InDepth InterView: Chris Gero On ELTON JOHN: THE MILLION DOLLAR PIANO, Yamaha Entertainment Group, 88 Doc & More
Today we are talking to the founder and Vice President of Yamaha Entertainment Group who single-handedly spearheaded the incentive to create a one-of-a-kind work of pianistic art for iconic Grammy and Tony Award-winning rock legend Elton John to utilize in a spectacular new concert experience called THE MILLION DOLLAR PIANO - the passionate and dedicated Chris Gero. Discussing all aspects of the impetus, development, design and actual building and subsequent employment of the technology created to craft the Million Dollar Piano itself, Gero sheds some light on the half-decade-spanning process of bringing the technological and artistic achievement to the stage and outlines Elton John's own participation in the project. Furthermore, Gero opens up about the new software developed for the project and how that has established a whole new avenue of live entertainment via the Yamaha Disklavier. On that note, Gero shares stories detailing his participation with various Disklavier showcase events and the possibilities afforded by the revolutionary new piano tech that will be spotlighted in his new documentary 88 - which features performances by Elton John, Michael McDonald, Sara Bareilles, Jamie Cullum and more. Additionally, Gero offers the 411 on Yamaha's participation in a wide range of specialty events, ranging from the silver piano Alicia Keys played on the Super Bowl to specially provided keys for Paul McCartney and more, as well as various Elton John charity benefits he has helmed over the years. All of that and much, much more in this behind the scenes look at the modern technical marvel that is Elton John's Million Dollar Piano and the multi-talented man behind it!
More information on Fathom's presentation of ELTON JOHN: THE MILLION DOLLAR PIANO on March 18 and 26 is available at the official site here.
PC: Do you come from a musical background yourself?
CG: Well, I didn't study it, but I grew up in a very musical family. I never really studied except for a short period of time in my late teens when I studied for just a minute, but we were a pretty scrappy bunch and we sort of just went with it and did it when I was growing up and we would play together often.
PC: You have curated a number of all-star Elton John benefit concerts over the years, could you tell us a bit about putting those events together and if we will ever get to see them someday?
CG: They are very complex! And, getting into television makes it even more complex because of all of the rights and clearances that you must have. If it's for a really amazing cause then it tends to get a little easier, I've found. It's always the goal for these events to have a life outside of the three or so hours that they last, so every single one of them we film. But, then, when you start looking at it, you have to ask: so, how are we going to re-purpose this? I mean, we've filmed them all - even the very first tribute I did to Elton, 11 years ago. All of them have been filmed, but it's just a very complex process in doing things with multiple artists and they all have different requests and expectations and all of that - you know, some are really cool and some are not that cool, so it just depends.
PC: The way of the world of charity benefits, no doubt!
CG: Definitely. It really just runs the entire spectrum of what you would expect to try to get to an end product. So, the intention is always there - as is the intention for the next one to always reach a bigger and greater level.
PC: You feel you have to top yourself every time.
CG: Yeah! You do. I mean, I was trying to arrange a show of all the piano greats - Elton John and Billy Joel and Little Richard and Stevie Wonder and Jerry Lee Lewis and Ray Charles.
PC: What a line-up! What happened?
CG: Well, Ray had said yes, Elton had said yes, Little Richard had said yes and there was just one or two holdouts, but that kept it from reaching the ultimate desired goal of what the event could be as a live televised thing. But, in the end, it was just too hard to pull off - to get all those people together and agreeing to all of the same things. So, unfortunately, it never really happened. I tried two or three times to get it off the ground and it just sort of died. Then, when I got the strength up again to try all over with it, it would take six months to get someday or whatever. So, to answer your question, it is very complex to do events like that.
PC: Did that ultimate piano project lead into the 88 documentary you have been working on for a number of years?
CG: We have a bunch of different things that we are working on. 88 is really my desire to document all of these great piano players using the Yamaha Disklavier technology.
PC: What was the initial inspiration for 88?
CG: Ray Charles and I were very close. Before he died, I tried to get him in the studio to record his actual physical piano performances using the technology that we own called Disklavier. Using that, when an artist plays an instrument it will literally record and play back on that instrument exactly what the artist played and how the artist played it - how they voiced it; the intention; the velocity; the intent; everything is played back exactly the same. Using digital technology, the Disklavier can repeat the performance that the artist gave on the instrument exactly - identically. So, when you hear Elton play the piano it is one thing, but when you see the piano playing back exactly what Elton played exactly as he played it, it is very, very eerie to watch.
PC: Why so?
CG: Well, you know, nothing's really perfect, although he is a remarkable, remarkable piano player, and you are basically recording history in the making - he has so much intent behind every single one of his performances. So, 88 was spawned from that idea - that I wanted to capture all of these artists discussing what it was that influenced them to become an artist or become a piano player. 88 is all of these different artists saying, you know, "I heard this song for the very first time and..." or, "When I played this song for the first time...," and then they actually play it.
