Monday, July 1, 2024

REVIEW: JILL HALEY - Colors Collide

Colors Collide

Jill Haley's latest foray and subsequent musical interpretation of an American National Park takes her to the southwest, Arizona to be specific, and the Petrified Forest National Park. Arguably one of the lesser well-known in the Park system, Haley unearthed a bounty of beauty which inspired this, her 11th album chronicling her travels and artist-in-residence experiences in the National Park system. To my ears, this recording is far and away the most subdued, reflective, and serene, in this series with only occasional moments of uptempo melodies. Much of the album flows with a quasi-minimal sensation, imbued with a quieter sense of grace and infused with a deep feeling of respect for the unique areas of the park and its historical significance in both the region and its ancestral Native inhabitants' past. As she wrote to me in a document, "While exploring the park over 2 weeks, [I] also discovered some amazing petroglyphs (pictures etched into rock by ancestral inhabitants of this area.) More striking color combinations were observed, and the “gift” of colors became the starting point of many of the compositions on this recording."

Besides the more subdued nature of the majority of the songs (two exceptions being the title track with its cheerful nature and midtempo pace and "Splashes of Silver" which features a cheery undertone, perhaps befitting its title), another distinction between Colors Collide and her previous Park titles is the addition of flutist Dawn King-Krown, who joins Haley and her more usual guests, husband David Cullen on guitars and bass, and son Graham Cullen on cello. Also, and this is just how I hear it, I think Haley's piano takes a pronouncedly more prominent role on the ten (out of eleven) tracks it's featured on. Haley appears to be showcasing her talent on the instrument, which is all for the better, to my ears. Of course, her oboe and English horn still play a vital role and obviously her artistry on those two wind instruments needs no additional praise from me.

From the opening sparse piano lead (over a bed of synth textures) on "Crimson Bands," soon joined by Graham Cullen's exquisitely lovely cello, to the symbiotic nature of Haley's piano and English horn on "Orange Melts Into Blue," through to the closing "Agate House" and its calm, flowing mixture of oboe, cello, and piano, evoking an image of a orange/red sunset in the desert landscape, Colors Collide solidifies Jill Haley is very much a national treasure with the many musical paintings of this country's bounty of nature that she has given to her legion of fans over the years. The good news is there are still a lot of National Parks left for her to visit (there are 62 in total!). 

NOTE: This is album will be available for purchase in August. I received a pre-release copy.

All compositions by Jill Haley
Album co-produced by Jill Haley and Corin Nelsen
Album mixed and mastered by Corin Nelsen
Piano, guitar, synthesizers, and flutes recorded by Glenn Barratt at Morningstar Studios
Cello recorded by Graham Cullen
Oboe and English horn recorded by Corin Nelsen
Album photos by Jill Haley

Jill Haley: Oboe, English horn, piano, synthesizer
David Cullen: Guitar and bass
Graham Cullen: Cello
Dawn King-Krown: Flutes

Sunday, March 24, 2024


Having grown up (as a teenager) in the late ‘60s, I was introduced to the musical concept of the "supergroup" during the days of Cream, Blind Faith, ELP, West, Bruce, and Lang, among others. It has been both nostalgic and interesting to see that the concept of "supergroup" has emerged during the last decade or so in instrumental music. I suppose some would ask what the difference between a supergroup and a mere collaboration is, to which I admit the delineation may be somewhat thin. However, simply put, when all the artists' names (or a group name) are on the album cover, rather than a single artist and the others are only specified in the credits, that’s one distinction I can point to. Just my two cents.
Whether you agree with my definition or not, there’s no denying that the word "super" can be applied to album from Jeff Oster, Vin Downes, and Tom Eaton, seven conversations (lower case intentional). It's a super recording from some super-talented individuals. However, it sounds unlike most of I've heard from these guys on their previous releases - well, up to a certain point, I guess. Oster's trumpet and flugelhorn have sometimes been this mellow, but Eaton's keyboards have typically been either in an ambient-ish vein (as a solo artist) or on Imaginary Road productions, more…well, not like it is here. And of course, Downes is well-known for being an outstanding acoustic guitar purveyor of somber, reflective, or sometimes warmly introspective soundscapes. I know that I didn’t expect anything like what I heard the first time I played seven conversations!
seven conversations is a smooth, blissed out, and chilled (not chill-out, though) excursion into a world of synthesizer textures, minimalistic piano, bluesy horns, and laid back electric guitar that merge into a whole that somehow, and I don't how, manages to morph into something that is both urban and rural, something intelligent yet soulful. If you watch any commercial TV, you may have seen a Capital One commercial with Samuel L. Jackson which ends with him saying "It's kinda genius." (yeah, I know – technically the last line is "What's in your wallet?").

