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Oliver Wakeman Spotlights His Collaborations
The composer and keyboard hero releases box set of music he made with two brilliant guitarists.
Thank you for spending part of your day with Michael’s Record Collection. After an unintentional week off, I’m back. This week, I’m spotlighting a musician with a famous last name but who may not be well known to audiences on the left side of the Atlantic Ocean. Oliver Wakeman is the son of legendary Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman. And those two aren’t the only keyboard wizards in the family. Oliver’s brother, Adam, is a much-sought-after session keyboardist who has worked with Ozzy Osbourne, Black Sabbath, Annie Lennox, the Strawbs, and others. And sister Jemma is also an accomplished pianist.
I caught up with Oliver to discuss a new three-disc box set he’s releasing on April 11, which re-issues two of his best albums and introduces a previously unreleased live recording.
Oliver Wakeman comes from a family of keyboard virtuosos, but he has spent the bulk of his 50 years honing his considerable talents and forging his own identity. While his famous father, Rick, is well known for his work in the essential British progressive rock band Yes and a renowned solo career, and his brother, Adam, has done a lot of session projects and solo works, Oliver has spent his career composing and playing very much on his own independent path. Despite the inevitable comparisons, Oliver has done well to stay out of his father’s considerable shadow, while at the same time creating music that is worthy of being associated with the name Wakeman.
Some of Oliver’s best work is being re-released in mid-April in a new box set entitled Collaborations. The three-disc set collects his two prior collaborative (hence the name) albums with well-known guitarists — The 3 Ages of Magick (2001) with longtime Yes and Asia guitarist Steve Howe, and Ravens & Lullabies (2013) with legendary British guitarist/composer Gordon Giltrap.
Both of those discs come with bonus tracks on the box set versions. The third disc in the set is From a Stage, a previously unreleased multitrack live recording from a Christmas concert performed by Wakeman, Giltrap, and vocalist Paul Manzi. The title is a play on words relating to From a Page, another box set that Oliver was a part of from his time in his father’s former band, Yes. That set contains an EP of songs Oliver wrote that were not used on Yes’ Fly From Here album, as well as the two-disc In the Present — Live from Lyon album on which Oliver played.
The new Collaborations set is housed in a box with beautiful original artwork and each CD comes with a 16-page booklet including lyrics and previously unreleased artwork. Wakeman signed the first 250 box sets, which include a fourth art print of the box set cover. Those are likely gone but you can try your luck by pre-ordering from the Burning Shed online shop.
Wakeman said the strong reception that the From a Page box set got helped jump-start more projects for him, including last year’s Tales by Gaslight box from his recordings with fellow keyboard wizard Clive Nolan (which I wrote about here), and the new Collaborations box.
“(From a Page) came out and was was really well received,” he said. “And so the Yes management who were also representing me, came up and said, ‘Have you got anything else that would make a nice box set?’ And I had a couple of albums I worked on with Clive Nolan. We did Jabberwocky and The Hound (of the Baskervilles), and we put together a third disc based on music for the third record that we never got finished, and we put that box that out and that went down very well.
“And the management came to me again and said, ‘Anything else?’ And in my head I sort of was trying to compartmentalize my music career, really. So I looked at all the records that I still had available, or were not available that were sort of out of print, and tried to see a pattern. Where did my work, work? And then I sort of thought, ‘Well, I've been really fortunate to work with some amazing guitarists.’ You know, both Gordon Giltrap and Steve Howe. And Peter banks had played on the Jabberwocky album and I played with Trevor Rabin in America. I sort of thought, ‘Maybe there’s an album of guitarists.’ It wasn't just the fact that they came on and played some guitar on one of my records. It was a fact that we collaborated together to build something using shared experiences, knowledge, arrangement, ideas, lyrical ideas, everything, and I sort of thought it's a really nice idea for a box set. So I pitched it to them and they said, ‘Great!’”
Wakeman had The 3 Ages of Magick with Howe and Ravens & Lullabies with Giltrap, but he needed a third disc to complete the set and he also had to make sure that fans weren’t just re-purchasing those two albums over again.
“When we’ve done the other box sets, we’ve always had an extra disc or something that makes it unusual,” Wakeman said. “And all the box sets I've tried to put art prints, really detailed booklets, because I come from an era of where booklets and vinyl and records were interesting. You like the whole tangible feel of the product. And so box sets are really important to me.”