PC: How intimate and revealing, particularly for fans.
CG: Yeah, it's pretty exciting. It's all of these artists basically cross-referencing what inspired them to become songwriters or performers or piano players or a combination of all three. And, it's also a really a remarkable journey to see how all of these artists have influenced each other, as well. You are getting their actual interpretation of the song that really struck a chord, so to speak, and acted as the genesis of their wanting to be an artist or a piano player. For example, for me, as a kid, I was wickedly influenced by Elton. I grew up in the early 70s and he had such an impact on my life that I just knew I would play the piano just because of how influenced I was by him and his music. So, I feel like I wanted to pass on the favor, in a way - I wanted the story to be told through the eyes of the artists, so I chose this sort of lofty project with it being 88 famous people telling their own stories about what inspired them to become artists.
PC: What can you tell me about THE MILLION DOLLAR PIANO project and its origins?
CG: With THE MILLION DOLLAR PIANO, Elton and I had already known and worked together for 20 years so we had worked on various projects already. The very first large-format project I worked with Elton on was in 2003. Then, we worked together on THE RED PIANO, and, subsequently, in the last year of THE RED PIANO show, he and his manager and I sat down and we started a dialogue about what the next show should look like if they decided to return to Las Vegas. So, I suggested making this piano that would be part of the story - because all of Elton's songs are stories, after all.
CG: All of Elton's songs are like these epic vignettes done in song, and, for me, I see everything very visually and so do they, so I said, "What if the piano was, first of all, a work of art, and, secondly, it was a chameleon onstage? What if it was part of the set and it featured into different musical pieces because it can morph with video? Or, what if it became the epicenter of the moment, just based on the mood of the song?" Elton is very, very trusting and very faithful and he said, "You know what? I love the idea. Go with it." So, I showed him a few sketches of the designs that the Japanese design group had come up with and we started working on the show from there.
PC: How fascinating.
CG: It was a really, really remarkable experience, let me tell you - and, for about four years, Elton didn't really see anything!
PC: No way!
CG: Yeah! It was actually about three years before he saw the piano onstage and he could come and play it for the first time. In the process of building this piano, we filmed everything - the entire process; the beginning conversations between Elton and I all the way through the design process all the way through to the very first time he played it onstage, and, now, the actual finished final product of the concert. As an ancillary component of it, we are now releasing the concert in movie theaters before it comes out on DVD. So, it became this full-circle project - you know, here's Yamaha as a product manufacturer creating this one-of-a-kind, beautiful piece of art that is the epicenter of this MILLION DOLLAR PIANO show, and, we also filmed all of the elements surrounding it at the same time.
PC: A comprehensive capsulization of the process, as it were.
CG: Exactly. What's coming out in Fathom movie theaters is the actual two-hour concert itself as it was seen in Las Vegas - and it's epic and grand and gorgeous and in full HD. Elton gave us lots of access, as well - as you may know, Elton is sort of a bit camera shy and particular about how he is filmed, but he was very, very gracious to us for this, and, so, we have camera angles in every possible place you can imagine. In the aftermath of all of that, there are two more projects now that are direct spins of it.
PC: Which are?
CG: One of them is a short documentary about 20 minutes long that came out in a special package with THE DIVING BOARD on DVD - that's already out in the world. Then, there is the hour-long special which will be shown as part of the DVD package and also on TV later this year. The DVD part is already done, though - Elton's management is managing the release of the television aspect of it. But, right now, our primary concern is the Fathom Events presentation of THE MILLION DOLLAR PIANO, of course.
PC: How would you describe your partnership with Elton on THE MILLION DOLLAR PIANO project?
CG: Well, obviously, our relationship is remarkably unique on this - everywhere he goes, Yamaha goes; but, we are really partners. This is a partnership - and there is a trust that exists between us; us for him and him for us. Obviously, he is very proud of this project and we are very proud of this project, so it's turned out really well. I mean, I've produced a gazillion projects in my life - many of them for other artists - but this is my first full-format directorial project that I've done; and it's for Elton!
PC: More than a little bit daunting!
CG: Yeah, but we're pretty, pretty excited about it and to see how people react to the concert.
PC: THE MILLION DOLLAR PIANO concert itself focuses mostly on the hits, yes? No new material from THE DIVING BOARD?
CG: Yeah, nothing from THE DIVING BOARD. The show was recorded before that record was finished, actually, so that's why you won't see anything from that.
PC: Has Elton had any input or suggested any minor refinements since you unveiled the final finished piano to him and he first played it?
