Jordan RudessA chat with keyboard wizard Jordan Rudess
By Naughty Mickie
Photos by Dave Schwartz

You may know Jordan Rudess best from Dream Theater, but he also has a unique side band, the Rudess/Morgenstein Project, with fellow Dixie Dreger drummer Rod Morgenstein. For the unfamiliar, you might want to give their effort, "Rudess Morgenstein Project" (Domo Records), a listen and you will probably be pleasantly amazed at the amount of music the two guys can make.

Rudess began playing piano in second grade without lessons. He attended Julliard School of Music at age nine, studying classical piano and by 19 he got into synths. Rudess met Morgenstein when they played in Dixie Dregs in 1994 Dixie Dregs and they remained friends when he went on to Dream Theater in 1997. The progressive rocker is very pro music education and has done his piece by offering two books, "Total Keyboard Wizardry" and "Dream Theater Keyboard Anthology," an instructional DVD, "Keyboard Madness," and a learning Web site, www.jroc.us, for musicians of all levels and ages.

This is just the bare bones of a much bigger animal- the man behind the keys. So how did the Rudess/Morgenstein Project come to be?

"Many years ago I was a fan of the Dregs and I got to see them, " Rudess recalls, "They were playing a venue in New York City, and this was before I really knew who Rod Morgenstein really was and I remember going to the show and I was just really captivated by the drummer. I kept thinking that this drummer was so amazing and wouldn't it be amazing if one day he could play on my music that he would be perfect to play? But to me it was a total fantasy at the time.

"A couple of years later I had gotten a call, sometimes the phone just rings and this was a lucky call, about the possibility of auditioning for the Dregs. Oh my god, that's pretty wild. I remember sending them a CD of my first rock solo album, it's called 'Within,' and then getting the opportunity to go to play for them.

"I showed up at Steve Morris' house, the guitar player, and I learned all the Dregs' music, as a matter of fact I had learned a bunch of the Dregs' music and a lot of the Dream's tunes at the same period of time. I was sitting in Steve Morris' room playing this one song and all of a sudden this guy, who happened to be Rod, pokes his head in to the room where I was playing and says, 'What are you doing?' I hadn't met him yet, I said, 'What do you mean, "What am I doing?" I'm playing the songs I was supposed to learn.' He says, 'You're not supposed to play that.' I said, 'What do you mean? Why not?' He said, 'That's my drum solo piece, that's on tape already, that's pre-recorded.' I go, 'Nobody told me,'" Rudess laughs.

"So we met and of course what happened we were in the middle of the very first gig that I played with the Dregs, all the power went off on the stage except for the keyboard power and maybe the drums, although I couldn't tell because of the acoustics on the stage. So I decided that I would switch to a bigger kind of sound and just keep on jamming because the power went off in the middle of a tune. We kept playing and Rod and I must have played for 10 minutes, it was a long time, then we went on and did our thing and it was really really cool. And we both at the end of the night said wow, that was a good save," Rudess goes on. "We really became friendly over the course of the Dregs tour and began to hang out and drive in the car together."

They talked about working on each other's albums and ended up deciding to put a power duo together and, thus, the project was born.

Rudess is a true prodigy.

"My family never really had any thoughts about the kids having music lessons and it all happened because of a second grade teacher telling my mother that I was playing music in the second grade classroom," Rudess tells me. "My mother had always enjoyed music, but I don't think she thought it was possible for her to have a kid that was musical, I don't know why. After she heard that from the teacher, I think it was that week, she went out and bought this baby grand piano, so I started to take lessons.

"My first piano teacher was one of these guys who comes to the house, a local teacher, and pretty soon it was a little suspicious to my mom because he started to teach me for free and he didn't really want to come to the house to work with me and he stopped teaching me the standard books, like how to read notes, and started teaching my chords and how to improvise." Rudess continues, "My mother starts to get the feeling that this is a little unusual here, so she had a neighbor, a Hungarian woman, who was a pretty serious piano teacher and she decided that she would take me to see her to find out what was going on. When I met this teacher, she decided that in about a year's time she would prepare me to go to Julliard. I switched teachers to this wild, wacky Hungarian woman who would give me all these little kicks under the piano bench when I was playing my scales, she really was the one who got me totally from being talented and being able to improvise on the piano and play classical music and prepare me for the audition for Julliard."

Even though Rudess was a child when he auditioned, he still needed to learn complicated works by master composers such as Bach, Beethoven and others to represent every period from the past through modern day.

