Anyone lucky enough to see one of Prince’s solo shows knows that he wasn’t just an unnaturally gifted songwriter, producer, guitarist, bassist, drummer, arranger and performer — he was a hell of a piano player too, with a flair for balletic melodies and curlicue vamps. It’s a side of his talent that was seen and heard all too infrequently, although it was the format for his final “Piano & a Microphone” tour in early 2016 — which shares a title with this album, spawned on an autumn night nearly 33 years earlier.
Recorded around the time “Purple Rain” was filmed, “Piano & a Microphone 1983” comes from a cassette recording of a 25-year-old Prince, alone at the ivories, rolling through nine songs over the course of a half hour. (It was originally released during the 1980s as a bootleg with the equally fitting title “Intimate Moments With Prince.”) We hear him keeping time with a presumably very high-heeled boot and calling out to engineer Don Batts to turn down the lights or flip the tape. He roams and rollicks through sketches of tracks like “Purple Rain” and “Strange Relationship”; covers the spiritual “Mary Don’t You Weep” (which was powerfully used in the closing moments of Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman”) and Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You”; and concludes with two seemingly improvised tracks. Some songs go on for six and a half minutes, some for 90 seconds. He moves through different styles, moods, voices — playful grunts, falsetto shrieks, soulman pleas. He sings “Cold Coffee and Cocaine” in what is known to fans as the Jamie Starr voice, after an early nom de plume — a nasal, jive-talking character who sounds like a surly Morris Day.
He’s just rehearsing, just playing. But he’s Prince.
All of which is also a caveat emptor — “Purple Rain” is one of the 90-second songs. But Prince just playing is the sound of him exploring. One song or mood segues into another, sometimes smoothly, sometimes abruptly. “With astonishing one-take accuracy, Prince composed, performed, and produced hit after hit right before my eyes,” Batts writes in the liner notes. “These songs are how things started out; I call them ‘refs.’ These are sometimes crude and quick recordings of an idea on tape, around which Prince would then build the finished multitrack recording.”
Like most sketches, the songs here ended up in many shapes and places. “International Lover” and “Purple Rain” both had already been recorded. “Wednesday” was part of a scene deleted from the movie “Purple Rain” featuring Prince’s backing singer and former girlfriend Jill Jones (she’s the bleached-blond First Avenue waitress in the film). A full-band version of “17 Days” became the flip side of “When Doves Cry”; “Strange Relationship” was recorded several times before landing on “Sign o’ the Times”; “A Case of You” and “Mary Don’t You Weep” occasionally were performed live over the years. Prince may well never have returned to the others.
Their histories presumably lie somewhere in the prolific musician’s gargantuan archive — the much-vaunted “vault” — containing thousands of unreleased recordings dating back to 1976, and possibly earlier. Recently moved from Prince’s Paisley Park compound to a formidable climate-controlled facility in Los Angeles, the audio and video recordings are now fully cataloged, (mostly) legally cleared and being assessed for future release. This album is the first of what will likely be many posthumous collections from the vault compiled under the supervision of the artist’s estate (last year’s excellent “Purple Rain” deluxe edition was overseen by Prince before his death).
“I used to lay under the piano, listening for hours, as he would just play,” Jill Jones writes in the liner notes. “It was not odd to wake up in the middle of the night, only to hear the music and go find him sitting barefoot at the piano, playing a song.” Such intimate moments were experienced by few. This album takes you under the piano, so to speak, witnessing genius casually at work.