Tuesday, December 2, 2014

REVIEW: Cornell Kinderknecht and Martin McCall - Dreamtime

Little Greyhound Music

Dreamtime (from wind instrumentalist and keyboard player Cornell Kinderknecht and drummer/percussionist Martin McCall is pleasingly paradoxical. I can’t remember the last time (if ever) that I heard an album that has so much percussion and rhythms (some of them frenetic in tempo) that still managed to be so calming and so soothing to jangled nerves, without revving up the listener and inducing him or her to get up and dance. I've listened to this superb recording at least ten times and I still don’t understand how these two masterful musicians did it. I suppose at this point I should just relax and enjoy the beautiful, serene, ride. And it is a wonderfully relaxing journey into a land of assorted world influences and lovely flowing melodies (the latter quality which Kinderknecht exhibited on his last solo release, Nightfall).

It's important for me to list the array of instruments that each artist plays so you can appreciate each of these performers' virtuosity. Kinderknecht's primary instruments are of the wind variety, and on Dreamtime he plays Native flutes, soprano sax, bansuri flute, English horn, Anasazi flute, and keyboards (and he utilizes his keyboards masterfully!). McCall's list is even longer and includes djembe, shakers, taiko drum, tom-toms, electronic timpani, cymbals, gong, bells, tambourine, methal, drum head, udu, bass drums, and doumbek. Phew! I wonder what his studio looks like!

Eight of the twelve tracks feature Kinderknecht playing Native flute, so it's obvious that many of the album's songs have a Native influence present, but there is no way I would describe this as strictly a Native flute fusion release. It’s not just because Kinderknecht doesn't fall back solely on Native elements in these songs, but it's also about how McCall uses non-Native instruments in laying down his rhythms and beats. One could (and perhaps should) label this music as cross-cultural, since the wind instruments and the percussion/drums are not always geographically aligned.

Two things struck me as I delved into the music on Dreamtime. One was how adeptly Kinderknecht incorporates his keyboard textures and embellishments. It's textbook in how he fleshes out the overall sound of the songs (all but one track features some keyboards). The artist knows just how to balance these soundscape colorings into the mix so that they are heard but never dominate. That's a true artisan skill. The other, and stronger, sonic element is the ultra-deft approach to mixing so that McCall's vast assortment of percussion and drums never overpower the overall meditative/serene mood of the music. It's almost uncanny and I don’t know if I have ever heard anything like it in all my years of reviewing.

I'm not sure trying to describe individual tracks would adequately convey how special Dreamtime is, but I can at least attempt to paint a written picture. "Big Sky" features a pensive Native flute line buoyed by swirling synthesizer shadings and propelled by a rapid tempo drum beat on dejembe. "One Summer" has the drum beats played on doumbek in a sedate, almost mournful tempo, while the lead flute is held by an Indian bansuri, which lends the song an overall air of mystery and the exotic. On "Marble Falls," McCall flexes his musical muscles and incorporates an assemblage of taiko drums, tom-toms, electronic timpani, cymbals and gongs, while Kinderknecht returns to the Native flute and layers in even more pronouncedly swirling ambient-ish keyboards.  At this point in the recording, adroit listeners will clue in to how these two artists have meshed their talents to yield a truly symbiotic listening experience in how the melody lines intertwine with the layers of rhythms and beats. The album takes a celestial turn on "Voyager" as Kinderknecht's soprano sax floats above layers of spacy synthesizer soundsculptures and shimmering textures with McCall's subdued taiko drums pounding out a subtle slow-tempo beat. Kinderknecht goes solo on "Solitude" playing both Native flute and English horn with piano accompaniment as well as orchestral string embellishments. "Dragonfly" hints at Indian motifs with bansuri flute and tamboura drones while ethnic rhythms beat out a sensual undertone.

Dreamtime is a special recording - a true original in how it marries assorted ethnic percussion with wind instruments and synthesizers to craft an album that manages to calm the disquiet mind with a unique blend of melody and rhythm. Kinderknecht and McCall exhibit an uncommon symmetry in their shared musical vision and the result is an album that would be ideal for massage, relaxation, yoga, or even just…well, waking dreaming.