CG: No! Actually, he didn't - and that's another thing that has been so remarkable about Elton in all of this is that he just loved what we have come up with every step along the way. Of course, I've had a 20-year relationship with Elton, but he didn't always trust me like he does now. I remember in February 2009, we were talking about some design elements for the project and he said - and this is in the documentary - that, "I want this to be a work of art and it is. You are nailing it." So, we would see each other and he'd say, "How's the piano going?" and I'd say, "Good. We're doing this...," and he'd say, "Don't tell me! I don't want to know! I just want to know it's going well." And that's how he was with everybody - all of the world-class talent who came to work on THE MILLION DOLLAR PIANO. Compared to us, they came on very late in the game, though - just a few months before the show was put up. For me, I was working on it already for three years by then! So, they essentially were going off of what we told them and what we had already mapped out, more or less. But, the whole time, Elton really didn't want to know a thing. The creative director, Tony King, is very well-known and has worked with a lot of large-format acts and he pulled in two guys, Mark Fisher and Patrick Woodroffe, who really know how to design these big, huge epic shows like Cirque Du Soleil. So, for the very first time, Elton was letting this show be done on a much grander scale than anything else he had ever done previously.
PC: Which is really saying something given his opulent pedigree!
CG: Yeah, it is. But, nobody was really briefing Elton about any of it at all as we were doing it - he kept saying, "I'd really rather not know too much." And, with the piano, he didn't want to know anything about it at all before he played it.
PC: What do you remember being his immediate first reaction to playing it?
CG: It's in the documentary. Basically, he just went up onstage and sat down and played a little bit and he turned to me and said, "It's remarkable." And, basically, that was the end of the dialogue! He told everybody how amazing it was, but it's really the piano that drives the entire show - everything comes from that, and Elton. So, this was a very unique environment for creating a show - everything was built around the piano. And, considering it weighs about 2000 pounds, it can't really go anywhere anyway! [Laughs.]
PC: Definitely not!
CG: It's pretty much a fixed set piece dead in the middle of the stage. But, it's remarkable how it has all turned out.
PC: Is there a back-up that you built just in case something ever happens to the original one?
CG: Yes, there is. We made two of them and one is a back-up. The main one isn't designed to really go anywhere - it's almost two tons; it's mammoth. On top of that, it has 64 state of the art .3 millimeter pitch video screens inside of it. So, you can't just pick it up and move it, you know? It's just not designed to be moved - it lives underneath the stage at Caesar's Palace.
PC: Like HAL in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY - "It lives," not "It's stored."
CG: It does! [Laughs.] I mean, we put this design together and then brilliant designers in Japan actually put it all together and then this company in Montreal did all the video work. So, honestly, we didn't know if it was all going to come together in the end. We had a set of meetings in Japan and then we had a set of meetings in Montreal and then we sent both pianos to Montreal to be outfitted with the video and then we sent them both to Vegas about four days before opening night and we really had no idea until we all arrived - we really didn't know - if it was all going to work and what it was going to look like. So, it is a remarkable testament to all of these guys to have the ability to pull it off and have the know-how of how to do it as well as they did it. I mean, it's a pretty complex, moving piece of art that still is, inside, a Yamaha grand piano.
PC: The brain is the same.
CG: It is. And, let me say, I don't think people know what a phenomenal piano player Elton John really is - I mean, he is truly one of the very best piano players of our time and one of the best that I've ever had the pleasure of knowing. Of course, he's had however many Top 40 hits and 300 million albums and he is one of the most prolific artists of the 20th and 21st century and he still goes out and does 150 concert dates a year, but, at the end of the day, he is a remarkable piano player. And, he is really aggressive in how he plays - he is a vicious, vicious piano player; as strong and vicious now as when he was 25. So, we wanted to make sure we could create a piano that could withstand that kind of furious pounding and beating that he gives a piano when he plays it every single night. So, besides the fact that it is this beautiful work of art, it is still a secure and high-functioning piano underneath all of that. I think people might forget all of that when they see it - but, it's still basically just strings and wood beneath all of it. They're really built to last, though - and it's a testament to all of the people involved that it is as good a product as it is.
PC: What can you tell us about the specifics of tuning it? Does it even need to be tuned?
CG: Yes, it still has to be tuned! It's actually a very complex system of how they tune it, but they use tone modules and the actual acoustic sound of the piano and it is tuned before every single show.
PC: Can it be digitally tuned or do you need human ears to do it?
CG: Well, personally, I feel that if you have perfect pitch then you have perfect pitch and not all of us are fortunate enough to have that. The guys who are on Elton's staff all use electronics as far as I know, though - I mean, you can do it on your iPhone; and, that's what they do! So, that part of it has changed a lot even in the last five or ten years.
