Tuesday, January 30, 2018

REVIEW: JOHN LYELL - Planetary Artifacts

Planetary Artifacts

Over the years, some people have come to view spacemusic and ambient music as one and the same. I do not. Obviously, spacemusic can have elements of ambient music, but the opposite is not always the case, e.g. Aphex Twin's SAW II is only tangentially spacey. There are certain definable characteristics to what I consider to be spacemusic, which explains why the genre is nowhere near as populated with artists as ambient music is. Which brings us to John Lyell. Lyell may not be the most prolific spacemusic artist around (this is his fourth solo effort, his first being Dimensions which was released in 2006), but man, he sure "gets" it when it comes to recording "pure" spacemusic.

Spacemusic, to me, embraces its connection to outer space (and, perhaps, a nod or two to science fiction themes). It is in this realm that Lyell satisfies like only a few others do as well (most notably, of course, Jonn Serrie and Meg Bowles). It's not just his albums' artwork (which, by the way, has gotten better with every release; the cover of Planetary Artifacts is gorgeous), or his song titles (e.g. "Traversing The Portal," "Red Shift 2," "Another World"), but his overall musical aesthetic which beckons the listener to don headphones in a dark room (or outside under a starry sky) and do a serious deep dive into the universe that his soundscapes evoke.

Planetary Artifacts represents a subtle departure from his earlier releases, but not in a way that makes it any less enjoyable than those previous stellar works. Here, Lyell develops his more spacy persona, using a lot of electronic effects that, to me, bring to mind science fiction films, especially his fondness for a more retro style of synthesizers and textures. You know what I mean: the bloops, bleeps, whooshes, stuff like that. He layers all his various washes, pads, and effects with expert skill and utmost dexterity. While some tracks include bass pulse rhythms, the album is much more of a "drifter" than a "cruiser,"most notably in the latter half.

I have always appreciated how Lyell, unlike a lot of artists in this genre, tends to favor shorter tracks (relatively speaking). Only "Echoes Of A Distant Past" clocks in at over 8 minutes (8:32) and a handful are in the 4 to 5 minute range or so. I may be in the minority in this regard, but I like how this feature keeps the recording "fresh."

"Arrival" is a floating piece that somehow does evoke the titular reference, partly through subtle dramatic textures, which "feels" like one is arriving (maybe to a spaceport or jumping off point?). The rhythmic pulses at the start of "Traversing The Portal" perfectly capture the feeling of rapid movement, accelerating to cruising speed, as it were. On headphones, you will hear all these cool layers of synths, washes, effects, and this song reminds me why I feel in love with spacemusic in the first place – it just grabs you and whisks you away into a whole other universe. But Lyell executes this gently. His music is never aggressive, but it's also not what I would label as passive. This is why I make a distinction between ambient and spacemusic. Ambient music colors the background unobtrusively while spacemusic invites you to partake in it, as if you were on a voyage to the stars.

Lyell is really coming into his own and the more I explored Planetary Artifacts I realized that I was witnessing an artist maturing and evolving. He has become expert at knowing which synths to use, which sound palette to choose from, and how to execute it all to perfection. It helps, of course, that Robert Rich masters his albums, but mastering can only enhance great music, it can't make it great all by itself.

Whether the effervescent "Traversing The Portal," the stately "Red Shift 2," or the haunting "Echoes Of A Distant Past" Lyell is your able pilot as you stream through the cosmos. Later in the album, the mood gets ultra-spacy as if we are journeying to the outer rim, and even beyond. It's dreamy beyond words. My only regret with an album like Planetary Artifacts is I wish I had much more time to just listen to it and get lost in its explorations and mysteries. Simply put, if you are a spacemusic fan, this is an essential album to own.

Available at CDBaby, Amazon,  or iTunes

Thursday, July 7, 2016


Islands In Paradise
Dancing Man Music

It's been nine years since drummer/percussionist extraordinaire Michael Fitzsimmons released his superb album, Water Flows Over Me. Sometimes, you just have to wait for the good stuff and exercise some patience. Well, that patience has been rewarded big time with his new album Islands In Paradise. While retaining some of Fitzsimmons' musical feel, the album is a marked departure in one immediately apparent fashion, that being a considerable elevation of tempo and mood. Islands In Paradise is a musical excursion to sun-washed tropical beaches and festive seaside late-night cafes and clubs. The album brims with a jubilant sense of joy, exerting an inexorable pull to surrender to a mood of celebration, fun, and a sensual love of life.