The album can be purchased at CDBaby, Amazon, or directly from the artist.

Monday, December 1, 2014

REVIEW: Rick Sparks - Endless


As sometimes happens to me, I find myself amazed at how professional and accomplished some artists' first or second releases can sound these days. It's almost as if these recording musicians come out of the gate as seasoned pros! Such is the case with Rick Sparks on his second release, Endless. The cover states "Quiet piano to replenish your spirit" and that statement sells this album short by a landslide. Sparks' use of keyboard textures and embellishments, to accent his mellow and warm piano lead melodies, is way ahead of many of his contemporaries, to the point that I was shocked to learn that this was a homegrown effort (all the arrangements are his, and he composed two of the album's ten tracks as well as handling all the production). Even the cover artwork (a gorgeous starscape from photographer Ben Canales - I want it on my office wall!) is excellent as are the choice in fonts (and boy, that is rare).

Sparks has chosen an interesting and varied collection of tunes for the album. There are covers of songs from Gordon Lightfoot and fellow pianist Bill Leslie, as well some traditional covers, and some religious hymns. This diversity points to Sparks' formidable versatility as well as his cohesive music persona which manages to pull all of these considerably disparate sources together into an ear-pleasing musical whole. Well done! According to the liner notes, four of these songs are Scottish in origin and one is Irish, and while echoes of those two countries can be heard, I would not classify any of this as "world music" due to how expertly Sparks' integrates that element into his arrangements. This speaks loudly of Sparks' unique music and artistic vision - the tracks always instill a sense of peace and quiet in the listener.

Star-shimmering synths kick off the first track, a cover of Gordon Lightfoot's "Beautiful" alongside a mellow piano lead which soon leads into a nicely sampled guitar accompanying the piano and accented by sparse echoed synth textures. This is as close as you can get to classic (and I do mean CLASSIC) new age music from the golden era of the late 80s and early 90s. What a fantastic opening track - it had me hooked on the first playing! Next, the traditional "Dream Angus" (which does carry a hint of either Scotland or Ireland in the melody) comes to the listener with a soft, gentle piano melody, later embellished with subtle strings - just gorgeous. The injection (later in the song) of some lovely chorale samples is spot on and elevates the beauty of the tune even higher. Sparks' first original is next, the title track, and it's a subtly somber tune but continues the wonderfully serene piano playing which imbues the entirety of this recording. Once again, strings are applied with utmost discretion and proficiency - Sparks should hold classes on how to layer in synth strings to many other artists. A lilting flute accompanies the artist's piano on "Be Thou My Vision" and, as much as I hate being a broken record, once again Sparks' sound echoes so much of what made new age music so great two decades ago. However, don’t misunderstand me - this is not an homage disc or a throwback. Sparks' has a (now) unique way OF blending his piano leads with synths, but the sound itself is wholly contemporary in that these are fresh melodies.

As the album progressed, I kept waiting for a slip-up on the artist's part (hey, I'm a cynic), but Sparks' kept performing admirably, with a veteran's artistry, track after track, from his cover of Bill Leslie's "Portree" (wonderfully subtle synth pads underneath the piano - and those bell tones!) to another original track, "At Rest" (another nicely layered in flute line as well as discrete chorales), and a truly beautiful version of "Loch Lomond" on which the integration of superb chorales brings to mind no less a comparison than to the artist who exemplifies that kind of music, the estimable Bill Douglas.

Endless is, to me, one of the top albums of 2014, which is saying a lot because there was a lot of great music released this year. However, Rick Sparks just has "it," that indefinable quality attributed to fantastic music, and there's no sense denying it. Endless is one of the more "complete" albums I've received in a while - gorgeous graphics, flawless production, and virtuoso performance. Pick up a copy (or download it, but you'll miss the artwork - trust me) before it sells out!

