hand.

When I first started watching James Rhodes play I thought of Glenn Gould - not so much because of the sound or style, but it was in the fact that I could hear the personality coming out through the playing, informing every choice, every note.

Gould is one of my favourite musicians - and he challenged the conventions of classical music; was unorthodox in his approach. So it's a simple comparison really, based on that. Nothing more.


But - as I said earlier in the week when talking about Bill Fay's new album - it's nice when a new discovery reminds you of someone else, sends you back to their work afresh, anew.

This week it's been wonderful to take in Glen Gould too - one of the things that Oscar is soaking up (whether he knows it or not) when he sleeps. And to return to the stories and playing of James Rhodes.

His CDs will be the next new music to come into the house...

Apparently Rhodes is the first classical musician to be signed to a major rock label; meaning he's not part of the classical wing/imprint. His albums are being released based on the fact that he's playing music - not just/only classical music. I like that.

And I like - so very much - his playing, his anecdotes, his approach. So I thought I'd mention him. And the DVD - it was filmed a couple of years ago now, but as it deals with music from a few hundred years ago it's safe to say it's still relevant. Or it never was. Or it always will be. But relevance is not really the issue. This is about beautiful music played exquisitely; it's also about the challenges of life getting in the way of the pursuit. It's about overcoming many of life's challenges and personal struggles to offer the best work that can be offered. And to of course, therefore, offer something (and so much) of the soul. And I like that too.

Here's the trailer for James Rhodes: Piano Man.

Have you seen it? Or does this sound like something you'd like to see? Have you heard Rhodes' albums or heard of him and his work?

And here he is having a bit of a laugh at the Idol-style TV shows and the gulf between what he does and what they do. He shows off what appears to be a motto or at least a focus, and a great one at that, keeping the music serious but making everything accessible, having fun, not taking himself too seriously.

I don't usually put a lot of stock in YouTube comments but I like the sentiment behind one I saw that accompanies the clip I've linked to above. It says "We're losing our culture and James Rhodes is trying to save it". 

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