Those first few minutes of track 1, "hushed," will set the stage for what will follow with the remaining "conversations." Each successive song takes this album's "formula," (for lack of a better word) and maintains continuity while also serving up each of these nuggets with enough diversity that the perfect combination of a unified musical statement is achieved. Now, this is difficult enough for one artist to do. How in the world Oster, Downes, and Eaton managed to be this symbiotic is a feat that few could do.
Even when a song veers slightly from the others, such as "words overheard," with it's percolating synth notes at the outset, as soon as Downes' guitar and Oster's trumpet enter the fray, the musical scene returns to smooth sailing. On "a confession," Oster fills the air with some bluesy notes, while Eaton's piano and Downes' guitar glide underneath. Worth noting is that throughout the album, these three artists exhibit uncommon unselfishness. Everyone gets their time in the spotlight. That said, it's startling how not a single moment of showboating is anywhere to be heard.
I also need to praise the pleasantly cryptic song titles. More than once in reviews, I have referenced the landmark album from Tim Story, Beguiled, as the standard bearer for song titles that give no hint at a song's theme, mood, etc. The same is true here, with the one exception maybe being "hushed," whose title could foreshadow the vibe of the song. Other titles not previously mentioned include "a reckoning," "words overheard," "subliminal," "her wisdom," and the closing 11+ minute "hours slip by. That's how one might approach seven conversations since one could have this amazing album on repeat and have one's day pass in a blissed state of, dare I say it, utterly beautiful relaxation.
In closing, and here's the real kicker, the entire album was recorded in real time. Yeah, that's right. These are all improvisations! I mean…. are you freakin' kidding me? As I wrote earlier…it's kinda genius!
Produced, recorded, mixed, and mastered by Tom Eaton
Jeff Oster: Flugelhorn and trumpet
Vin Downes: Electric guitar
Tom Eaton: Keyboards, loops, programming, and bass

Friday, March 22, 2024


Kevin Keller Music (2024)

Two things Kevin Keller will never be accused of (a) being one-dimensional or (b) being predictable. Over the arc of his career, he has released many critically acclaimed albums covering a variety of genres. One would think he might have exhausted the possibilities, but obviously not. Evensong presents the listener with yet another aspect of his composing and performing persona, and while the music on the recording is a marked departure in some ways, it also reinforces Keller's commitment to creating music that engages the listener on a deeper level.

Evensong sees the prolific composer pushing his envelope in a startling new direction - vocal choral music, which he pairs with piano, EM, and some interesting rhythms. Half of the melodies on the albums were composed by the renowned Hildegard of Bingen in the 12th century and four of the album's eight tracks also feature the original plainchant melodies including Latin language lyrics. Now, if that doesn't pique your interest, I’m not sure what would.

To fully appreciate how adventurous (yet accessible) Evensong is, you'll need either good speakers and a quiet room or headphones, because a lot happens within the depths of the mix. I am sure this album could be enjoyed while casually listening, but if you can carve out the time, immerse yourself in it and prepare to be amazed.

Keller works with four vocalists and a three-piece string ensemble. The vocalists display an ethereal quality, and the string artists all play with uncommon artistry. Keller is his usual stellar self, performing on a variety of keyboards and when he uses church organ, it's something truly special.