Endless is available at CDBaby, Amazon and iTunes

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

REVIEW: Peter Kater and R. Carlos Nakai - Ritual


Legendary artists R. Carlos Nakai (Native flute, Eagle Bone whistle, chanting) and Peter Kater (piano) reunite for their first collaboration in over ten years and are joined by acclaimed reed player Paul McCandless (soprano sax, oboe, and English horn) along with talented cellist Jaques Morelenbaum and vocalist Trisha Bowden on the superb release Ritual. A wholly improvised recording, Kater states (in the liner notes) "It is an offering and invitation for us all to meet in this place of pure being-ness that transcends time, duality and concept. It is an expression of the totality and gift of each moment and the awareness that the experience of this journey is its own reward." Ritual is a thing of beauty, flowing from one track to the other, anchored by Nakai's haunting, lilting flute and Kater's superbly nuanced piano, but also featuring some major contributions from McCandless whose expert reed work is on display multiple times throughout the album. In fact, in some ways, McCandless is the "wild card" on the recording, giving an extra artistic "value added" to the songs on which he appears. Not to take anything away from Kater or Nakai–let's face it, they are each deserving of the years and years of praise that has been heaped on them. Just the same, McCandless fans, especially of his work in the landmark ensembles The Paul Winter Consort and Oregon should definitely seek out Ritual.

While some tracks have a drifting, meditative feel to them, almost dream-like at times, others contain drama and passion. The middle of the opening track "Meeting At Twilight" when Nakai, Kater, and McCandless gather together and pirouette musically round each other with celebratory joyfulness is one such occasion, although the opening and conclusion of the song are somber and haunting. "Standing as One" begins with a minimal piano melody over which Morelenbaum's cello sighs mournfully. As all the songs on Ritual do, this one evolves over its 8-plus minute duration, eventually folding in Nakai's soulful flute and Bowden's wordless vocals. It's worth noting that with only seven tracks on the album, yet a running time of 62 minutes, "average" track time is 9 minutes (in reality, track length varies from 6:54 to 12:34). Because of these longer-than-usual durations, the music has more room to breathe, to evolve, and to allow each artist to explore his or her own contributions. I greatly enjoyed this aspect of Ritual; it made the music come alive and kept any one element from overstaying its welcome. In addition, the improvisatory nature of the music also revealed the sense of simpatico that all the players have for one another as each one exhibits an instinctive feel for when to step into the spotlight and when to recede into the shadows. Yet, despite this being an improvised recording, there is no perfunctory noodling or overtly-flashy soloing. In fact, if the liner notes didn’t state that this was improvised, as opposed to composed music, you'd be hard pressed to tell. The only clue may be in how the unforced fluidity of the melodies comes across as organic in nature. "Invoking the Elements" has Nakai and Kater starting things off, the keening sound of the former's Native flute matched by the plaintive minimal piano notes by the latter. Gradually, McCandless joins in, but this is done so subtly, it's almost imperceptible. A lower register flute cries out at the onset of "Space Within" (Nakai is such a superb flutist), and once again Kater joins in with just a short series of notes at first before eventually playing a more pronounced lead melody line. On this track it's just the two lead artists, musical compatriots for years, each one dexterously flitting and flowing around the other - what a wonderful, intimate musical moment (later in the song, Nakai chants/speaks and you might get shivers up and down your spine, with the gravitas of the music matched by its beauty).

Do not make the mistake of dismissing or classifying Ritual as a simple, "relaxation" recording (although there is nothing wrong with that description in and of itself). There is something much deeper going on here, a melding of intelligence with heart, a musical hybrid that speaks to both the listener's mind and the listener's soul. The emotion (conveyed by the superb music) present throughout the album, the artistry exhibited by the musicians, the haunting quality of the improvisational melodies (regardless who has the lead) combine to make Ritual a recording of rare beauty and one which is equally enjoyable as a direct and attentive listening experience or played in the background (frankly, I would don headphones and soak this music up, savoring each piano note, each lilting flute melody, each plaintive reed accompaniment, as if lingering over a delicious meal). Of note, the album is superbly engineered and mixed by Kater with a great mastering job by David Glasser, and, as if the sublime music wasn't enough inducement, the CD is contained within some truly gorgeous artwork. Ritual will almost certainly land on many critics' Top 10 lists for 2014.

