×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Album Review: Prince’s ‘Piano & a Microphone 1983’

He's just playing. But he's Prince ...

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.

Album Review: Prince's 'Piano & a Microphone 1983'

More Music

  • Dr. Donald Shirley (Mahershala Ali, right)

    Read Variety's 1957 Review of 'Green Book' Pianist Don Shirley

    “Green Book” viewers who are not totally versed in the ways of ’50s and ’60s jazz may come away from the heavily Oscar-nominated movie wondering just how well known and respected the film’s central musical figure, Don Shirley (played by Mahershala Ali), really was in his heyday. The answer: revered enough to have picked up [...]

  • R. Kelly's Bond Set at $1

    R. Kelly's Bond Set at $1 Million

    UPDATED: A Chicago judge has set R&B singer R. Kelly’s bond at $1 million, or $250,000 for each of the four cases of criminal sexual abuse leveled against him. The singer, 52, must put forth $100,000 to make bail. The singer appeared at the Leighton Criminal Court Building wearing a black hoodie and jeans, according to [...]

  • Concert Review: James Blake Warms Up

    Concert Review: James Blake, Hip-Hop's Go-To Singer, Warms Up a Chilly Philadelphia Night

    With his quavering vocals and math-wiz electronic melodies, James Blake is a pretty unlikely candidate for a hip-hop go-to singer: His high, icy baritone is about as far from rap as one can get. But there he is, collaborating as a singer and co-composer on Jay-Z’s “4:44,” Jay Rock’s “Redemption,” Frank Ocean’s “Blonde,” Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” [...]

  • Editorial use onlyMandatory Credit: Photo by

    It'll Take a 'Village' to Salute the Kinks at Tribute Show Saturday

    The Kinks’ classic 1968 album “The Village Green Preservation Society” has always needed some fervent champions to keep its reputation alive, or even to keep it in print, in the 50 years since it first came out and proved to be a massive flop. You could give a name to the fervent cult that’s made [...]

  • R. Kelly

    R. Kelly Turns Himself in to Chicago Police

    R. Kelly, who was indicted Friday afternoon on 10 counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse involving four victims, turned himself in to a Chicago police station on Friday night. He is set to appear for a bond hearing on Saturday. More Reviews Film Review: ‘2019 Oscar Nominated Short Films: Live Action’ TV Review: 'Whiskey Cavalier' [...]

  • Gary Clark Jr This Land

    Album Review: Gary Clark Jr.'s 'This Land'

    Not that many years ago, people were talking about Gary Clark Jr. in terms of his ability to revive a fairly commercially moribund genre: the blues. But his third full-length studio album, “This Land,” makes good on his potential to make a record that fits quite nicely within the larger realm of mainstream rock ‘n’ [...]

  • R. Kelly

    R. Kelly Is ‘Going Down Hard,’ Criminal-Defense Attorney Predicts

    When R. Kelly was arrested on child-pornography charges in 2002, after a videotape emerged that purported to show him having sex with an underage girl, he managed to have the case dismissed through a combination of skillful lawyering, repeated delays (the verdict did not come down for six years), and the fact that the girl [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content