Thursday, January 17, 2019

REVIEW: KAREN OLSON - SongPath





SongPath This is a separate link for just this album

Violist Karen Olson is no stranger to imaginative and creative music vision. Her two previous releases, Covergence and A Hero's Journey (winner of Zone Music Reporter's Best Neo-Classical album award in 2018), each push the boundaries of contemporary classical recordings. However, even with Olson's track record of recordings that push the envelope, SongPath is an artistic triumph of near epic proportions.  Her vision for the album is revealed in the CD's liner notes, "[SongPath]…has been the unfolding of my dream to create a musical experience for others beyond what words can describe." The album is the musical "partner," if you will, of Olson's book SoundPathUsing the Power of Sound and Silence for Health, Harmony and Happiness (available from Amazon). Again, quoting from the liner notes, "The music in this CD was created with a prayer that your listening will inspire the experiences described in the book so you can have a SoundPath, beyond words, that will transport you to new places within and without."

Now, after reading the above, you might think the music on the album will follow the "usual" new age soundscape path of relaxing and meditative music, and I certainly thought that as well, that is until I played the first track, "Ever Peace," and then the second, "Why Not?" By the time I got to track 3, "Adventure," (my favorite on the album – more later), I realized that I should have known better than to expect anything "cookie-cutter" from an artist with the imagination and artistic courage of Karen Olson. After playing SongPath all the way through, I was sincerely and deeply impressed with the width, breadth, and depth of not just the styles of music on the album (Olson either wrote or co-wrote all the music) but the 100 percent consummate professionalism of Olson and her guest artists. Of importance to note is that while this is undeniably her album, she is quite unselfish in not always taking center stage, but allowing others, such as pianist/synthesizer artist Carlos Cuevas or Premik Russell Tubbs (soprano sax, flute, ewi) to step up to the plate and share the spotlight!

As a reviewer, the "downside" of an album such as SongPath is that it strains one's ability to adequately describe the music in detail. Instead, one is forced to use broader brushstrokes to paint a verbal picture of the music itself. That said, none of the nine tracks is experimental, avant garde, or inaccessible. Far from it. In fact, this may be Olson's most accessible album (to a wider audience) than her previous two releases, especially Convergence. During the course of the album, you will hear influences ranging from classical, pop, Americana, new age, and more. Occasionally a single track will even shift gears in mid-stream (I apologize for the mixed metaphor, folks).

The opening "Ever Peace" offers up a blend of classical motifs/influence with some additional but distinct Americana shadings at times. The lovely lead off melody on strings is accompanied by piano step-for-step, as well as sax. There is a detectable "sweetness" to the tune, but it's never cloying or overwrought. The next song, "Why Not?" hews much closer to a formal classical influence with only a touch of pop here and there. Olson's playing on this (and every song on which she is prominently featured) is staggeringly brilliant as she is in complete control of every possible technique on the viola. The song is less "cheery" than "Ever Peace," and instead is somewhat contemplative. Next up is the first of three vocal songs, "Adventure," and not only is it my favorite song on the album, but it is one of the most affirming, empowering songs I have ever heard, featuring the fantastic singing of Olivia Meihofer, as well as equally powerful music. The song speaks to overcoming that which seeks to keep us down, with lyrics such as…

Come awake, Face the pain 
hear it call you to remain, 
Find the pull, cut it loose
Overcome all the abuse  
and, break down, break down 

The barricades
Abandon the hate like a
Renegade
Surrender 
Look in the eyes of the offender
Watch it vanish in the flames
Vow to keep the reign (reins) 
Of your Adventure

I actually get chills listening to this song, owing equally to the dramatic tone of the music, the emotive vocals, and the emotional wallop of the lyrics.

Rather than go into a lot of details about the remaining six tracks, I will simply say that they contain the aforementioned variety of influences, e.g. the movie soundtrack feel of "Moving Higher," the quasi-ambient/classical ending song, "Serenity," and, for me, the biggest surprise (and absolute sheer delight) of the vocal track, "New Ways" which features Meihofer on some spoken word vocals alongside a fusion of jazz, funk, and trip-hop – and OMG does this work! It speaks not to just her versatility as a vocalist but also Olson's adventurous side including it on the album.

I hope I have piqued your interest because SongPath is truly a ground-breaking album and each playing will unfurl a new musical sail. Not having read Olson's book, I can't address how well this "handshakes" with it, but even as a wholly standalone recording, SongPath soars to dazzling heights of imaginative composing and highly accomplished performing by all involved. Kudos to Karen Olson for once again pushing that envelope but never alienating the casual listener.

SongPath is available at Amazon, CDBaby, i Tunes, and Spotify.