Ritual is available at iTunes and Amazon

REVIEW: David Nevue - Open Sky

Open Sky
Midnight Rain Productions (2013)

The origins of the music on Open Sky, pianist David Nevue's 14th album, were solo piano compositions he wrote over the years that "gathered dust" so to speak, while he was devoting his energy and time to two special album projects (Adoration and Revelation). These songs became what the artist referred to as a "stockpile," compositions awaiting recording and releasing. In 2011, Nevue released A Delicate Joy, a collection of tracks from the stockpile, united by a motif of (to quote Nevue) "…sweet, peaceful, happily-ever-after style tunes..." The remaining stockpile songs (which had not been recorded) featured a darker, edgier mood to the music, some of them with a driving sense of drama. It is these solo piano numbers that comprise Open Sky. The album features a mixture of 13 originals and 4 covers (such as the traditional hymn "The Water Is Wide" as well as the classic folk tunes "Scarborough Fair" and "Morning Has Broken").

Despite the way this album came to be, assembled as it were from "leftovers," there is still a unified musical vision present here, which one would expect with a pianist as talented as Nevue. While the mood on the specific pieces can swing from reflective to powerful, from somber to upbeat, all the songs carry a theme, best stated by the artist in his liner notes: "Open Sky is a celebration of those 'wide awake moments' when you feel truly alive, almost as if you were somehow standing a little closer to heaven." It's also possible that Nevue was at least partly influenced by a trip he took to the South Dakota Badlands, since there are some gorgeous photos of that special place in the CD booklet (also, the album's title certainly matches the images of the vast beauty of that landscape).

With seventeen tracks on the album, I can't possibly detail each one, plus it would be difficult to single out "favorites," except that from a purely personal taste perspective, I favor the more low-key tunes, e.g. the somber, melancholic "Dark Afternoon." However, as I stated, this is not a judgment as much as a matter of personal preference.

On the opening title track, Nevue introduces a rolling melody which features a lovely refrain and chorus played out in several keys, always with a pleasant lower register accompaniment. The music suggests movement, but not necessarily fluid, more so in a jaunty style and most definitely light-hearted (this is one of several tracks that had me scratching my head a bit when Nevue described the tracks on the album as being darker and edgier, but who am I to question the artist on his own descriptions). "The Sound of Sunshine" maintains the cheery mood, albeit toned down a bit, yet still friendly and inviting, while the next number, "Dragonflies," presents a curious and intriguing juxtaposition–the music is uptempo but the mood, while not dark, does indeed have an edge to it. I like what Nevue is doing here with an energetic burst of notes counterbalanced by a lower register "anchor." "Forgotten Places" starts with a forlorn semi-sparse melody, delicate and sad. As the piece progresses it morphs into something with more drama and power, still retaining (via minor key motifs) that sensation of reflection and sadness. Nevue's cover of "Scarborough Fair," while recognizable, is enough of an individual interpretation that even those tired of the tune will find something enjoyable with the pianist's take on the tried and true classic. His version of "The Water Is Wide" (my favorite hymn of all time) showcases Nevue's sensitivity and control of nuance and tone. My only complaint is that the song just cries out for a subtle brushing of orchestral strings, but given the constraint of solo piano, Nevue's playing is heartfelt and emotionally powerful. "Stargazing" has a jaw-droppingly beautiful opening, perfectly capturing the wonder and awe of looking up into the night sky and seeing it alight with millions of twinkling pinpoints. To his credit, Nevue keeps the drama in check, only injecting a little bit as the piece progresses. The subtlety of the song's power evokes the feelings we, as humans, might experience in the presence of the unfolding majesty of the universe.

