The Vanderbilt Hustler: So, tell us what happened.
Michael Pollack: “So I decided I was gonna go see Billy Joel right when we found out he was coming, and as a childhood idol of mine, right away I knew what I wanted to do when we went there. My roommate and I decided that we would try and find a way to get a question to be asked, and see if we could get on stage. And the day came, I put together a question, and I was raising my hand, and my friends to the right of me kept pointing to me, and finally after a few questions he picked on me and I hesitantly said how “New York State of Mind” was my favorite song, and how I had performed it with his saxophonist Richie Cannata in the past and wondered if I could go up and play it with him. And then he thought for a little — he took a second — and then he just said “Okay.” Which wasn’t quite convincing, but it was good enough. I walked up, we spoke about the arrangement for about 15 seconds — he just went through what he wanted me to play — and then from there, it was just … foggy. It’s hard to remember. I just started playing. I had practiced it a little bit thinking maybe I’d get the chance to go up … I kind of lost myself playing. Then afterward he said to me … he said that I was great, where are you from … and I said, “I’m a Long Islander just like you.” He was like, “Cool.” Then I walked off, and that was it … It was probably the greatest moment of my life, up to date.
VH: How did you learn to play “New York State of Mind” in the first place?
MP: I learned that song when I was … I’ve been playing it for at least eight years now … it’s one of my favorites by him. I play a lot by ear — I listen to music, and then I play it just from listening. I gave up reading music about four, five years ago. But “New York State of Mind” — I actually learned the whole thing by ear. I had to tune up a little and learn the bridge one more time before the show just in case he called on me. But for the most part, it was by ear.
VH: You mentioned you’d played it before, with Billy Joel’s saxophonist Richie Cannata — how did you get that gig?
MP: Well, I started recording in Long Island, and I was recommended to his studio, called Cove City Sound Studios, and when I went there, he took a liking to me, I recorded a couple Billy Joel songs, he played over them, and he invited me to New York City where he does a Monday night session at a place called The Cutting Room. I was 13 at the time, and it was a Monday night, it was, like, 1 a.m. in a smoky bar with drunks, he brings me out — I must’ve been, like, 4-foot-10 at most — and he brings me up and I walk up and we jammed on “New York State of Mind” and “Summer, Highland Falls” and he just invited me a couple other times. It was a really good relationship.
VH: Any insight on your first encounters with Billy Joel’s music?
MP: I started playing when I was seven, and I love having the ability to hear something and to be able to play that same thing that you hear … I thought it was the most powerful gift, it was so cool to me … And then my parents started introducing me to new music that I could start learning, and my mom actually bought me a book of Billy Joel songs — didn’t really help because I wasn’t great at reading music — but I started listening to more. And I just became a huge fan. I went through a phase for about three years where everything I played was Billy Joel. It was all I talked about. So this is kind of a big moment.
VH: Looking beyond tonight, where do you see your musicianship headed in the future?
MP: I want to be a writer. That’s what I’ve always been good at. My voice is okay, it’s not great, but I’ve really excel on the piano, so I’ve been writing a lot recently, and I recently signed with BMI and started working with them. So I’m hopefully gonna pursue that. That would be my No. 1 option.