"I never really had a regular job," says Rudess. "I've been very fortunate and been able to do music. I say that and you think, 'Oh, he's been a successful musician,' it's not necessarily true. When I left Julliard, in my late teens, for years I supported myself playing in clubs and bars with piano music, dinner music or whatever had to be done, nothing that extraordinary. It took me a while to get my career going. I think the reason for that was because after I left Julliard I  was a little bit confused, I had a different kind of a path, I wasn't brought up as a rock or pop keyboard player, I was brought up as a classical keyboard player that all of a sudden got interested in different kinds of music. So it took me a while to figure out how I could incorporate my interests, like electronic music, progressive rock music and all the sound I was hearing and incorporate that into the real world. I was really in no rush and I didn't know how to get a career going because I thought I was different than everybody else. Now that I'm older, I'm convinced that I really am," laughs.

Rudess makes good use of his free time.

"It's not a hobby, but I'm really into the computer and communicating with people around the world and also I'm kind of interested in graphics." Rudess adds, "I have two little girls and I'm also a part-time chauffeur for them when I'm home."

Both girls take piano lessons. His older daughter is into dancing, singing and acting,while his younger one is athletic and into swimming, karate and baseball.

I ask how RMP writes their material.

Jordan Rudess"To a large degree we just bring in things," Rudess responds. "Lately we've been doing things a bit differently, where we'll sit down together and write some stuff, but most of the stuff you hear recorded is from where I would bring in a piece or Rod would bring in a piece. The next album that we have will be more of a collaboration of us both on the same piece."

So is it easier or harder to write together?

"It's different, it's a different process," Rudess says. "I wouldn't say it's easier or harder. Rod is such a good guy, it's fun, especially on the road, we just hash things out."

Being a strong believer that music education should be available at all schools, I wanted to learn more about Rudess' views on the subject.

"I think it's wonderful for children really young to be very exposed to music," Rudess said. "I don't necessary to start them (playing) incredibly young, like I didn't start my kids at four years old on the piano."

He feels a bit older, such as seven is a good age, to start a child on an instrument, but it still depends on the child.

Rudess' online conservatory is suitable for all ages and levels and is not only geared to keyboard, but also guitar and drums.  Charlie Zelany has helped with the drum classes.There's a charge of $50 to access the  core which has many files and additional satellite courses are available for extra fees. Learn more at www.jroc.us.

Rudess' book, "Total Keyboard Wizardry," was the result of examining how he thinks about music and how he could offer it to others. His approach also changed after leaving Julliard.

"To me, the classical foundation was the most important thing, it set me up to do whatever I want to do," Rudess states.
 
He felt the classical foundation was very good, but today, the advancement of technology has offered much more to players. The computer makes things perfect, but Jordan strives to learn how to play the music himself.

Rudess enjoys reaching out to people in need. For example, he a benefit concert and the album, "For NYC," to help the Red Cross after 9/11.  Along with Katie Couric, there was a great lineup which overwhelmed Jordan-- Sting, James Taylor, Vanessa Williams, Tony Bennett, Elvis Costello.

"There's a funny story about that particular day." Rudess shares, "I was on tour with Dream Theater and I had to play a show one night, get about two hours sleep and then fly to New York to do the show and I was so out of it in a way. I remember every one of the performers had to take a walk up the Red Carpet with all the press and millions of cameras. So the girl comes and says, 'Let's go, I'm going to walk you into the press area.' So I'm doing that and all of a sudden I'm standing on the Red Carpet surrounded by photographers and I remember making like a Dream Theater sort of face for them, a more of a hard rock metal look, and I hear, 'Hey, smile.' All of a sudden I realized I'm in a completely different world, they don't want me to look tough, they want me to look happy."

The theme of the evening was Motown and Rudess was requested to do some arrangements. He selected Lionel Ritchie works and performed his own arrangements on the piano.

Dream Theater is currently on tour in support of their June release, "Systemic Chaos." Rudess is also working on a solo album with the concept of going back to his favorite prog rock songs, covering artists like Emerson, Lake and Palmer and Yes, but no Dream Theater, with rearrangements. Prior to the DT and RMP tours, he had been doing concerts opening for Blackfield, playing solo piano versions of classic prog rock tunes by King Crimson, Yes, Pink Floyd and others.

Morgenstein, no slacker himself, is busy with Winger and Dixie Dregs, and still the two are preparing another album.

"We keep looking at our schedules trying to find time because we're pretty close with finishing. We have a lot of music written and recorded already for our second album, we're just looking for that little window of opportunity to get it out there," Rudess smiles.

Learn more about Rudess and all his projects at www.jordanrudess.com

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