An artist with David Nevue's solid reputation for delivering great music time and time again needs little confirmation from a critic such as myself, but nonetheless, I compliment him all the same. Some of these pieces go back many years and luckily for his fans the time had finally come for him to bring them to fruition. If any of you are new to this artist (which I highly doubt anyone like that exists), Open Sky would be the ideal starting point to explore his discography, as it presents him and his many styles of playing in a great light (with engineering and mastering by the always excellent Joe Bongiorno). Because the CD comes with beautiful color photography and extensive liner notes about the making of the album and the inspiration for each track, I strongly suggest buying the actual CD, and not the download, but either way will be a treat for your ears if you fancy yourself a solo piano fan.

Open Sky is  available directly from the artist, or from iTunes or Amazon

Monday, October 6, 2014

REVIEW: David Lanz and Kristin Amarie - Forever Christmas

Forever Christmas

One of the founding artists of the new age piano genre, David Lanz, and the ultra-gifted vocalist Kristin Amarie, collaborate on a welcome addition to the holiday music canon, Forever Christmas. The duo are joined on the album by some talented guest stars: Eric Tingstad (guitar), Nancy Rumbel (woodwinds), Walter Gray (cello), Gary Lanz (guitar), Keith Lowe (bass), and Alonzo Davideo (guitar), although piano clearly dominates the recording. Eleven of the album's fourteen tracks are originals–unusual for a Christmas album but also a welcome change from the norm in this genre. A mixture of instrumentals and vocals is also a nice touch and gives the recording even broader appeal. Amarie's voice is a thing of rare beauty–crystal clear (her wonderful annunciation makes it easy to understand the new songs' lyrics), incredibly expressive, and heart-breakingly beautiful to hear, whether she is singing barely above a whisper or hitting an emotive crescendo. Lanz's playing is, as long-time fans have to come to expect, the very definition of superb control of nuance and infusion of sincerity and warmth.

Almost all of the music is on the softer, romantic side of the mood continuum (although one uptempo piece, "Jubilate," livens things up for a brief moment). As such, the album would be a nice soundtrack for quiet gatherings during the holiday season, maybe relaxing in front of a roaring fire, or while trimming the Christmas tree, or as Christmas Eve transitions to the morn (resting up before the kids come pouring down the stairs to see what lies under the tree).

Kristin Amarie's voice cannot help but be the star on the tracks on which she appears. The title track (accented by bells, strings and Rumbel's woodwind) could easily become a holiday classic–the lyrics are some of the best I have heard in a "contemporary carol" in years, genuinely warm and touching without resorting to cliché, maudlin sentimentality, or greeting card simplicity. Her take on "O Holy Night" is a revelation as her voice seems to meld with the spiritual words in perfect symmetry, guided by Lanz's superb piano playing which matches her emotional impact at every turn. On the higher notes, which sometimes trip up lesser vocalists, Amarie seems to find a whole other gear, so to speak. At one point, my breath was literally taken away.

Scattered among the earlier tracks are two "gold nuggets," i.e. short (less than 2 minutes) solo piano pieces ("Snow Dance," and "La Estrella de la Navidad") that showcase Lanz's playing at its most tender and evocative. Throughout the album, Lanz continues to show why even after all these years he is a force to be reckoned with in the densely populated genre of new age piano. In fact, his playing on the album is among some of the best work he has done in years. He and Amarie find a perfect "simpatico" moment on the reflective ballad "What Is Christmas" which could easily be a huge radio hit if released as a single (hint hint).

I've reviewed dozens of holiday music recordings over the years but I can't remember the last time I was so touched by an album, especially one which featured mostly original compositions. Clearly, Lanz and Amarie have tapped into the deepest, truest resonance of Christmas time and the holiday spirit. Whether it's the former's flowing piano melodies that are as warm and welcoming as a fire in the hearth for a weary traveler or the latter's tender, soulful vocals which serve as a soothing balm for this mega-stressful time of year, the result is an album that you and your loved ones will enjoy time and time again, year after year–a recording that will light the candle of holiday spirit on even the coldest of winter nights.

The album is available at the artist's website and will soon be available at CDBaby and Amazon.