Baltimore native rewrites rules of rock and roll piano

November 08, 1992|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

TORI AMOS

When: Wednesday and Thursday.

Where: Steeltown, 2401 North Point Blvd.

Tickets: $17.50 (Wednesday's show sold out).

Call: (410) 288-3400 for information, (410) 481-7328 for tickets. When Tori Amos' version of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" crept onto the air at alternative rock radio stations earlier this year, it created a quiet sensation. It wasn't a hit in the usual sense -- indeed, it only surfaced as a bonus track on her single, "Crucify" -- but almost everyone who heard it was immediately struck by how powerfully original her take on the song was.

Some of that was because it offered such a radically different view of an intensely familiar tune. In terms of its sound, Amos' approach was almost the total opposite of Nirvana's, replacing their charging, power-chord guitar hook and aggressive, punk-inflected pulse with a moody, half-whispered vocal and carefully shaded piano arpeggios.

Yet Amos got the feel exactly right, offering the same blend of disaffection and dread that made Nirvana's original so arresting. Except that where Nirvana expressed its emotions in a scream of rage, Amos relied on implication and understatement -- hinting instead of howling.

That was part of the difference between the two, and the aspect of her arrangement everybody understood at once. But there was another layer of revelation to her performance, though, one that even the most attentive listeners might have missed. And that has to do with the way she rewrites the rules of rock and roll piano.

Most rock piano players, after all, alternate between two techniques. One is to rely solely on boogie-woogie and gospel licks, pianistic standbys that haven't changed since the days of Fats Domino; the other is to approach the piano as if it were merely a more awkward form of guitar, and pound out chord patterns that would make far more sense if they were strummed.

But Amos takes a different view. Listen to her version of "Teen Spirit," or one of the songs from "Little Earthquakes," her current album, and it quickly becomes clear that she has no interest in the typical approach to rock and roll piano. As she sees it, you can either work with the instrument, or work against it. And she'd rather let the piano be her guide.

"I listen to the piano," she explains, over the phone from a Philadelphia tour stop. "It has its own ideas. A lot of times, pianists try and master it, instead of working with it. But I don't go after a tune on trying to copy it like a guitar would. What I try and do is really appreciate that this piano has a certain body, and not to try and fit a size 6 dress on it. It wants size 12. You have to respect it for what it is.

"More than anything, I don't do it alone," she adds. "I work with a partner, which is the piano itself. I really believe in there being a piano consciousness; it teaches me sometimes, and kicks me when I don't explore things enough."

Amos realizes that her notion of "piano consciousness" doesn't strike a responsive chord in everyone. "I know that people kind of go, 'Oh, there she goes again, her and the fairies,' " she says, laughing. "This is why the English thought that I was cracked, out of my mind.

"And yet at the same time it works, doesn't it? I always get answers."

A child prodigy

Of course, it doesn't hurt that Amos has been listening to the piano for as long as she can remember. A child prodigy, she grew up in Baltimore ("My dad was the minister of Epworth Chapel on Liberty Road for eight years," she says. "We lived off of Betlou James Place") and was accepted into the Peabody preparatory program in 1968, at the age of 4.

"What was fascinating to me was the people I was coming across," she says. "I was there at the height of the '60s, and that was exciting because I was exposed to a world that I wouldn't have known in first grade. I was meeting people who were, like, 17, and living in a house with eight other people -- I'd meet them in theory classes on Saturday at the Peabody."

This gave Amos her first inklings that there was more to the artistic life than Chopin etudes and Czerny exercises. Rock and roll gave her yet another glimpse. "I would see pictures of Jim Morrison and Robert Plant, and I wanted to run away and give them my virginity. Of course, I didn't know what that meant," she says, laughing. "I thought that meant having a peanut butter and jelly sandwich! But I had feelings blossoming for these very passionate men."

Unfortunately, that sort of passion didn't quite fit within the Peabody lesson plan.

"They've cut passion out of their lives, for the most part, in the conservatories. That's why I was this changeling child, crossing my legs over the idea of Jim Morrison and not understanding why."

As a result, Amos emerged from her conservatory days with an impressive amount of keyboard technique, and a serious case of what she calls "a suppression of passion."

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