October 27, 2023

This is currently a good time to be a fan of Keith Emerson. In autumn 2022, Rocket88 publications put out Keith Emerson; the Official Illustrated Story, written by journalist and long-time friend Chris Welch, and considered to be possibly the last word on Keith’s life, and now comes Variations, which is a 20 (!!) CD career-spanning set, being offered in a 10” by 10” box, and is accompanied by a 48 page booklet, with the sleeve notes written by Prog magazine editor Jerry Ewing, who spoke to many of Keith collaborators and delivers a fascinating account of the man behind the keyboards.

The CDs themselves are divided up into five parts ..the early years (1), the solo albums (4), the soundtracks (6), the collaborations (2) and the ‘live’ collaborations (7) and, taken together, they offer an amazing insight into the sheer diversity of the musical imagination of Keith Emerson. If you think Emerson didn’t do anything else after Brain Salad Surgery, this box set will disabuse you of this thought. Considered to be one of the greatest keyboard players of all time, the impact Keith Emerson had on music was very considerable, and he’s rightly revered as a genius by both fans and musicians the world over.

‘Keith Emerson invented prog rock, I know … because I was there at the time’, says his ex-bass man in The Nice, Lee Jackson. Disc 1 looks at Keith’s early years, featuring The Nice, where he first made his name, and ELP, with even a clip from 14 year old Emerson, but I can’t help wondering why only one track from The Nice, America, was included when they did so many other good things? And the ELP tracks feature songs which, for this reviewer, were amongst their more lightweight works … the Peter Gunn theme? Yes, several of the later discs carry some Nice / ELP tunes but they’re all either reworked, played slightly slower or played on different instruments and they don’t always reflect what ELP were when in their early seventies pomp.

But this is just a minor quibble. The remaining nineteen discs are a deep dive into the amazing career of Keith Emerson, revealing him in his true colours, composing and performing some outstanding music either solo, with bands or for orchestras, as well as creating lush imagery on soundtracks for films like Iron Man and Nighthawks. Along with reprisals of albums like Honky and Emerson Plays Emerson with his own band, he also demonstrates his grounding in the classics on later discs and, having no such grounding myself, he definitely broadened my horizons with his treatment of well-known classical pieces with his playing.

Live with Greg Lake at Manticore Hall, London, is a particular highlight, where the two musos perform an outstanding version of King Crimson’s I Talk To The Wind on piano and acoustic guitar, and the final two live performances feature an unreleased show the Keith Emerson band performed at BB King’s, in New York, May 2004 where, amongst other delights, Keith performs a twelve minute amalgamation of Nice classics, America and Rondo.

Keith Emerson left an indelible fingerprint, not just on prog rock, but also on every area of music he ventured into, and these 20 CDs are a veritable journey through the life’s work of a supremely talented musician and composer. Curated with the full involvement of Emerson’s family, Variations is a celebration of the work of a once-in-a-lifetime performer. Keith’s son Aaron Emerson: ‘it’s with great excitement we can share all of dad’s works, expanding throughout his long career. I hope it gives you as much joy as it gave all of us’.