Prince Alone at the Piano, and it’s a Joy

Prince brought an anything-can-happen spontaneity to his concerts that belied the craft of his studio recordings. That improvisatory spirit is in full force on “Piano & a Microphone 1983” (NPG/Warner Brothers), a home recording dug up from Prince’s voluminous archive.

The first seven of the nine songs are performed as a medley, as good a representation as any of how Prince’s mind worked when in thrall to the music during a performance, whether on an arena stage or in his basement. He treats the 88 piano keys like an orchestra, his left and right hands swapping roles and creating a dense framework for his voice, which glides across a spectrum of grit and grace. He treats the songs more like tone poems than formal verse-chorus pop constructions. It adds up to a fascinating glimpse of process, a genius at the height of his powers in an informal setting.

Prince was in between masterpieces in the summer of 1983, with “1999” out the previous year and “Purple Rain” on the horizon in 1984. As he instructs his engineer to lower the lights, he dives into “17 Days,” which will surface as one of his best B-sides a year later. While stomping his foot, he uses his voice as another rhythm instrument while elaborating countermelodies on the piano. The song melts into a tantalizing snippet of “Purple Rain” and then a luxurious mini version of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You.” Mitchell’s influence, her knack for creating a more open-ended jazzlike framework that mirrored the emotions of her narrators, is readily apparent in Prince’s piano voicings.

The set’s centerpiece is Prince’s reading of the monumental “Mary Don’t You Weep.” He transforms the 19th century spiritual-turned-civil-rights anthem into an extended psychodrama. “I don’t like no snow, no winter, no cold,” he sings, taking huge liberties with lyrics steeped in Old Testament scripture. “I’ve got a bad, bad feeling that your man ain’t coming home.” It’s biblical blues, and it stands as a Prince landmark.

Though nothing else on the brief, 34-minute album can compare to this performance, it nonetheless offers insight into a Prince at his most unguarded as he sculpts blocks of music into new shapes. An early version of “International Lover” pits his voice against piano lines both gentle and bold. It’s as if he’s seducing the piano at the same time as he’s whispering in his lover’s ear. He invests “Cold Coffee & Cocaine” with jittery funk fury and raspy James Brown-channeling vocals. Even as he plays an exasperated suitor, he exudes a joy that almost by itself justifies the release of an album never intended for the public.

(Article written by Greg Kot)