PC: Is the basic piano underneath similar to what we saw Alicia Keys and Paul McCartney use on the Super Bowl, then - the standard Yamaha grand piano?
CG: Yes, it is. It's just a bigger piano. All of Elton's pianos, with the exception of his recording piano, are all 9-foot Yamaha concert grand pianos. He has always used them - 9-foot concert grand pianos; even when he started out way back when playing Steinways. Paul McCartney uses a piano that is about a foot shorter and Alicia uses one that is even shorter than that, but they all have mini-playback capabilities built-in to them - you know, sometimes a mic fails or whatever. They all have different degrees of electronics, but it's still the same basic piano underneath. But, for example, the piano that Alicia played at the Super Bowl was custom-made - it was silver and everything; it was something that she specifically wanted for the event.
PC: So, they all have MIDI capabilities?
CG: Yes, they do - all of them have MIDI capabilities. Something you may not be aware of, though, is that every single Elton show is recorded - every single night. He always records them - on video and MIDI; and, it's been that way for years.
PC: Are you familiar with what he specifically played at his recent iTunes Festival performance?
CG: Well, Elton has five different touring pianos he uses that are stationed at different places around the world, so I am sure he used one of those for that. I didn't see it myself, unfortunately, so I can't tell you exactly what one. One thing that I have realized about Elton, though, is that he always wants to be the first to do something, whatever it is. So, I produced this show with him back in 2013 that was broadcast live across the world using this technology we have called RemoteLive, where it takes essentially the audio and video and MIDI data from the piano and puts them back together and spits them back out wherever you are broadcasting to. So, back in January 2013, Elton was playing live in front of a live audience in Anaheim, California, and it was playing back to about 250 locations in 40 different countries around the world. For example, in Sydney, Australia, the sound was coming out of these big huge speakers and the chorus was on a big huge screen and the piano on the stage that was playing was actually the exact same playing that Elton was doing on his piano in Anaheim. Exactly.
PC: How revolutionary.
CG: He was playing pianos all around the world simultaneously!
PC: Fathom presented a Lang Lang concert previously, so I was curious if Elton has mentioned being a fan or if you were aware of them perhaps working together at some point in the past - or future?
CG: Elton is a fan of all artists. He often references a bunch of different artists that he loves, across the board. He is a big fan of just about everything, though - he listens to everything! Everything. We've never spoken specifically about Lang Lang, but I can tell you that this RemoteLive technology is changing how we see piano music and how even piano instructing can be done. Who knows what's next?! I mean, there's a whole other level of the experience of seeing someone play piano now with this. It's an entirely new concept of where the future is leading us with this technology - and, it doesn't matter what genre it is, either; rock, pop, classical, whatever. It's really remarkable what's coming.
PC: Perhaps Elton will send his piano playing into the pit of THE LION KING to accompany "The Circle Of Life" on Broadway someday.
CG: Exactly! Exactly. Wouldn't that be amazing?!
PC: Are any other artists lined up to use the RemoteLive technology?
CG: Well, I did one last year with Sarah McLachlan that was really great, but we are basically just lining up artists right now. I think we will be doing one with Jamie Cullum later this year. I definitely think you will be seeing much more of this technology, though. And, Elton loved the process of creating this piano, too - I mean, the first question he asked was, "Has this ever been done before?" and when I told him no he said, "I'm in." He loves trying out new things - and he loves to be the first to do it. He loves pushing the envelope.
PC: You can say that again.
CG: Actually, I was just watching this documentary on him from 1975 and he was just on fire in it and then I realized that he still is! He's just as passionate now - he never stops at all. He never stops being viable and vibrant. He is so active and so generous and so aware of his environment at all times. And, he remembers everything! Everything. You'll say something and he'll just look at you and then two years later he'll bring it up and say, "Remember when you said...." He's always pushing the limits and pushing the envelope and that's how this all came about, and, now this is the final realization of that with the concert finally being shown around the world.
PC: So, what's next for you after THE MILLION DOLLAR PIANO?
CG: Well, I just produced a record for Nathan East - he is one of the most prolific artists you probably don't know; he is the most recorded bass player on the planet. He has worked with everybody! Eric Clapton and Beyonce and Sting and Toto and Earth, Wind & Fire - everyone. So, we did this really big, really epic recording honoring him. Nathan's a bass player, but it's not what you would expect to be coming from a bass player. The press has already been really remarkable on it and we have another press day coming up soon. He's such a truly amazing, genuinely gifted and such a sweet, sweet, sweet man. There's a huge buzz on the record already.
PC: This was so informative and enjoyable, Chris. Thank you so much for this today.
CG: Thank you, Pat! You know, I've gone to a couple of these Fathom events and I'm so excited to now be presenting one. And, I had a really great time doing this today. Bye.