A 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,
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
I ask how RMP writes their material.
"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
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
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.