Prince: Piano & A Microphone 1983

Prince
Piano & A Microphone 1983
(NPG/Warner Brothers)
Rating: 3 1/2 out of 5 stars

The title says it all.

Prince’s overstuffed vaults reportedly contain enough music for many years’ worth of previously unreleased material to dribble out. Since we are still getting into the far less prolific Hendrix leftovers nearly 50 years after his death, it’s likely there will be Prince albums of unheard tunes, live shows and rarities for decades to come. This is the first.

It’s a bit of an oddity. Recorded a year before he exploded into international stardom with 1984’s Purple Rain, this well recorded nine-tune album of what seems like a practice session finds Prince alone with his piano working through an unusual assortment of covers (a brief piece of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You”), songs that hadn’t yet been recorded or released (“17 Days,” “Purple Rain,” “Strange Relationship”) and even the gospel standard “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep.” Perhaps its most noteworthy aspect is the three heretofore unheard tracks that close the disc, “Wednesday,” “Cold Coffee and Cocaine” and “Why the Butterflies.”

Since this was never meant for the world to hear, the performance is almost cringingly personal. The songs all flow together, which might have been an editing decision rather than the way this short (just over a half hour) set went down. Prince wasn’t generally known for his piano prowess, although his final solo shows were in that format. Still, it’s a revelation to hear how nimble he is on the keys, shifting from jazz to blues to pop, often just impishly skittering over the melody and having fun. The opening “17 Days” feels like the most completed work, with others such as the bluesy “Cold Coffee…” somewhere between jams and improvisation as Prince spits out words it seems he’s creating on the fly.

It’s fascinating to hear this most private, stripped down and unvarnished of Prince performances, especially for the hardcore fans the album is intended for. The short playing time is understandable, since this seems to have been captured in one sitting. But there is likely other similar solo piano and vocal music in the vault (how about a recording of his final Atlanta show?) that would have made a logical addition to this brief if charmingly intimate set.

It’s Prince as few have heard him: inspired, unrestrained, playing for no one but himself and the engineer who pushed the record button. Clearly this isn’t for everyone. But those looking for a glimpse into the artist, mostly pre-global fame, working out new and old material, will find it an invaluable and unique addition to his already bulging catalog.