Elton John: His First Piano Album
The piano has been an inseparable part of Elton John’s music and persona since he began playing pubs at age 15. Somehow, the pop legend made 30 studio albums without pushing the instrument to the forefront.
That changes with The Diving Board, out today. The album’s spare, moving, richly melodic tunes earned a four-star review in Rolling Stone: “Elton has regained his sense of musical possibility and taken a brave, graceful jump.”
“Every track is piano-led,” says John, 66. “It’s weird, isn’t it? I’m a piano artist, a piano singer/songwriter, and I’ve never done a simplistic record like this. I came to prominence as a live act with piano, bass and drums. That was the secret to my success in America and everywhere else, but I never made a record with that lineup. I think a lot of my fans wanted more piano.”
Diving sprang from John’s bond with T Bone Burnett, who produced his 2010 album with hero Leon Russell, The Union. Russell then urged John to return to the unadorned approach of his U.S. club debut in 1970.
“It was a relaxing project,” says John, who wrote and recorded 12 songs (to Bernie Taupin’s lyrics) in three days, took a break and returned a year later to write four more. “This is the perfect album for me at this time. The music I like at the moment — James Blake, John Grant, Lorde — isn’t overcrowded. It’s space and beautiful stuff. Where do I go from here? I don’t know. I’m so thrilled with my relationship with T Bone. It’s made me fall in love with the process of recording again.”
Burnett, who sat 20 feet from John at the Troubadour in West Hollywood 43 years ago, recalls the unknown prodigy playing extended piano solos for a spellbound crowd.
“It was like seeing Jerry Lee Lewis,” he says. “It was an explosion of energy. And I hadn’t heard any of that in his records ever. That led to these improvisations. The idea here was, ‘Elton, you’re a piano player. Play piano.’ So he did. He laid down the law.”
Burnett envisioned the minimalism of a Sun Records session.
“Of course, it turned into an incredible Elton John album,” he says. “Elton’s not going to play like a 20-year-old. He’s going to play like a master, because he is. But he took off with the same freedom and explosive, imaginative energy. It was beautiful to see an artist of Elton’s stature and experience going back into the spirit of his earlier records.”
John aimed for a relevant, contemporary landmark.
“After all my years as a professional musician, I should be pushing the boundaries,” he says, noting that Bob Dylan’s 2006 album Modern Times was his template. “If he can make a record that sounds so great at his age, there’s hope for all of us. He and Neil Young have always pushed the boundaries. That’s the sort of artist I want to be. I don’t have the pressure now to write a top 40 hit.”