Management wondered if Oliver might have a third collaboration with a guitarist hidden somewhere in his files, waiting to be released.
“I said, ‘Not really.’ I've got some other bits and pieces but nothing that really has the same stature as the albums that I did with Steve and with Gordon,” he said.
Wakeman thought back to the Ravens & Lullabies special edition, which had a bonus disc with some live tracks and then dismissed the idea of just rehashing the previous bonus disc, which he felt wouldn’t be fair to those who originally bought that special edition. Not sure what to do to complete the box set, fate intervened.
“And then I got an email from a sound engineer friend of mine who had come along and recorded one of the shows, and we had no idea he'd recorded it,” Wakeman said. “Because Gordon and I went out and we toured as a duo, we did a couple of shows with Paul Manzi as a trio, and we did the full band show. And (the recorded concert) was a Christmas show we did. We got together, and Paul came along, and we learned some of the songs the day before and at soundcheck, and played some pieces that none of us had all played together before, and put together this sort of bespoke show. And by chance, it was recorded, and he said, ‘Do you want the files?’ And I was like, ‘Yes, please.’ And so. what I did is I put the studio tracks that came from the bonus disc onto the main record as bonus tracks, and then we created this whole new live album, which was lovely.”
And ‘lovely’ is an apt description of From a Stage. Oliver and Gordon play beautifully together, playing stripped down songs from throughout Wakeman’s catalog for Manzi — the current singer in Sweet and former Arena lead vocalist — to sing. Wakeman and Giltrap sometimes play delicately as a duo but several songs sound like there are more musicians on stage playing bass and strings. Manzi’s considerable talents complement the standout playing. Those not familiar with Giltrap as a guitarist will find enlightenment in this disc, with his nimble fingers playing intricate acoustic guitar and shining throughout. One of my favorite moments on the live disc is the stripped down title track from Wakeman’s 2005 solo album, Mother’s Ruin, but the entire album is fantastic.
The two reissued collaborative albums are shined up and given some bonus material to reward those who have already purchased those records. There are three bonus songs on The 3 Ages of Magick and two of them — “Hit ‘n Myth” and “The Faerie Ring” — were intended for the album originally.
“Something about them just didn't feel right, but I really liked them as pieces,” Wakeman said. “And I really sort of thought it was a real shame we didn't do those on the record.”
The third bonus track, “Dream Weaver (The Storyteller demo)”
“The demo version was quite interesting,” Wakeman said. “Before Steve got involved, it was a track I wrote and the bass player had done some guitar on it, and I'd added a different Moog solo, and we've gone a different way with it. But it was an interesting enough version of the song to put in there. So, the 3 Ages tracks were quite fun.”
For Ravens & Lullabies, Wakeman pulled three tracks from the limited edition bonus disc — “Praeludium,” a version of Giltrap’s song “Roots” with Manzi on vocals and a full band, and a version of “The Forgotten King,” which was a song on The 3 Ages of Magick. The other bonus track is a song that came from Dark Fables, “The Wedding Approaches,” but it’s a much different version.
“But the really unusual piece on there is probably ‘The Wedding Approaches,’” Wakeman said of the Ravens & Lullabies bonus tracks. “When I did the Tales by Gaslight box set, and the Dark Fables tracks, there was a track which was a beautiful song sung by a girl called Charlotte Dickerson, who sings it beautifully. And I knew David Mark Pearce played on all of our Fables, but I knew that this song was so delicate it needed that acoustic guitar — that virtuosic classical touch — and of course, Gordon came into my head. So, I phoned him up and said, ‘Would you would you play on it?’ And he was more than happy to play on it. And he sent me these guitar parts and they were so lovely.
“When I was coming up with the (bonus) stuff for Ravens & Lullabies I somehow had the (song) file up on my computer, and I had everything else muted and I just had the acoustic guitar and the piano. And I just played it and I didn't miss anything. I didn't miss that there wasn't the orchestra. I didn't miss that there wasn't the vocals. The piano and the guitars did what it always did with Gordon and I, which is we just intertwined with each other. And I thought, ‘That deserves to be a track on its own.’ But it wouldn’t have worked sitting on Dark Fables like that. But actually on Ravens & Lullabies it was a really nice piece to almost bookend that project.”