Evensong is not just a homage to Hildegard of Bingen, it's more that her compositions represent a jumping off point for Keller to expand upon. The liner notes spell out his intent, and rather than sum them up, here they are as written: "Conceptually, Keller takes the Early Christian idea of canonical hours (divisions of the day being marked by music) and interprets it as a microcosm of life and its procession from beginning to end—and beyond. The procession also takes us through the church modes, the scales (based on those of the ancient Greeks) used before major and minor took over in the Baroque period: Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, Locrian, Ionian, Dorian, and returning to Phrygian. Each track has a distinct character based on the varying order of half and whole steps in its chosen mode…"

No matter how you define it or describe them, the seven tracks on Evensong unfurl into a wondrous musical canvas, resplendent with a gentle sense of drama, and flowing with a feeling of being overcome with the beauty of it all. That Keller finds a way to tastefully integrate disparate elements, such as the percolating electronic rhythms on "Evensong 3," or the opening salvo of early EM synths on "Evensong 4," is a testament to his original approach to this project. These background keyboards sometimes take center stage, sometimes they are accompanied by the string trio, and sometimes all three aspects (vocals, strings, keyboards) all fuse into something extraordinary. Keller’s unpredictable approach on the album can surprise you, too, e.g., performing mostly solo piano on the plaintive "Evensong 6," achieving a sad but lovely moment.  "Evensong 8" concludes the album in a spacemusic vein with minimal synth accompaniment over gently lilting vocals.

I have lauded Kevin Keller in my reviews of his earlier works, such as the first one I reviewed, Santiago’s Dream, the brilliant in absentia, the day I met myself, and one of his more recent albums, Shimmer. He is one of those artists who always seem to merit superlatives when I review his/her music. What can I say? I’m a sucker for musical brilliance!

All music composed by Kevin Keller except Plainchant on tracks 1, 3, 4, and 7 composed by Hildegard of Bingen
Album produced by Kevin Keller
Recorded by Robert L. Smith and Sam Stein at Reservoir Studios, NYC
Engineer’s Assistant: Deeba Montazeri
Additional engineering by Richard Bozic
Mixed by Kevin Keller at Mariner’s Gate Studio, NYC
Mastered by Chris Frasco in Nashville, TN

Art direction by Kevin Keller
Cover image by Alex Turton
Artist photo by Pavlo Terekhov

All music performed by Kevin Keller except as follows:
Danya Katok: soprano
Elisa Singer Strom: soprano
Katherine Wessinger: soprano
Wendy Baker: soprano
Sarah Zun: violin
Angela Pickett: viola
Laura Metcalf: cello






Coyote Flow Music (2023)

Pianist/keyboardist Timothy Wenzel already had a great knack for composing memorable melodic music going back to his earliest releases. However, I once pointed out in a review back then that using keyboard samples of other instruments, e.g., violin, lessened the overall quality of the compositions. He obviously listened as he started using guest stars on their assorted instruments. The impact has been an substantial improvement, and on his newest release, Immerse, Wenzel has taken yet another step forward as the melodies on this album showcase a depth and maturity and an emotional focus that clearly elevates him to the upper echelon of similar artists.

There is an inherent and palpable melancholy and loneliness to Wenzel’s compositions on Immerse and, in fact, he alluded to this when he sent me notes for the one-sheet I wrote for him: “I often write in winter, when I can walk the countryside alone, especially at night and then return to the warm studio. So being alone is one theme: solitude, time to think and all those things a card-carrying introvert needs for happiness and productivity.” It’s Wenzel’s ability to tap into this deep well-spring of emotion that flows through all twelve of Immerse’s tracks.

Much of the album is mid to slow paced which suits the songs’ melodies perfectly. Something of interest to me is how Wenzel’s music can be quite dramatic without resorting to the loudness of a piece, powerful bombast, or other issues that are used by some other artists to emphasize the “oomph” of a particular song. This quality which he exhibits increases the “play-through” of Immerse, meaning that for most people, they would not need to skip a track in order to not “break the overall mood.” While melodies are most prominent on the album, subtle percussion does come into play on five tracks, and when it is there it fits in perfectly.  Some of this is likely/certainly due to Corin Nelsen’s superb work at the board (he is credited with producing, mixing, and mastering the recording).

The album opener, “The Gale,” features all but one of the guest artists (see details below) contributing and it’s one of the few “faster” songs, driven especially by the violin of Josie Quick and cello of Graham Cullen. Mid-song, Wenzel incorporates a warm but eerie keyboard sound before transitioning to piano. The moodiness of the song is a major component its favor. Choral samples mid-song on the title track are spot on in execution. One of my favorite songs here is “Taliesen” (the name for each of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Wisconsin and Arizona homes/studios) due to a wonderful piano refrain (heard most prominently at the outset). The album concludes with “Thank You for Your Smile," which is the warmest song on Immerse and offers a sincerely charming evocation to close out things.

