It was in about 1970 when my uncle brought some demo record LPs from a DJ he knew. I discovered among them the 1968 electronic Moog album “Switched on Bach.” Another album that I really loved listening to was “The Five Bridges Suite” by The Nice.
A couple of years later, in high school, in 1972, my friend Dennis introduced me to Emerson, Lake and Palmer and their album “Trilogy.” At about the same time, my friend BJ their first album, “Emerson, Lake and Palmer” and I was as blown away.
Progressive rock was blooming at the time. The eclectic fusion of classical, rock, jazz, blues and other music forms in long pieces, sometimes in multiple movements, were made for long album cuts played on FM radio The Atlanta station 96 Rock played a lot of progressive rock in 1973-75. With motifs of science fiction, fantasy, astronomy and more, it was a perfect fit especially for the college listening audience. Bands like Yes, Pink Floyd, Genesis, and, often considered by many the leader, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, were setting the pace for this form of music.
It was years later that I finally realized the ELP line up was really a traditional trio of keyboards, bass and drums. Think of Vince Guaraldi’s jazz trio music for “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Often ELP would transition into traditional jazz in just that format.
My favorite performance, that shows off the extreme range of their playing, is “Take A Pebble” from a Belgian TV recording in 1971 (linked below), complete with a Moire projection that would make a bridge science officer proud. They were not a tight band, sometimes lacking the precise virtuosity of a group like Chick Corea’s Return To Forever. Sometimes it seemed like they didn’t really like playing together that much. Still, their playing was inventive, talented, and a joy to listen to. This performance’s rough edges and spontaneity are part of what puts it at the top of my list.
Their music was ambitious, grand and rose high above the popular music of the day. Keith Emerson’s stage antics were entertaining when I was an adolescent but later I didn’t care for them or for some the songs’ themes, but I sure was into the music. That was what I enjoyed listening to so much then and I still do today. He introduced me to composers like Mussorgsky, Aaron Copeland, and others the same way the Allman Brothers led me to blues music.
ELP’s first five albums stand as their main body of work, at least in my view, but I liked the records that followed, particularly the two-volume “Works” even though it was a mixture of pieces by a band that was ending and solo pieces by its members.
I don’t recall if it was in high school or as a freshman in college that I made the connection for the first time between ELP and The Nice’s “Five Bridges Suite,” that album I enjoyed so much. I went on to become a fan of the early Nice music and collected several of their records. Even then Emerson was mixing Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, and Bach with Bob Dylan and Coleman Hawkins, and performing live with a full orchestra.
It’s surprisingly hard to say good bye to one of the great artists of the time.