In the world of music appreciation there is the silly, pointless and irresistible game of: “who is best?” If you are a lover of an instrument you are drawn to those who have given themselves over to its mastery. Right? Ahem, I, of course, am above such petty squabbling. I understand that different players excel and innovate in different areas of musical accomplishment whether it be composition, precision, speed, improvisation, accuracy or any one of the dozens of other variables that qualify as greatness, but secretly, we all, even I, have “our guy.” For rock music, and especially the sub-genre known as progressive rock, I must admit, I have no other guy: Rick Wakeman is it! No other player comes close or is even in the same arena for my money. I have to go to jazz or classical to find any other player with Wakeman’s chops and intellect. When he is great, he is magnificent. When he is not, he is um, er, kind of an embarrassment. Like all my favorite guys, I can think of major parts of the careers of Coltrane, Miles, Dylan, Zappa, Lennon, Hemingway, Kerouac, Crumb, etc., etc. that are just plain bad. That is part of reaching for the stars: sometimes you bump into the moon. Rick Wakeman has had plenty of absurd moments in his long career, but when he finds the right context, he is sublime. He found the right context on the first three or four Yes albums he appeared on (Close To The Edge, Fragile, Tales From Topographic Oceans, Going For The One) but perhaps showed his greatness as a player most efficiently on his 1973 solo debut The Six Wives Of Henry The VIII.
It came as a shock to many Yes fans upon its release, being an entirely instrumental album. A highbrow, Anglophile, concept album about the unfortunate women who married the bloody Tudor, the music on this album is a heady mix of rock, jazz, classical and funk loaded with guest musicians from Yes, The Strawbs and other corners of England’s musical geography. But the star is Wakeman’s unbelievable manual dexterity and battery of keyboards (at least 15 are specified in the liner notes). Each piece is driven not only by Wakeman’s proficiency and expertise on this fortress of instruments but, more importantly, by his genuinely wonderful sense of melody and composition.
A classically trained musician, Rick Wakeman proved with the Strawbs, Yes and on countless other historic sessions that he had the greatest understanding of the entire history of keyboard music of any musician of his generation, and he takes it a step further on Six Wives. His regal pipe organ playing on “Jane Seymour” or his jazzy piano on “Anne Of Cleves” or “Anne Boleyn,” and his crazed synth, moog and mellotron work on “Catherine Of Aragon” and “Catherine Howard” provide satisfaction for fans of his work with Yes as well as those who yearn for something even more focused and accomplished. Much of the music on the album will be familiar to fans of Yes because Wakeman incorporated many of the most memorable bits into his solo segments of their live shows over the years, but the album taken as a whole is an entirely rewarding and unique musical experience. By the time you get to the final wife, “Catherine Parr,” Wakeman has pulled out all the stops creating a memorable, stomping beauty of a theme that he drives home with soaring synth lines, organ fills, church bells and a Copland-esque finale that will have you cheering in the aisles. At his best here, Wakeman combines virtuosity, taste and an irresistible, wink-wink attitude toward genre rules that can only be born from true mastery. He is the best and this is his best album.
- Paul Epstein