I’ve followed Timothy Wenzel from his first release to now and am impressed how, with each successive release, he delves deeper into his muse as well consistently elevating both his performing and composing talent. I have no doubt he will continue to favor us with his music, which is something to be glad about.

All music composed by Timothy Wenzel
Album produced, mixed and mastered by Corin Nelsen (SynchroSonic Productions)
Album recorded by the artists except where noted below* (recorded at SynchorSonic)
Album artwork, design, and photography by Timothy Wenzel

Timothy Wenzel: Piano, keyboards, synthesizers
Josie Quick: Violin*
Tom Carleno: Acoustic guitar
David Cullen: Electric guitar*
Graham Cullen: Cello*
Jill Haley: English horn
Jeff Haynes: Percussion





Ever So
Fallingfoot Records (2023)

If you’ve been a long-time reader of my reviews, you know that one of the highest compliments I can give to an album is to refer to the music as “autumnal” in nature. Autumn is my favorite time of year and one of the things I always look forward to is traveling the rural roads in Minnesota and Wisconsin while listening to a certain kind acoustic music, music that is exemplified on guitarist David Lindsay’s latest release Ever So. As on his previous CDs (two of which I have reviewed), Lindsay excels (emphasis on excels) in crafting soundscapes of gentle introspection, sometimes incorporating melancholic or somber elements, but always retaining a beauty and soulfulness that only the finest practitioners in this particular genre (acoustic guitar instrumental) wield with such beauty and grace. Ever So is the perfect soundtrack to gray skies, red/gold leaves on trees, rolling hills where the corn has been harvested yet the land is not barren or bleak, but suffused with the always somewhat-sad feeling of the earth going to sleep for the winter. Of course, sunny days don’t necessitate avoiding this album, as even sun-dappled clouds can impart of sense of reflection and the recall of pleasant or even sad memories.

Once again, Lindsay makes a pilgrimage to what now appears to be the Mecca for contemporary instrumental artists these days (and has been for more than a few years) Imaginary Road Studios in Windham County, Vermont (a place I’d love to visit someday but, then again, I am not a musician so that’s my bad luck). Will Ackerman gets sole production credit this time (see below for full production credits).

Only three of the eleven tracks are solo guitar (I would’ve preferred one or two more, but that’s just my love affair with solo acoustic guitar talking). Many of the IR usual suspects are on board (see album info below). And, as if it needs stating, every one of them comports themselves tastefully and artistically, but except in a few instances, Lindsay’s guitar dominates the musical landscape, although it’s worth mentioning that the talented Jill Haley appears on four tracks and I never tire of hearing her soulful yet restrained English horn wafting above or alongside Lindsay’s melodies.

Overall, the mood (as mentioned above) is soft, serene tinted with subtle somberness, and generally slow-paced. One exception is the second track, the gently effervescent "Free To Be" which also features the most guests (standout violin work here by Charlie Bisharat – bravo, sir!).  "A Love Song" also slightly ups the tempo to more of a normal walking pace as opposed to a slow stroll, which is what most of the songs here call to mind.

Ever So reinforces my belief, forged from his first release, 2015’s Nightbound, that Lindsay is that rare artist who can do no wrong. It’d be wrong to say he is a budding artist, as he sprang forth years ago. The only issue he may face is keeping his streak of excellent albums alive….nah, who am I kidding? That’s in the bag. This man will never run out of music to enrich our lives.

All songs written by David Lindsay
Album produced by Will Ackerman
Recorded at Imaginary Road Studios, Windham County, Vermont
Engineered and mixed by Bill Esses
Mastering by Tom Eaton at Sound & Substance
Cover photo: David Lindsay, Back cover photo: Janet Creaser
Additional art direction: Right As Rain Productions, Toronto, Canada

David Lindsay: acoustic guitar
Will Ackerman : lead acoustic guitar (first two tracks)
Jill Haley: English Horn
Michael Manring: bass, fretless
Charlie Bisharat: violin
Noah Wilding: voice