From NPR to R.E.M.

Piano man Christopher O'Riley tackles rock tunes on new album

It takes a classically trained musician — one with his own shows on PBS and NPR, no less — to translate a rock band's nuanced rumble into a solo piano performance. Christopher O'Riley has been tweaking his technique over the course of four rock-tribute albums. And the Northeast Ohio-based pianist nails his approach on the new Out of My Hands, which features piano adaptations of songs by Pink Floyd, R.E.M., Tori Amos and others.

O'Riley says his take on Nirvana's "Heart Shaped Box" is a prime example of his special transcription technique, which goes further than just recording the original artists' notes. For this track, he created new chords to approximate the song's de-tuned melody and grating harmonies.

"I'm really trying to solve every moment [of the songs], to get the sense of the guitar and the drums or the jangliness of the overtones," explains O'Riley. "If you were to literally take down the exact notes, you wouldn't necessarily get the halo of overtones right. 'Heart Shaped Box' [has] been tuned down half a step. It's B-flat major, which on the piano is all black keys."

"It feels like one of the great classical pieces," he continues. "So that's a door in."

O'Riley's rock material is a sideline. He studied with Russell Sherman at the New England Conservatory of Music. Since 1982, he's recorded 13 classical albums. He's been a fixture on public radio since 2000, as host of From the Top, which airs on approximately 230 NPR stations. The classical outreach program profiles teenage musicians, then presents them in concert. It's also been a PBS program since 2007. O'Riley recently made his conducting debut with the Columbus Symphony.

The rock sets grew directly from his classical showcase. He is a voracious Radiohead fan and started playing snippets of their tunes as break pieces on his radio show. Fans liked it and asked him to record some of the band's songs. Two albums of Radiohead covers followed. So did tributes to Nick Drake and Elliott Smith. A Mother's Day edition of his show led him to cover Tori Amos's "Mother" on the new CD. O'Riley says Amos is truly the queen of piano-playing woman singer-songwriters.

"Tori is just a really cultivated pianist," he says. "She's wonderful. I don't know too many other people in that realm whose piano playing I admire. I'm more enamored of people who aren't piano players, but who have an innate talent or an instinct for the piano, like [Radiohead's] Thom Yorke. But Tori would be way up there. It's just a certain technique that she has, a way that she has of investing it with a certain weight and presence without making it heavy. She's great."

Even dedicated Amos fans might not recall the song offhand; the nugget isn't one of the first 10 songs that come to mind from her Little Earthquakes album. Some of O'Riley's selections for Hands, like R.E.M.'s "World Leader Pretend" and Radiohead's "All I Need," are easy to imagine played on a nine-foot Steinway grand. Others, like Portishead's "The Rip" and the Smiths' "Asleep," aren't their catchiest tunes. O'Riley doesn't always go with obvious choices. Sometimes, he can't quite nail a tune. And sometimes direct melodies feel wrong. "It's texture and harmony that really draw me to a song," he says.

O'Riley plays occasional concerts dedicated to rock material. He has talked casually about mounting a rock-jazz tour with the Bad Plus, but he doesn't see that happening any time soon. The two acts did work together on Out of My Hands, though: Bad Plus bassist Reid Anderson wrote the track "Lost of Love." O'Riley likes what they do but says he'll remain solo for the foreseeable future.

"I like the idea of distilling the music, and there is a certain conceit to the idea of trying to do what a three-member or five-member rock band does, with two hands, and make it work somehow," he says. "If I had a band, I should be writing music. And I haven't really been doing that. So in the meantime, I'm pretty sure it's just going to be me for a while."

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