As he has did on Water Flows Over Me (2007), Fitzsimmons has the hang drum (a tuned metal percussion instrument) take center stage many times, but unlike on Water…here he explores the instrument's ability to produce uptempo, cheerful, and danceable rhythms through delightfully exuberant tuned percussive melodies. Besides the hang durm, the artist also plays handpan, which is somewhat similar in nature to the hang, kalimba (African thumb piano), and Latin percussion. Joining Fitzsimmons on the album is Tom Ware who contributes mightily on an assortment of instruments: bass, keyboards, drums, and synthesizer. These two cats sure sound like they had a blast recording this album (well, honestly, after listening to it a few times, how could anyone think they had anything but a great time playing such festive, happy music?).

Islands In Paradise certainly merits its title as there is an unmistakable tropical musical influence at work. While the hang drum (and kalimba) certainly can sound like a Jamaican steel drum, they actually have their own unique sound if one listens closely (especially when you compare how steel drums are played – with a mallet – whereas the hang is played by slapping it/tapping it with one's hands). It's hard not to envision any of the Caribbean islands when Fitzsimmons and Ware hit their groove and begin to unfurl the funky, sensual, and infectious beats and melodies. Ware uses his synthesizer shadings and textures to great effect, coloring the melodic rhythms with a pleasing undercurrent of subtle melody and ambiance, like a cooling breeze off of the Gulf as the sun sets in the west.

Not every track is an all-out party, but overall, the mood is one of playfulness and unrestrained festivity, beginning with the opening cut, "Earth Sea and Sky." The title track stays in that same fun-filled mood albeit dials things down just a notch. Just when you might want to catch your breath, the next song, "Fire Dancers," erupts with an emphasis on assorted drums and beats and less centered around the hang drum melody (at least to my ears). On this track, the influences cross over more distinctly into Latin/Spanish territory, perhaps even displaying a glimpse of the flamenco genre, as well as some noticeable Cuban stylings as well. "Elysium" slows to a midtempo pace, but the heavy presence of drum rhythms still will likely get into the listener's blood and induce some toe-tapping or finger-rapping. What sounds like a jawbone opens "Celebration," one of the most light-hearted tracks on the album—music for parasailing high above aqua/blue waters on a sunny day.

If one closes one's eyes and absorbs the ten tracks on Islands In Paradise, I would imagine one might easily envision the sandy beaches, the colorful flora and fauna, and of course the abundant nightlife of St. Lucia, the Caymans, St Kitts, St Maarten, or Barbados, to name just a few of the Caribbean Islands. Let Michael Fitzsimmons guide you on a "virtual" vacation to a land of no worries, lush vegetation, warm days and starlit nights, as you let your stress melt and hair down. It's all good, mon. Have fun and embrace all the joy and happiness that life has to offer in the "Islands."

Islands In Paradise is available directly from the artist here.

Friday, October 9, 2015

REVIEW: Anne Trenning - The Sunflower Waltz

The Sunflower Waltz
Shadetree Records (2015)

At its core, Anne Trenning's solo piano album, The Sunflower Waltz, is musical nostalgia, melodies from a simpler time when a simple sunflower seemed to radiate joy and beauty. This is not to say Trenning's music is "simple" in its essence, but instead, that the music is plainspoken with no subterfuge and little, if any, hidden agenda. These are straightforward songs, based mostly around major key melodies which conjure images of light, warmth, friendship and other positive feelings. When one adds in engineering and mastering by the estimable Joe Bongiorno (the album sounds great!), you get a complete package of solid musicianship, engaging melodies, and spot-on production quality.

