Still Rock'n'Roll To Billy Joel?

Billy Joel hesitates to describe his first post-pop recording, "Fantasies & Delusions: Music for Solo Piano" (due Oct. 2 from Columbia/Sony Classical), as a traditional classical music effort. Whi

Billy Joel hesitates to describe his first post-pop recording, "Fantasies & Delusions: Music for Solo Piano" (due Oct. 2 from Columbia/Sony Classical), as a traditional classical music effort. While he claims that he's simply trying to dodge the slings and arrows of critics eager to slay another rocker striving to compose "serious" music, further probing reveals that Joel is actually a little apprehensive about being aligned and compared with those composers who have become his heroes.

"I'm still at a point where I feel like a student discovering a treasure trove of goodies that will make me better and smarter," Joel says with a grin. "Ain't that a kick in the ass? An old guy like me feeling like a kid again. But that's precisely the case. To allow my name to be mentioned in the same breath as the masters is not something I'm comfortable with."

To Joel, recipient in 1994 of the Billboard Century Award, "Fantasies & Delusions" can more accurately be viewed as "a toe in the water" of the classical genre. "More times than not, I refer to this project as instrumental piano music of the romantic era. It carries the influence of 19th-century music, but it's cross-pollinated with other elements, some of which are undeniably modern. It's melodic and singable. I don't think that I could write music that wasn't."

Defining the style of his current creation is less stressful for the artist -- whose last studio recording was 1993's widely praised River of Dreams -- than addressing the fact that he's not likely to record another collection of pop and rock tunes anytime in the foreseeable future.

"I'm just not in the mood for that right now," Joel asserts. "If I forced myself to write a rock record, it would flat-out suck. I have absolutely nothing to say in that medium at the moment -- which is important for me as an artist to acknowledge. I'm sure that I'll revisit rock'n'roll somewhere down the line. But I honestly don't know when. I can't imagine that this is music to the ears of people at my label, but there's nothing I can do about that right now."

In truth, Columbia executives say they're pleased to be working "Fantasies & Delusions."

"Billy Joel has given us some of the most memorable and meaningful pop music of the past three decades," notes Don Ienner, president/chairman of Columbia Records Group. "Having mastered the worlds of pop and rock in the 20th century, Billy is following his artistic vision into the classical realm. It's inspiring to see a musician of his caliber opening up to the world of classical music for his fans in the 21st century."

Adds Greg Linn, VP of marketing for the label, "We're proud of him for making this record on his own terms, and we're committed to making it succeed for him on a commercial level."

Linn notes that part of the label's plan is to introduce "Fantasies & Delusions" to listeners who might not otherwise seek out a classical recording. Part of that plan includes issuing "The Essential Billy Joel," a compilation of his pop and rock hits, on the same day. Linn says, "We're encouraging retailers to rack the two albums next to each other in hopes that it will inspire people to give the new one a fair listen."

Joel is admittedly braced for the worst -- particularly from critics. "They can be savage, but they're brilliant, too," he says with a laugh. "Rock critics hit you with a hammer, but classical critics use a scalpel. They're exquisite in their mauling of you and your work. I'm ready to be dismissed as irrelevant."

Part of that assumption is due to the fact that much of "Fantasies & Delusions" is cast in 19th-century music, a style Joel contends has been out of favor with both critics and purists for a long time.

"That period of music is viewed as being too sweet, too melodic, and too romantic," Joel says. "It's been looked at with disdain for a long time. With that in mind, I'm trying to find the irony and humor in the fact that it's the first kind of music I gravitated toward as a writer."

Ultimately, Joel is hopeful that listeners will hear something fresh and appealing in his compositions. "Maybe I'm insane. But that's why I called the album 'Fantasies & Delusions.' I was crazy enough to do something that nobody thought I could or should do."

The seeds of this project were first sown eight years ago, when Joel found himself at home one evening, listening at the urging of a friend to the work of Beethoven. He says it was an experience akin to "getting stoned. The rush in hearing his work reminded me of how I felt when I first discovered rock'n'roll. It was like a door was unlocked to a world full of possibilities."

From there, Joel began to expand his palette to include the compositions of Brahms and Mozart. "The deeper I got as a listener, the more I wanted to try and create a similar kind of music. In retrospect, it was ballsy and somewhat intimidating. But it was also exhilarating."

Even though his first pieces were admittedly "pretty bad," Joel forged forward. "After all, my first rock pieces weren't good either. It was a matter of learning a new vernacular. The more errors I made, the better I became."

Joel's "light-bulb" moment came when he started to compare the composition of instrumental piano music with writing a pop song.

"I realized that writing pop music is like creating art inside a box," Joel says. "The parameters are specific, and they can be frustrating and confining. In writing the pieces that became this project, I allowed the music to take me further than I'd done previously. I kicked out the sides of the box. Instead of finding a theme or a point and repeating it over and over, I let the music unfold and follow a natural conclusion. In many ways, it was like being freed from prison. There were no boundaries."

The artist further liberated himself when he decided to employ Richard Joo, a classical concert pianist, to bring his compositions to life in recorded form.

"Let's face it, I'm a ham-fisted rock-piano player," Joel says. "I'm a man with performance limitations trying to compose music without borders. Richard gave the sounds and ideas in my mind beautiful, earthly physicality."

Joo was only one of a community of young classical musicians and composers Joel found himself connecting with when he left the comfort of his Long Island, N.Y., home studio to complete "Fantasies & Delusions" in Vienna: "They gave me emotional nourishment as I waded through the writing process. They're as crazy as young rock'n'rollers, and they encouraged me to not be dogged by anything. They encouraged me to be proud of my roots and embrace how they directly influence this new music I'm making."

They also encouraged Joel's method of writing, which the artist says is reminiscent of Beethoven's.

"I relate to him more than anyone," he says. "Like him, I write in fits and starts. If you see his original notations, you see nothing but gouges and scratches. He struggled with and labored over every note of his music. He was very much a human being. To me, that's what makes his music so wonderful. He explored all of the turmoil in his heart and soul as he made music. It didn't just flow out of him like water."

With "Fantasies & Delusions" complete, the self-managed Joel is dividing his time between promoting this project and mapping out his next one. He'll spend much of the fall doing a series of master classes at music colleges and performing arts centers throughout the U.S. Joo will join Joel for the tour, which will offer compositions from the new album, as well as a handful of pop classics.

"It will be scary, but thrilling to bring this music out in front of people," Joel says. "I get butterflies in my stomach thinking about it."

By the start of 2002, Joel hopes to return to Vienna and begin shaping new ideas into full compositions. His goal is to add another instrument, such as cello or violin, to his piano arrangements.

"It's all about taking baby steps for me," Joel says. "I look at what Paul [McCartney] did, and I marvel at his bravery and ambition. He did full orchestrations and symphonies. He dove into the deep end of the pool. Personally, I prefer to keep it small and be certain of what I'm doing every step of the way."

Joel's also planning to venture into the 20th century for influence: "At this point, it's pure experimentation. I have no master plan. I'm just educating myself and immersing myself in this music. I'm enjoying myself in ways that I never have before as an artist. At the end of the day, nothing else matters."