The 3 Ages of Magick is a symphonic album and will evoke inevitable comparisons between Oliver and his father. That’s a tremendous compliment to Oliver, because his playing on the album is fantastic. Howe is his usual excellent self on guitar and for my money this is better than your typical Steve Howe album, with Wakeman and Howe truly melding their ideas together.
Although one might think Oliver grew up knowing Howe well from playing in Yes with his father, that’s not exactly the way things went down. Rick Wakeman and Oliver’s mother split up when Oliver and Adam were very young. Oliver came to know Howe later when he was older during the time his father was with Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe. The two met by chance a couple of times, including just as Oliver released a solo album, which is what truly led to their musical collaboration.
“I released my first record, which was Heaven’s Isle. And I was in town, where the record shop was, and they were selling my record and they had a big poster of it in the window,” Wakeman recalled. “And I was stood in front of it, just waiting for somebody I think, and Steve walked up towards me. And I went, ‘Hello Steve.’ And he went ‘Oh, hi. What are you up to, musically?’ And I sort of moved to one side and pointed at a poster, and said, ‘This.’”
Howe asked Oliver for a copy of the album and Wakeman gave him one, figuring the guitarist would sit it on a shelf and perhaps never hear it. But Howe surprised him by not only listening to it, but by making track-by-track notes and calling Oliver a couple of weeks later to discuss what he liked about it.
“We then used to meet up regularly to talk about music and that's how we got into the 3 Ages record,” Wakeman said.
With Ravens & Lullabies, the music alternates between more up-tempo tracks (the “Ravens”) and softer, more acoustic numbers (the “Lullabies”). The idea for Wakeman and Gordon working together initially sprung from the guitarist calling Oliver after he’d departed Yes during the making of Fly from Here.
“When I when I finished working with Yes, Gordon was the first person that phoned me up,” Wakeman said. “He said, ‘I’d really like to do a prog record. I haven’t done one in 30, 40 years.’ And he said, ‘Would you please play on my record?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, of course I would love to.’ And then he phoned me up the next day and said, ‘I've changed my mind,’ and I thought, ‘That's a shame.’ And he said, ‘No, no, I'd like us to work on something together. With all the stuff you've done, it just wouldn't feel right you just coming on and just being a session player. Let's start from scratch, and let's just build it together.’”
Wakeman and Giltrap wrote Ravens & Lullabies multiple ways — together in a room, sharing files over the internet, and sending nearly completed compositions to each other to finish off.
“I think that record was particularly rewarding because it was it was a great opportunity to work with somebody that had a unique style again,” Wakeman said. “And I think that really helps you create something that doesn't just sound like someone else's record.”
The two records do have their own sounds and styles, but they also complement each other nicely within the Collaborations box set.
“One's a rock album with its rock band and singing, but very proggy, and the other is more symphonic rock, instrumental, keyboard-based, like a 70s solo album sort of thing. They fit together really well,” Wakeman said of the two guitar collaboration albums. “It seems very strange, but it's a nice collection of sort of a musical journey, really.”
There is something in Collaborations for fans of progressive music, those who enjoy symphonic rock, and even those who enjoy acoustic, singer-songwriter type stuff. The set nicely encapsulates Wakeman’s work with these two creative and unique guitarists.
Putting time and effort into ensuring the final product is good has been part of Oliver’s methodology from the beginning. There is a gravity to having the last name he has and it comes with a sense of responsibility.
“I’ve always felt very strongly that the Wakeman name stands for something in music in as much as it’s a high level of competence,” Oliver said. “I know dad’s put a lot of records out. People may be critical of the amount of records he’s put out, but when he puts a record together, it’s good. It’s really good. To me, it’s a case of I don’t want to release anything that I think would diminish what people would expect from a Wakeman product.”
With Collaborations, Oliver has nothing to worry about on that front.
You can learn more about Wakeman’s music and find a link to order his releases at his official website.
Thanks again for your time today. If you’d like to hear more of what Oliver had to say about the Collaborations release, his musical background, playing (and not playing) with Rick and Adam, his time in Yes and the Strawbs (both of which his father previously played in), and more, check out the video below for the full interview.