"Max's Birthday" is the opening track and immediately sets the tone for the recording with a light-hearted and subtly joyful mood with adroit balancing of lower and middle/high registers. Next, the title track wears its waltz-like sound proudly on its musical sleeve. While the motifs are certainly influenced by those of waltzes, the tempo is dialed up a bit—not in any way that proves distracting, and in the bridge the speed slows down a bit before returning to the refrain, and that refrain has a catchiness to it that I enjoyed. The song is not purely classical in feel, as I detect a soft shading of rural Americana now and then. That Americana hint actually flows throughout some of the album's tracks. Images of small town bandstands on warm Sunday afternoons with children playing and adults relaxing seem to paint themselves in the air while I listen to tracks such as "Claire Of My Heart" and "Cowgirl Daydream" (which also displays a waltz motif as well, perhaps even more pronounced than the title track). Church music seems to be the main influence on "In The Gloaming Light" with its more sedate, measured cadence and somewhat stately melody. The next track, "Sing To The Lord," which one might expect to sound like a spiritual or hymn, is relatively subdued though with an undercurrent of joy and praise. "Backyard Dreamer" dials the energy down even further, perhaps referencing the title's notion of lying on one's back staring up at clouds drifting by. "Where Rivers Run" (the longest song on the album at 5:01) is one of the few songs that could be categorized as introspective and reflective although the emphasis on major key notes and chords keeps the mood away from somberness or melancholy. Instead, the pensiveness is warm and positive in nature.  A more downcast, for lack of a better word, mood is heard on the next selection, "Days Gone By" however the song balances moments of minor key solemnity with times when the mood lightens a bit, either through dialing up the tempo or switching to a major key. "A Prayer For The World" is cast in the same mold as "In The Gloaming Light" in that it seems to feature hymn motifs, although Trenning slows it way down and thereby injects heartfelt, touching drama, as if she is communicating her sincere desire to make the world a better place.

There are also songs which hew more closely to "traditional" contemporary solo piano, i.e. not showing any overt influences other the genre itself. "Just Fly" has a spirited tempo yet the repeated refrain heard in back of the lead melody injects something that keeps the thrust of the song from being "too" cheerful. "Fade To Blue" is lovely—a soft, gentle musical rumination on romance (at least that's how I hear it). Trenning's control of tonal shading and nuance on this track are stellar and subtle minimalism can be heard if one listens intently, as she allows the notes to breathe a bit, offering a counterpoint to the majority of the songs which tend to be more energetic.

The Sunflower Waltz contains sixteen tracks, most of them in the three minute range, and I must say the album breezes by quickly despite its total 53 minute playing time. By keeping song length short, Trenning shows her savvy side, i.e. change it up so as to keep listener interest piqued. It's a smart move, although these songs are all so engaging that even if you bumped some up to longer durations, I can’t imagine anyone regretting it. If you're looking for a solo piano release that will entertain you and might also stir some memories for you (owing to those numbers that evoke a sweet nostalgic remembrance), The Sunflower Waltz needs to be on your "buy" list.

The Sunflower Waltz can be purchased at CDBaby (more retailers to be added  later).

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

REVIEW: Ron Korb - Asia Beauty

Asia Beauty

Ron Korb Productions

World-class flutist Ron Korb's Asia Beauty is more than just a magnificent album. Packaged as it is, i.e. as a literal hard-cover booklet containing gorgeous photography and copious liner notes (including an artist-authored story that serves as an inspiration for some of the songs) as well as the CD itself, it is a rare achievement (in fact, in my 18 years of reviewing, I can think of only one other album like this, that being Patrick Leonard's Rivers, released in 1997). However, what is even more praiseworthy is how Korb has meshed the multitude of Asian instruments (including the variety of Asian flutes he plays) with a western musical motif so that the resultant music doesn't alienate the less adventurous listener while also initiating the world music novice into the beauty and wonder of Asian music. In short, what he's done is to bring a western accessibility to Asian music (which can sometimes leave the unaccustomed ear feeling disoriented) without undercutting the music's authenticity. That he accomplishes this feat without resorting to "fusion" techniques, i.e. just taking Asian motifs and wrapping them in electronica beats and synthesizer textures, makes his achievement all the more remarkable (and I mean no disrespect to those who compose/perform global fusion electronica, a subgenre which I greatly enjoy and appreciate).

Korb plays a variety of Asian and other flutes, and in each case exhibits his complete mastery no matter which one he chooses. I have been a fan of his playing since I first heard him on Stephen Bacchus's album Pangaea (1990) and, in fact, on at least one track here ("Magic Sleep"), I was reminded of that recording. Korb composed all the music on Asia Beauty and his talent for meshing both eastern and western instruments may be unmatched. For example, take the opening track, "Hanoi Café," on which the erhu is combined with accordion, piano, bass and drums, as well as the western violin. Korb's flute (a non-Asian variety) flits above the other instruments while the erhu adds an exotic Far East element to the romantic piece. This is the strength of Asia Beauty—the seamless integration of authentic Asian instruments with more traditional western ones, e.g. piano, bass, drums, and guitar. However, it's not just the instruments but also the melodies composed by Korb which draw the listener in, whether she/he is acclimated to Asian music or not.

