Tuesday, October 7, 2014

REVIEW: Peter Kater and R. Carlos Nakai - Ritual



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
(2014)

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. 

NOTE: The CD has not yet been officially released anywhere but Kickstarter. The Kickstarter campaign is to help finance some of the costs associated with releasing an album these days. You can read more and (hopefully) contribute at this link https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/864106371/forever-christmas. Once it is released, it should be available at the usual online retailers, e.g. CDBaby, Amazon, and Google+.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

REVIEW: Kevin Keller - Nocturnes


KEVIN KELLER
Nocturnes
Kevin Keller Productions

Kevin Keller gave the members of his ensemble the night off, as it were, and went solo on Nocturnes, an exploration for solo piano that shows once again how Keller walks a different path from many of his contemporaries. The music on Nocturnes is emotionally intense even when at its most subtle, and is also intellectually intriguing. While the album's pleasures can be had with casual listening, careful absorption of the details and nuance will reap much richer listening rewards.

The inspiration for Nocturnes was the work of photographer Seth Dickerman (http://sethdickerman.com/), who describes his images as "metamorphic landscapes." The images are captured in low light or moonlight and the surreal and colorful details come alive in the dark room. Keller began each piece by selecting a photograph and then weaving an impressionistic soundscape purely by how he reacted to the particular photograph. Since his music was directly inspired by a specific image, Keller titled each piece after its inspirational photograph. Mirroring Dickerman's approach, once Keller was satisfied with the end result he took the "finished" work and went about creating magic - by adding assorted ambient elements, sometimes as rhythm, sometimes as echoed drones, and other times as the natural elements of wind and waves.

Some tracks, like the opening "November," have their effects front and center. On this piece, a mournful yet up-tempo piano line is buoyed by a chattering rhythmic effect with a vague Doppler-esque sound to it. The juxtaposition of tempo and tone is characteristic of some of the tracks on Nocturnes, i.e. the pace of the piece is counterbalanced by the gravity of melody. The opening notes of "Pescadero" flow with sadness as Keller takes the refrain lower and lower on the scale before settling into a neo-classical series of rolling chords that ebb and flow from power to restraint. Even during the most rapid tempo, Keller's emphasis on minor key notes lends the song an air of disquiet, albeit of a beautiful nature. "Moonlit Headlands" is a sedate, stately piece, with a pleasant meandering quality evoking a path that goes here and there, but seldom in a straight line. "The Lost Father" brings the sound of waves into the aural picture, as well as some subtle shimmering tones. As befits the title, there is sadness here, but also drama and power, the music's pace staying slow and purposeful. As the song ends, the piano becomes faded and tinny, accompanied by the sound of a vinyl record scratching and popping, suggesting we are hearing an older LP recording on a phonograph somewhere.

"Hawi Moon" offers ambient textures deep in the mix under a fast tempo piano refrain (on headphones, it sounds like there are three different pianos at work here, so obviously there is some serious digital work going on). As on some other tracks, despite a fast tempo, the mood is not cheery but is peppered with an air of dramatic tension. "Sobrante" features the only appearance of a guest artist (cellist Clarice Jensen), who lends some serious gravitas to an already somber affair. "Sapphire Pool" and "Trinity" descend even deeper into darkness, tilting toward disquiet or one of the darker emotions. The concluding track, "Red Headlands" ushers in on a sustaining low drone and minimal lower register piano notes that sustain for long durations. Here, the mood is more reflective. It's a great choice for the closing song as it sends the listener off in a relaxed, contemplative state.

Nocturnes emphatically drives home the point that Kevin Keller has ambitions far beyond many of his contemporaries. This is an unconventional and fearless recording, complex yet full of emotion, accessible to the casual listener, but challenging enough to satisfy the adventurous mind of contemporary classical music fans. As with Keller's two previous albums, the emotional weight of Nocturnes is considerable, but Keller's special talent is to convey this depth of feeling without alienating the fan who simply enjoys good piano music. It's a tightrope that not many others would even attempt, but Keller makes it look easy. Ultimately, the album satisfies the mind and the heart, the intellect and the soul, the scientist and the poet, always with a keen sense of melodic flow and nuance of rhythm and tempo.

