Elton John was never really a minimalist. But he wasn’t always a maximalist.
“Your Song” was a big hit for him, in 1970, but before “Rocket Man” launched him into the rock stratosphere in 1972, he couldn’t afford to bring a big band and a big show on the road with him. And so he toured, from 1970 to 1972, in a trio format with bassist and backing vocalist Dee Murray, and drummer and backing vocalist Nigel Olsson.
It’s the music of those tours that Jeff Kazee (piano and vocals), Rich Pagano (drums and vocals) and John Conte (bass and vocals) play in their “Early Elton” show, which they will present at House of Independents in Asbury Park, June 8, and City Winery in New York, June 30.
Virtually all of the material comes from five albums: Elton John (1970), Tumbleweed Connection (1970), the 11-17-70 live album (1971), the Friends soundtrack album (1971) and Madman Across the Water (1971). Some of the best known songs from those albums include “Take Me to the Pilot,” “Border Song,” “Country Comfort,” “Levon,” “Tiny Dancer” and “Burn Down the Mission,” in addition to “Your Song.”
“I wasn’t really interested in taking on any more cover bands,” says Pagano, a member of the Beatles tribute band, The Fab Faux. “But I had done a gig with Jeff: It was one of Jeff’s solo gigs. He called ‘Take Me to the Pilot,’ and the energy on that gig … reminded me of Elton’s trio years. And I mentioned to Jeff that, ‘Wow, we really came close to that energy from 11-17-70,’ a record that I loved, and that was a giant influence on me.”
Conte — like Kazee, a member of Southside Johnny’s Asbury Jukes — was also part of that show, which took place about 10 years ago. Pagano says that Kazee called him later, to follow up on the idea.
“I was listening to a lot of the YouTube (clips) or actual torrents that I was finding online of board mixes of the first two tours, which were the trio tours when Elton had no money, and got into a van, and they rearranged all the record arrangements for a trio,” Pagano says. “And I said, ‘If we all can get on the same page with that period, and really understand what he was trying to do there, then I’d be interested in doing something.’ So we each started sending around mixes that we’d found, and alternate versions, and live board mixes and videos, and we started copying those arrangements.
“No one else had done it, and we felt it sounded good. And then we stretched on it even more, just sort of making it almost more of a jazz gig, where, if Elton went on and started a solo, and went off on a tangent, we would take it even further, and maybe react a bit more with each other, just to bring our own personalities in.”
Kazee says: “I was really turned onto the 11-17-70 record. To me, it captured a very hungry rock ‘n’ roll spirit of Elton, at the time. He was so good — and he still is now, of course — but it was so unlike anything we’d seen or heard.
“It was like a power piano trio, on those live dates. He was just so hungry to make it, and to serve the material. And they were rock ‘n’ rollers. I love that spirit about him. It was really tight, but loose at the same time.”
Both Kazee and Pagano emphasize the contributions of Murray and Olsson, and say they make sure to mention these musicians on their web site, and talk about them during the shows.
Underappreciating the the invaluable work of top-notch sidemen is “a time-honored rock ‘n’ roll tradition,” says Kazee.
“Thank about (pianist) Johnnie Johnson, from Chuck Berry’s band,” he says.”There are so many great drummers and bassists, but the star gets top billing. It’s about him in the end.
“But (Elton John’s success) couldn’t have happened without those guys. I’m sure Elton would have had a nice career, but it wouldn’t have happened that way. Nigel and Dee would go in and sing, with incredible vocal arrangements. It was quite the band at that time.”
For more on “Early Elton,” visit earlyeltontrio.com.