I mentioned earlier that Korb wrote a folk tale that serves as the backstory for some of the music on the album and those songs start with track two, "Journey Begins." One might suppose that these songs are the most "Asian" sounding and yes, there is an overt element present, however track six, "Children's Jig," inexplicably (and successfully) translates Asian instruments to an Irish sound and the piece is a winner, full of joy and cheer. "House of the Five Beauties," which serves as the focus of the story that Korb wrote, reinforces the more Asian influence, with erhu, yangqin, pipa, and guqin all playing an important role, and Korb himself playing the dizi (a transverse bamboo flute), although even here, cello, piano, and drums also contribute. Not meaning to repeat myself, but this song underlines what makes Asia Beauty the triumph it is, i.e. the melding of the Asian with the western to create something that honors both musical cultures.

The latter section of the album focuses on music which was influenced by locales that Korb visited in Asia, e.g. "Palace Garden," "Country Life," and "Two Mountains." "The Reed Cave" is something really special, as it presents Korb playing the Asian "dadi" flute solo in a limestone cave found in the Guangxi Province with a wonderful natural reverberation effect (a la some of Paul Winter's great recordings). "Blue Bamboo" intermixes a subtle blues motif with Korb's Asian flute (dizi) along with pipa (a four string lute), piano, and bass. As if the nineteen songs listed on the album weren't enough, there are two more bonus tracks, unlisted, but mentioned in the liner notes: "The Sword of Heaven" and the truly lovely album closer, "Jasmine Lullaby" which once again melds the Celtic (penny whistle and Celtic harp) with the Asian (via the melodic motifs).

There are many musicians on the album representing both the East and the West, and all the performers put everything they have into the parts they play; each one of them brings something special to the party. The guest players are: Lin Xiaoqiu (erhu), Liana Berube (violin), Bill Evans (accordion and piano), Donald Quan (piano and tabla), George Koller (acoustic bass), Larry Crowe (drums and percussion), Wendy Zhao (pipa), Sharlene Wallace (Celtic harp), Aidan Mason (guitar), Steve Lucas (acoustic bass), Chris Donnelly(spoons), Zhang Di (yangqin), Lucas Tensen (cello), Nan Feihong (guqin and guzheng), Laila Biali (piano), Paul Intson (kalimba, guitar, acoustic bass), Lin Xiaoqiu (erhu), Jade Hong (guzheng), Ma Xiang Hua (erhu), Yi Qin (pipa), Wang Long (yangqin), Ren Jie (guzheng), Lou Pomanti (piano), Ray Hickey Jr. (guitar, guzheng, koto, shamisen), Cynthia Qin (guzheng), Susan Greenway (piano), Bill Bridges (guitar), Ben Riley (drums), and Rick Shadrach Lazar (percussion).

Asia Beauty is about as essential a world music album as you are likely to hear this year (and likely this decade, too) and it represents a high point in Ron Korb's already impressive discography. Overflowing with creativity, imagination, and musical artistry, the recording features the motifs, influences, and instruments of the Far East and seamlessly seasons them with just enough Western flavors as a way of revealing Asia's rich musical heritage to unaccustomed ears. Throw in the gorgeous photography and the fascinating liner notes contained in innovative packaging and voila—a must-have release for world music lovers.

Asia Beauty is available directly from the artist or from  Amazon, CDBaby, or iTunes.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

REVIEW: Elise Lebec - Heart Song

Heart Song


By the end of my first playing of Elise Lebec's Heart Song, I went to the computer to verify that this was, in fact, her second release. Yes, it is. After clearing that up, I listened to the album a second time and my evaluation of this superb album intensified even more. How can an artist release a second album that is so accomplished, self-assured, confident, and, at times, even quite daring? Where does that come from? The composing talent, the ease with which she plays with others, the delicate control of shading, nuance, tone, and the sheer beauty of each piece, all combine into a statement of soulful maturity, emotional depth, and artistic integrity that many performers would be lucky to achieve in their tenth release. It is difficult to overstate how good an album Heart Song is. It bespeaks an artist who knows exactly where she is going with her music and how to get there. 

