By Travis Atria
Published: Wednesday, April 8, 2009 at 6:30 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, April 6, 2009 at 1:55 p.m.
What: Longtime keyboardist performs with vocal ensemble
When: 7:30 p.m. Monday
Where: Stephen C. O’Connell Center, University of Florida, Gainesville
Tickets: $35.50 to $95
It is a rare accomplishment for a musician to be recognized by one name. In the history of music, precious few have this distinction — Leadbelly, Elvis, Madonna, Sting.
Fewer still get to perform at cultural landmarks, sell 35 million albums and have the most iconic moustache since Groucho Marx.
Actually, only one man has that distinction: Yanni.
Yanni, who will perform at the O’Connell Center on Monday, arguably defines the genre of New Age music. His songs, almost all of them instrumentals, blend rhythms and styles from around the world — a product that he attributes to his upbringing in Greece.
“I grew up in Greece, so just by that, I’m familiar with styles of music that most people in the West aren’t even familiar with,” he said in a recent phone interview. “That serves me very well as a composer because it gave me an understanding of rhythms and structures and chords that are not common.”
Instrumental music has taken him to great heights. Yanni’s compositions have been featured in the Olympic Games, and he has performed massive concerts at the Acropolis in Greece and at the Taj Mahal in India.
So perhaps it is even more surprising that with his latest album, “Yanni Voices,” he allowed four unknown singers to reinterpret his old songs, adding lyrics and melodies of their own design.
“We were looking for young up-and-comers who are not known because we wanted to create something fresh,” Yanni said. “I wanted to surprise the audience.”
The danger with that choice, Yanni admitted, was letting untested and unproven singers put their mark on his work.
“I was very nervous, but I had time on my side,” he said. “I insisted that the emotional content and the heart of the piece retained its integrity. I think they’ve added and, in some cases, made them a lot better.”
Yanni said he was surprised at how easily his instrumental work blended with the human voice.
“One of the things that became very apparent was the ease by which my old compositions translated into vocals because my music, my instrumental music, is based on melody,” he said.
“When I play the piano, it’s as if I’m singing with the piano.”
On the current tour, Yanni performs with the young singers — Nathan Pacheco, Chloe, Ender Thomas and Leslie Mills. He says that working with the singers has “re-inspired” him.
“It gives me a great sense of pride to watch these kids succeed and watch them go in front of an audience and really take over the audience and move them to tears,” Yanni said.
Yanni devotees may notice that his once flowing mane of black hair and bold moustache are significantly trimmed these days. For this, he offers a simple explanation.
“I was taking a year off, and I was swimming a lot,” he said. (Early in his life, Yanni set a Greek national record in the 50-meter freestyle competition.)
“I love scuba diving, and scuba diving and hair don’t go together very well, so I started trimming it a little bit more and a little bit more and a little bit more, and then I finally went, “You know what, why don’t I just get rid of all of it?”
As “Yanni Voices” debuts at the top of the Billboard New Age Chart, it is clear that hair isn’t the source of Yanni’s success. But, he said he still can’t explain how that success happened.
“You could never plan to get here,” he said. “All you can do is have passion.”