REVIEW: KURT REIMAN - North Maple Road

KURT REIMAN
North Maple Road


I was about three tracks into my first playing of Kurt Reiman's debut album, North Maple Road, when I thought to myself, "This can't possibly be his first album." Granted, the past year has seen a number of remarkable debuts by other artists, so maybe my surprise was just that I get so many solo piano recordings and to have one stand out so easily on the first playing, and also have it be an artist's debut! As Neo would say "Whoa!"

North Maple Road sounds like the work of a seasoned veteran composer and performer. Reiman's exemplary control of tone, nuance, shading, and tempo across an assortment of musical moods is not just admirable, but nearly textbook. He is helped, of course, by spot on mixing and mastering of the final product (the recording engineer is Michael Haas, and the mastering was by Haas and Chad Irschick) but even with studio wizards, it's the compositions and playing that makes an album special.

As I listened to North Maple Road a second and third time, I flashed on some of Jim Chappell's earlier works, most notably Acadia and Living the Northern Summer (although each of those feature piano and other instruments). There is the same melodic flow and lyricism of the main piano lines on Reiman's release as on those landmark albums (in my opinion). Also, just as Chappell can transition from bouncy and upbeat to meditative, relaxing, and nostalgic themes and motifs, so too can Reiman. While some of Chappell's music can veer over into a pop vein, North Maple Road, even at its lightest/liveliest, retains more of a new age/contemporary instrumental feel throughout. As a result, listening late at night, as long as the volume is subdued, will prove as rewarding as daytime playing.

The album's extensive liner notes (which are primarily a huge list of detailed "Thank you's") makes it abundantly clear this project was intensely personal for Reiman and bringing it to fruition was a dream come true of sorts. The personal nature of the artist's music comes through on each note and some song titles speak directly to a particular track's impetus ("You're My Friend," "Walk with Me," and "You'll Always Be Here with Me," for example). A few songs indicate that the artist is also inspired by the beauty of New England, where he was born, such as the delightful and subtly cheery opening song, "Sunrise over Narragansett Bay," or the nostalgic romance that flows through the title track. One of Reiman's strengths is his ability to never cross over into maudlin faux sentimentality, so that even a track like "Push Me Higher Daddy" (which could easily become unbearably saccharine in some artists' hands) stays emotionally restrained but unmistakably laced with a father's love for his child. "Evening Snowfall" hints at introspection and flirts just a bit with a gentle minimalism, but also softly glows like the embers of a slowly dying fire.

Besides the twelve enjoyable tracks, the CD is also graced with beautiful color photos in the liner notes as well as a warmly whimsical cover painting ("Snow Moon" by Sabra Field). North Maple Road heralds the arrival of an artist who I believe will become a major player in the field of solo piano music, and that is saying a lot when you consider how many recordings in that genre are released every year. Take a trip down North Maple Road and let Kurt Reiman remind you of how beautiful melodies can whisk you away to a better place.

North Maple Road is available at Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Spotify, Soundcloud, YouTube and Tidal

Monday, November 26, 2018

REVIEW: CHARLES DENLER - Noel


Noël
Grumpy Monkey Music (2018)

Noël, the Christmas carol album from pianist Charles Denler, exemplifies the truism, "Quality over quantity." At a (relatively) scant 24 minutes long (signifying the 24 days of December preceding the holiday), Denler packs quite the punch (from a seasonal perspective) into this collection of nine well-known standards. His arrangements hew closely to the traditional renderings, although variations for each carol do come into play (nothing to diminish the enjoyment of the music if you consider yourself a carol purist). With I believe one exception, the album’s mood is quiet and subdued, ideal for either late night or early morning playing, when the house is quiet and a mood of repose and peace is sought. The album is listed on the cover as solo piano, but guest artist Richard Niezen makes some brief appearances on bass, cello and what I hear as orchestral strings. However, these appearances are quite sparse, so for all intents and purposes, yes, this is a solo piano offering by Denler.

I have previously noted in a review of one of this artist’s recordings that he mics his piano in a unique way. I don’t believe anyone else’s piano sounds quite like Denler's. There is a softness, a muted sense of the tone itself. It’s possible some might not enjoy this particular aspect of the album, although I find it, for me personally, it increases the music’s intimacy. The tracks include such standards of the season as "What Child Is This," "Silent Night," "O Little Town of Bethlehem," and "the title track (note: some song titles are either shortened or altered, e.g. "What Child," "Hark The Herald," and "Joy To All").

With so many new age-styled Christmas/holiday albums to choose from, across a wide spectrum of styles (e.g. secular versus spiritual carols, up-tempo to subdued, multiple instruments versus solo efforts), I think Noël easily earns a spot in almost everyone’s holiday collection. Denler’s softly nuanced playing deserves close attention but the recording can also be enjoyed in the background (I prefer the former though). I imagine this album, paired with a softly glowing fire and snow falling outside, might be a perfect Christmas Eve soundtrack.

Noël is available at iTunes and Amazon as well as streaming at Spotify and Pandora