Before getting to the music itself, props must be given to the artist and her co-producer, Michael Rosen, who also mixed and engineered the album and also whoever mastered the final product at Ken Lee Mastering in Oakland California. This is one fantastic sounding album and putting it on while doing something that will distract from absorbing all that this recording offers will be cutting yourself short—trust me on this.

Most of the music on Heart Song is softer in nature, and much of it is pensive and reflective, but not all of it, which I will get to later. Accompanying Lebec on selected tracks are cellists Elizabeth Vandervennet, David Darling, and George Chavez, flugelhorn artist Jeff Oster, and drummer Michael Urbano. As stated above, each of them is integrated perfectly with the pianist's lead melodies, displaying their estimable respective musical gifts.

The album begins with "Silence," a beautiful, plaintive solo piano piece that puts Lebec's expert control of nuance on prominent display, as her hands maneuver deftly, traipsing lightly over the keys on this semi-melancholic song. "Lullaby," the first of Lebec's duets with cellist Vandervennet, is lovely, flowing with melodic warmth. The two artists play as one, complementing each other seamlessly. Real magic starts to happen on the title track, a delicate, somewhat sad, but achingly beautiful romantic tune with a fantastic  main refrain (later in the album, this piece is reprised as a duet with cellist David Darling, and both versions are excellent but have different emotional impact – at least for me).

As mentioned earlier, Lebec takes some chances on this album and "Pirates and Poets" is one of those. Opening with an eruption of eerie tape loops, the song begins as a mournful affair with Lebec accompanied by Vandervennet. Most of the mood is established by the emphasis on minor key notes, including a passage in the middle that teeters on the edge of very mild dissonance (but, to Lebec's credit, it works flawlessly). Just after that, Oster's flugelhorn enters the song, belting out sultry blues riffs that speak of late night affairs gone wrong. Lebec takes her piano into even darker territory as does cellist Vandervennet. The track is flat out killer! "It Was Always You" features the cello duties switching over to George Chavez, and admittedly he does have a different style of playing, albeit every bit as good as Vandervennet. The tempo is somewhat faster than some previous tracks, but yet the mood stays at least somewhat downcast, and I imagine the title may refer to ex-lovers meeting years after the break-up and one of them admits "it was always you that I loved." You may be able to tell by now how deeply Heart Song resonated with me on an emotional level due to the evocations I am describing in this review and yes, Heart Song is an emotional powerhouse for me.

Not everything here is dour, of course. "Afternoon Kisses" (which features Oster and drummer Michael Urbano) skirts with shy playfulness via its low-key jazziness. "A Break In The Clouds" could possibly be described as joyful, albeit in a subdued way, with piano and cello (Vandervennet) chasing each other lightheartedly across a musical landscape. Yet, I found myself most entranced by those tracks where Lebec truly pushes the envelope, such as "Ghost Ships," a haunting soundscape with piano, bells, vocals, and singing bowls, all of which brilliantly capture the image of the titular reference. "Moonlit Waters" features Lebec's singing voice, her breathy vocals weaving a tragic torch song worthy of a late night East Village club where broken-hearted souls have gathered to suffer their solitary pain in a collective setting. Assorted electronic textures and subdued tribal rhythms reverberate underneath piano on "Sacred Land" which also features Erick Gonzalez's bilingual spoken word vocals which seem to be about honoring and treasuring the earth (specifically, the "tree of life") and even life itself.

Three of the final four tracks are solo piano (the other being the aforementioned cello/piano version of the title track, this time titled "Heart Song Avec [with] Cello." Each of these three solo numbers is beautiful, from the pensive "Following The Rain" to "Away Into The Horizon" (the most upbeat piece on the album by far) and ending with "Green Leaves" on which Lebec takes the listener to Ireland for a short (1:42) visit. It's a great closing track, leavening the preceding reflective mood of the majority of the album with a dash of warmth and good cheer as if the artist is waving us goodbye with a smile on her face and the sun in her hair.

By now you can tell how blown away I was by Heart Song. As a jaded 18-years-long music reviewer, I don't impress anywhere near as easily as I once did. Heart Song has me excited to be a critic again, such is its deep, rich, emotional impact. Elise Lebec's talent and vision is staggering. What a future this superb pianist has indeed.

Heart Song is available at CD Baby, Amazon, and iTunes.