Nocturnes is available at  Amazon and iTunes.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

REVIEW: DAMON BUXTON - Visitations



Visitations
Many Miles Music

Damon Buxton vexes me as a critic even while he delights me as a listener on his latest album. Visitations. The artist's musical gifts and talent, spread abundantly throughout the recording, unveil themselves as richer and more complex with every playing (and I have played the album well over ten times before writing this review), but it is that same ten-plus playings that serves as evidence that something confounds the usually adroit writer in me. Time after time I tried, as a critic, to draw a bead on how to describe this man's music, but time and time again I was stuck with how to convey, in my usual loquacious manner, what his music was "like," so that you, the music-buying customer, would know whether it would be to your liking. At this point in time, I have surrendered to that goal, and will allow my critic to just sit back and enjoy the ride - and a fascinating ride it is on Visitations.

Before delving into some detailed words on individual tracks on the CD, I want to comment on the album artwork and the title. The two beautiful women, draped in white, are, I assume, meant to convey visitations by spirits (or at least that is my interpretation), yet the album liner notes are devoid of overt spirituality or "new agey-ness" and the music certainly doesn’t conjure images of angels or cosmic entities. I bring this up mostly to encourage you, the potential buyer of the album, to look past these images if they had prejudiced you to think this was going to be sweet, syrupy, saccharine-laced music. The music on Visitations is many things but is never syrupy or saccharine. With that said, let's look at the music itself.

A perpendicular comparison could be made to Will Ackerman's music, but that would be wrong because Buxton's music has more going on than Ackerman's more tone-poem, impressionistic approach. After much soul-searching the best phrase I can use to encapsulate Buxton's modus operandi is the introduction of dramatic tension in his pieces. Allow me to quote from an online source which describes it thusly: "Pleasurable excitement and anticipation regarding an outcome, such as the ending of a mystery novel." This is what I hear during the second track, "The Constancy of Angels (for Ash)" especially when Buxton changes key two thirds of the way through the track…there is a feeling of anticipation…of mystery…of unknowingness. It's so deliciously anticipatory. The track perfectly captures the uniqueness of Buxton's allure, the knowledge that something other than the usual may occur as he unfurls his melodies which revolve around what I refer to as circular refrains. "Rain" pleasantly assaults the listener with a cascading fast tempo downpour of notes, played with such dexterity that you are left wishing you could see Buxton play it live for the sheer joy of witnessing how his fingers could deftly navigate the strings and frets so effortlessly. The relative calm of "Sauternes" comes across as a delicious lull. The piece is not just sedate but relatively serene in its quasi-Mediterranean musings, like an aural aperitif. The title track features a wistful note progression that is so ear pleasing you want to luxuriate in it, enjoying its midtempo gracefulness, and then that "unexpected happens" when a series of upper register notes appears as if to say "yes, but…" "Transcontinental" conveys a sensation of travel with its tempo and its melody, while the playfulness of "Lilia Lani" (sounding almost as if it were played on a mandolin) speculates on a scene of unabashed frivolity. "Maledictions" re-introduces that feeling of tension, of something under the surface that seems to occupy a fair amount of Buxton's muse. It's not darkness, or melancholy, nor anything particularly sinister, but instead the "expectation" of the unknown. Call it "delicious anticipation" if you will. However, there is no need to wait for the payoff with Damon Buxton's guitar playing - the reward is right there in the listening, the appreciation of the nuance, the timing, the attention to detail, the juxtaposition of economy (few notes when called for) with a flurry of frenetic spell-binding technique. By the time the listener reaches the end of the "visitation" on the closing track, "Between These Clouds," she or he will feel both sated yet also eager to further explore the CD's fourteen tracks time and time again, peeking into each one's crannies, seeking that moment when magic happens (e.g. 4:30 on "The Constancy of Angels"); that instant when Buxton finds a musical "sixth gear" and the listener suddenly experiences a flood of euphoria thinking "Oh yes…that's it."

Damon Buxton is a rare, unique visionary on the acoustic guitar. Visitations (meticulously engineered, mixed and mastered by Corin Nelsen) is one of the best solo acoustic guitar releases I've heard this decade, and I believe I have yet to plumb its depths and find all it has to offer. It's a visionary effort by a consummate artist.

The album is available from bandcamp and iTunes.