“Not what I expected at all”: here’s what happened when Dream Theater's Jordan Rudess was asked to play along to Jay-Z and Alicia Keys’ Empire State of Mind, a song he’d never heard before

Jordan Rudess doesn't listen to pop music - "you can’t actually get to that on the dial on my radio," he jokes - so when he sat down to improvise some new keyboard parts for Jay-Z and Alicia Keys' Empire State Of Mind, a song he claims never to have heard before, the results were always going to be… interesting.

This situation was set up by the piano learning people at Pianote. “Let’s play a game,” they tell Rudess.

With ‘the wizard of the keys’ behind his trusty Korg Kronos, the team then play him Empire State Of Mind with the piano part removed, leaving him to fill in the blanks.

With just the drums, bass and Jay-Z’s rap in play, Rudess appears to struggle to locate the song’s key, but finds it when Keys’ vocal kicks in during the chorus. 

After that, he’s off and running, jamming along to the second verse using an electric piano patch before dialling in a synth lead and getting busy with the pitchbend wheel. 

After that first run through, Rudess confirms that the song initially left him confused - “I have perfect pitch and I didn’t even know what notes it was playing” - but that he soon worked out what’s going on. Next, it’s time for him to hear the track with the original piano part restored.

With that back in play, the Dream Theater man decides to add his own flourishes over the top, seemingly keen to fill out every inch of space in the arrangement. 

And his verdict on Empire State Of Mind? “I thought it was actually… clever. It was not what I expected at all… I obviously have not been listening to pop radio enough, I’m definitely guilty of that. Shall we send it to Alicia and tell her she needs to go back in the studio and add some tracks?”

Hmmm. Maybe. Rudess’s playing certainly puts a different spin on the song, but does it improve it? Take a listen and decide for yourself.

Ben Rogerson
Deputy Editor

I’m the Deputy Editor of MusicRadar, having worked on the site since its launch in 2007. I previously spent eight years working on our sister magazine, Computer Music. I’ve been playing the piano, gigging in bands and failing to finish tracks at home for more than 30 years, 24 of which I’ve also spent writing about music and the ever-changing technology used to make it. 

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