The View From Faraway Farm: The echoes of the Berklee Rhodes ring through my memory

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Jazz has always spoken to me in a way that no other musical genre could. When I listen to jazz I don't need any lyrics getting in the way of musical imagery. The emotion of the music has far more to say than any lyric, so much can be conveyed non-verbally. A mood gets developed, a vibe and the voices of certain instruments say different things. None of it can be verbalized easily, and that's what makes it so special. The instruments used in jazz are pretty much unlimited. There do seem to be some stereotypical instruments like the saxophone or a fretless bass used a lot of jazz recordings, but it isn't limited by any means. You'll hear everything from fiddles to banjos, even bagpipes on the rare occasion. One instrument that I always felt lent itself so well to jazz sensibilities has been the Rhodes electric piano. I always referred to it as a Fender Rhodes, but Leo Fender really didn't contribute much to its distinctive sound, he just produced the piano for a few years all the while employing Harold Rhodes, its inventor.

The Fender years of Rhodes production was limited to a 32 note, lower range instrument because that's what Leo Fender liked. When CBS purchased the Rhodes rights from Fender, Mr. Rhodes had developed an 88 note instrument, and I believe that was after 1965. In 1971 I got rather up-close and personal with the Rhodes electric piano when I would hang out in the practice rooms at the Berklee College of Music on Boylston Street in Boston with my roommate Mark. In 1968, Berklee bought 22 of them and another 24 in 1969. Those were the pianos my roommate Mark played as a piano major at Berklee. I really enjoyed sitting in and listening to him jam with a jazz guitarist, going back and forth for hours. I got exposed to a lot of great music and musicians in those days.

If you're trying to hear a Rhodes Electric Piano in your head, maybe the most recognizable piece of music played on a Rhodes was the theme to the TV show "Taxi." A Rhodes was used in some songs done by the Doors, like "Riders on the storm." Instead of strings or some electronic concoction designed to emulate the piano, the Rhodes used metal "tines" as in tines on a tuning fork. Therefore, the Rhodes piano had a very mechanical sound that can be quite haunting and beautiful.

In the 1990s, the Rhodes Piano fell into disfavor among some musicians, usually due to the availability of other electronic keyboards like Roland and Yamaha models. One of its steadfast supporters has always been Donald Fagen of Steely Dan. All of Fagen's solo albums feature a Rhodes piano, (among many other keyboards) right into the current millennium, which is to say that yes, the Rhodes electric piano is popular again and its distinctive sound is still sought-after. This still leaves the question; what was Harold Rhodes trying to accomplish with his electric piano?

The Rhodes piano was borne out of necessity during World War II when Mr. Rhodes came up with the idea to teach piano en masse to recovering war vets as a form of therapy. Goofy idea? Not in the least ... it won piano teacher Harold Rhodes the Medal of Honor for his innovation and rehabilitation efforts. Prior to the war, Harold Rhodes had developed a very popular (and still available) method of teaching piano called the Rhodes Method. While in the Army Air Corps his idea was to develop a teaching piano that could be used by a bedridden veteran to aid in rehabilitation. Rhodes developed the aluminum tine idea for the construction of his teaching pianos by using aluminum from scrapped B-17 bombers. It was a brilliant innovation that just happened to create a very sophisticated sound.

So here I am sitting at my computer keyboard writing about an innovative electric piano while listening to Rhodes piano music via an internet jazz station from London over my wifi Sonos system. The crisp sound of the Rhodes electric piano sounds just as relevant and cool today as it did when I had the privilege of hearing one being played expertly at the Berklee College of music back in 1971. The sound instilled in me an appreciation for jazz played on instruments of all kinds throughout my life, a rich and satisfying appreciation that I hope I never lose.

Arlo Mudgett's Morning Almanac has been heard over multiple radio stations in Vermont for nearly 30 years, and can be tuned in at 92.7 WKVT Monday through Saturday mornings at 8:35 a.m. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.


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