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Keith Emerson

Off the Shelf

Review by Steve Alspach

I read a review on Amazon – I don’t remember precisely where – that said that just because someone is talented that doesn’t make him good, and the reviewer named ELP as an example. Ergo, Keith Emerson is talented but not good. Putting that theory to the test, I received Emerson’s latest CD, Off the Shelf and gave it a listen. Sorry, dude, but you’re all wet. In this case, talent and good walk hand-in-hand. This is a thoroughly enjoyable CD, running a wide range of styles from rock to jazz to orchestral, and covering his days from the Nice, plus reworkings of an ELP tune or two, a movie piece here and there, and some unexpected outtakes.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2006 Volume 5 at

Track by Track Review
Abaddon's Bolero Orchestral
The closer to Trilogy gets a symphonic working. And is that a flubbed trumpet note at the 6.43 mark? (Geeze, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra you would have expected better!) Emerson finally gets a synth solo on the last go-round of the verse.
Pictures at an Exhibit
Where originally ELP played a 35-minute version of Mussorgsky's classic, boiled down to a 15-minute version on the 1981 In Concert album., Emerson now has this down to 5 minutes. This is a studio version of "Promenade" and "The Gnome." Emerson doesn't use much in the way of layering his keyboards, so not only is this version of "Pictures…" quite short, it's also very subdued.
And Then January
Emerson wrote this through a self-admitted "bad patch in his marriage" and it seemed to put him in a Bill Evans frame of mind. The first part is him on solo piano, but halfway through he takes on a different motif with the best left-hand ostinato in rock music. This second movement sounds a bit more relaxed, and he brings in a sampled orchestra to work into the piece. This orchestral section is reminiscent of Tony Banks' "Seven" suite in places.
Emerson's rare attempt at lyric-writing is, well, I guess it's okay - given that it's in Portugese, I can't tell if it's any good. (The song tells about a man who wants to come back into his house but his wife has thrown all his stuff out in the street.) The song is in 4/4, but Simon Phillips' drumming and Emerson's lively keyboards puts the Brazilian kick into this piece.
Straight Between the Eyes
ELP meets the Band on this one - Levon Helm puts his plaintive twang to this, and Garth Hudson adds accordion. This piece was written for the movie "Best Revenge" starring Helm and John Heard. The drums sound programmed and, honestly, a bit cheesy.
Don't Be Cruel
Elvis’ old gem never sounded like this. Emerson slows this tune way down. Aynsley Dunbar joins him on drums.
Au Privave
If you ever wanted to know what Emerson would sound like with a big band setup, here’s your chance. The London Jazz Orchestra accompanies Emerson on this Charlie Parker tune. London jazz/rock veterans Roy Babbington on bass and Jon Hiseman on drums amply hold down the rhythm. This will have you up and doing the jitterbug in no time.
Walter L
From the same sessions as the preceding cut, “Walter L” is a Gary Burton tune that gets a smoky, jazz/blues treatment. Emerson plays a solo on the Moog, coaxing his usual cadre of sounds. He also plays Hammond organ, and the latter may be better suited for this than the Moog, but when can Emerson ever resist playing a Moog?
Continuing in the jazz vein, Emerson arranges a Thelonius Monk tune. Unlike the previous two cuts, “Rhythm-A-Ning” has a much more contemporary feel to it, primarily due to the Linn drum machine. Ron Asprey gets the spotlight here with his alto sax solo.
Asian Pear
Again, with Ron Asprey on sax and the Linn drum machine, this Emerson original sounds a bit like, um, smooth jazz! As this was inspired by a relationship, “Asian Pear” does have a Pat Metheny-like feeling of intimacy to it. This is about as far as is possible from anything that you might imagine ELP or the Nice doing.
Motor Bikin’
Originally written to accompany home movie footage of Emerson riding his motorcycle through the French countryside (hey, you would to if you could – admit it), this workout on the Yamaha GX-1 was later orchestrated for a scene in the movie “Nighthawks” with Sylvester Stallone and Billy Dee Williams. 
If Emerson is tired of playing this old Nice chestnut, he sure doesn’t sound like it. The lineup here was a potential supergroup in the making – Pat Travers on guitar, Mo Foster on bass, and Ian Wallace on drums. Travers’ solo is aggressive yet well-phrased. Emerson’s synthesized solo is curiously short.
Lumpy Gravy
ulled from the vaults, this lo-fi cut is a real eyebrow-raiser: the Nice play Zappa, right down to the “The way I see it, John, this should be a really dynamite show!” declaration at the beginning. (Okay, Zappa’s recording was “The way I see it, Barry” – whaddya want?) Lee Jackson and Brian Davidson rip through their “Rondo”-like breakneck rhythm while Emerson and David O’List play the melodic line
Up the Elephant & Round the Castle
Jim Davidson hosts, or at one time hosted, a game show on the BBC called “The Generation Game.” It’s a nice, friendly, innocuous show that uses for its sign-on the bubbling synth from “Karn Evil 9.” In other words, this guy is a huge ELP fan. He later starred in a sitcom and Emerson was asked to do the theme music. He keeps this in a humorous vein with a honky-tonk piano, trombone, and kid’s vocals repeating the title line. 
Sex & Drugs & Rock and Roll
Cozy Powell plays drums and John Doukas adds vocals while Emerson and Pat Travers round out this outfit. Ian Dury’s old gem goes from that slight jazz-funk feel to an all-out stomper. ELP and Nice were always rock outfits, but here it’s interesting to hear Emerson blow out the pipes, proving that no matter what the musical style, he’s right at home. 
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