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Which, in Ariel's book, includes everything from "Jesus Christ Superstar" to "Stairway to Heaven," arranged and performed on a medium-grand piano. "People hear 'Russian pianist' and they expect a guy to walk out in a bow tie and play Rachmaninoff," he says. "But I've done that. That's not why I came to America. I came to America to be the Russian who plays Pink Floyd and Chicago on piano."
Ariel grew up in the city of Kishinev, the capital of the former Soviet republic of Moldavia. He tested into the National Children's School of Music at age 5 and spent the next 17 years studying classical piano at various conservatories funded and operated by the Soviet government. When he was in his late teens, Ariel says, he got turned on to American rock by records he bought on the black market. "Going to the black market was like going to Wal-Mart here," he says. "Except the greeters were KGB, and they weren't smiling.
"I listened to the Beatles, Jesus Christ Superstar, Elton John, Barbra Streisand--all the great forbidden music from the West." Ariel says he left the Soviet Union in 1980 after his parents bribed several government officials. He lived in Israel and England for a while, then came to America in 1981, landing in Houston, Texas, where he made his living as a lounge player. "Some of the places were okay," he says. "Some of them were dives." He became a U.S. citizen in 1986, and hit the college/cruise-ship circuit shortly thereafter, performing "megahits of rock" covers mixed with a Yakov Smirnoff-patterned comedy shtick.
Then in 1990, Ariel's manager Toni Stewart read in a trade magazine about a new type of player piano Yamaha was getting ready to put on the market. Called the Disklavier, the instrument is essentially a medium-grand piano with an internal computer that will remember and play back sequences of music, from a few bars of ragtime to a classical concerto. The Disklavier outdid existing player-piano technology by recognizing subtle nuances in the keystrokes it recorded--such as the dynamics, or how hard each individual note is struck. The technology was designed primarily for use in schools and churches so that students could practice a violin part with piano accompaniment, by themselves in practice rooms, for example.
But Stewart saw another possible use--a gimmick that could push Ariel's show over the top. "Toni called me on her car phone one day and said, 'What if you played five pianos at once?'" Ariel recalls. "And at first, I was like, 'Whaaaat?' But then she explained the technology and how it might be used, and I thought, 'Ah, America.'"
Ariel relocated to the Valley, where Stewart hooked him up with local MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) wizard Mark Roberts. The two holed up in a Fountain Hills ranch house, where they have worked for the past several years perfecting a concert program in which Ariel performs his megahits accompanied by four ghost pianos, each playing a different part written and stored by Ariel. The pianist supported himself during this development period with a Tuesday-through-Saturday-night gig at the Phoenician resort's Thirsty Camel Lounge.
Last April, Ariel unveiled his new show, "The Power of Five," in a concert at Phoenix Symphony Hall that, remarkably, sold out. Bolstered by an appearance on the Beth and Bill morning radio show two days before the debut, Ariel filled 2,300 seats and signed autographs in the lobby for an hour after the concert. He's played a series of dates outside Arizona since then and seems to be especially popular in West Palm Beach, Florida, where he sold out a stand-alone date at the Kravis Center earlier this year and played to an audience of primarily senior citizens. "I looked out before the concert and sort of panicked," Ariel says. "Here I am, preparing to play Pink Floyd, and they're all in their 60s and 70s. I thought I would have to play 'The Entertainer' or 'Mack the Knife,' but the music seemed to reach them. After the show, they said to me, 'So that's what Led Zeppelin sounds like.'"
Ariel returns to the Valley for three shows at Mesa Community College, September 6, 7 and 8, where he will debut a new piece--a cover of Coolio's 1995 smash rap hit "Gangsta's Paradise."
Stewart, a former franchise marketing researcher, says Ariel packs 'em in because "he defines broad appeal"--pop songs, classical instrumentation, and a standup comic's stage presence combined with a high-tech "gee whiz" element and an elaborate light show (Ariel concerts are reminiscent of the San Francisco Lazerium's popular Saturday night stoner fest of multicolored laser beams set to a pounding classic-rock soundtrack). "We have the highly coordinated lights and the smoke machine of a rock concert, but the rock band is all pianos," Ariel says.