Wednesday, October 16, 2019

REVIEW: Gina Leneé - Revealed

Gina Lenee
Revealed

Revealed is pianist Gina Leneé's second album produced by Grammy-winner Will Ackerman and co-produced, engineered, and mastered by Tom Eaton. All but one track was composed by the artist (the exception being her cover of the famous romantic ballad "On the Wings of Love'). As would be expected of an Imaginary Road Studio effort, many of the IR's usual suspects are present in varying roles: Charlie Bisharat (violin), Premik Russell Tubbs (soprano sax and EWI), Jeff Haynes (percussion), Eugene Friesen (cello) Jeff Oster (flugelhorn) as well as Ackerman (acoustic guitar) and Eaton (electric bass). As she showed on Red Diamonds, Leneé displays a deft touch and superb control of nuance and tone, and never allowing her playing to exhibit meaningless artifice or unnecessary pyrotechnics. The guest artists are used sparingly, but as one would expect, their talents contribute to the overall aesthetic of the album whenever they do appear on a song.

Whereas Red Diamonds focused on melodies glowing with soft shadings of romance, Revealed's sound tends to evoke a more pensive, somber mood on most tracks, making the album more reflective and even, perhaps, meditative. Leneé's playing style is not truly minimalist, but tends to be more sparse than some of her contemporaries. And boy, does she make every note count. The prevailing mood of introspection is immediately discerned on the opening "Undeniable" on which Leneé is joined by Oster who colors the tune with a soft glow of jazz/blues. "Finding Me Again" continues the reflective aspect of the first song, albeit with a slightly warmer melodic approach. Leneé's playing on this song flows nicely, as if a river wending its way through the countryside under a twilight's amber-shaded sky.

Before delving into a few more of the songs, it's important to quote some of the artist's liner notes, which go a long way to explain the overall tone and mood of Revealed. "Revealed is a musical dedication to empower YOU, the listener, in the darkest moments when pain, rejection, self-doubt and isolation weakens your spirit and leaves you the most vulnerable." You can understand, now, why the main thrust of the album is a musical portrait of self-exploration and a balancing act of somber melancholy as well as a show of subtle strength. "I Want to Get Closer" exemplifies this duality as the song traverses the opening somberness with a palpable climb to subtle drama, characterized by not just Leneé's piano but Tubbs' softly soaring sax playing. On "Over," Bisharat's violin embellishes the piano melody with just the right amount of tenderness without injecting any sense of the maudlin or faux sentimentality.  "Run Away With Me" is a lighter, cheerier tune, with a slightly sped-up tempo (in comparison to most of the songs on the album). Oster's horn work adds just the right amount of something extra, an element of romance to fuse with Leneé's piano lead.

Throughout the entirety of Revealed, what stands out to me is the depth of feeling and sincerity of emotion that Leneé brings to the fore. This is the work of a mature artist, someone who is quite comfortable in opening her soul to the listener, pouring out her memories as notes on the keyboard. As the winter approaches (for us in the northern climes, at least), here is an album that almost begs to be listened to as the days grow shorter, the nights grow colder, and the outside world slowly goes to sleep. So, set a fire in the hearth, pour yourself a glass of wine, dim the lights, and indulge in the richness that is Revealed.

Monday, October 14, 2019

REVIEW: MERRILL COLLINS, DAVID VITO GREGOLI AND KIMBERLY HAYNES - Every Man Woman and Child: Yoga Flow Suite


MERRIL COLLINS, DAVID VITO GREGOLI, AND KIMBERLY HAYNES
(also featuring Laura Halladay and Maksim Velichkin)
Every Man, Woman, and Child: Yoga Flow Suite
Spiraling Music


Trust an artist with the talent, imagination, vision, and ambition of Merrill Collins to be the driving force behind an album as amazing as Every Man, Woman, and Child – Yoga Flow Suite. Working with world-renowned producer and multi-instrumentalist David Vito Gregoli (who co-produced the album with Collins and co-authored two of its three tracks), as well as noted vocalist Kimberly Haynes, flutist Laura Halladay, and cellist Maksim Velichkin (the latter two have recorded previously with pianist Collins), Collins has crafted a triumvirate of approaches to meditative/yoga music, which while obviously disparate in literal nature, somehow exhibit clear cohesion in establishing a central mood of peace and unity.

Quoting from a document supplied to me by Collins "These tracks [the three songs on the album] were created to supply Yoga practitioners with body, mind, and spirit materials to use in the Every Man, Woman, and Child International Peaceday Project. The musical themes provide thought stream of our highest intentions toward global harmony and connectivity."

There is a lot more info I could provide to you about the aim and purpose of this project and how it came about, but I encourage you to go to the artist's website if you are interested. Merrill and her collaborators are doing great work on this ambitious and important project.

As alluded to earlier in this review, the three songs travel different pathways in their approach to everything from instrumentation to tempo to mood to musical influences. However, one thing that stood out to me, and was reinforced after each playing, was the obvious commitment each artist made to this recording and the sincerity, depth of feeling, and expert musicianship they all brought to focus from the first minute to the last.


Track one, "Every Man, Woman, and Child: Yoga Flow – Om Mani Padme Hum" is a twist on the traditional mantra chant. The overriding influence is a blend of soft (not smooth) jazz and new age, as well some elements of world beat. Collins unfurls the melody slowly at first and then gradually ramps up the pace of the melodic refrain, always embellishing it to a certain degree, which is why I hear a distinct jazz influence, as well as obvious improvisation (while always staying true to the underlying refrain). Gregoli plays tabla and electric bass on the track and he is the bedrock for the tempo, yet never escalates it beyond an ear-pleasing mid-tempo pace. The interplay between Collins and Gregoli is not just completely simpatico but a true delight. Haynes's vocals enter the song at about the three-minute mark, and she embraces the spiritual nature of mantra throughout while deftly sliding into the almost cheery jazziness that Collins and Gregoli have already established. Late in the track, Haynes' vocals are multi-tracked so that she counterpoints her loftier wordless vocals with a quickly repeating straight up spoken mantra.



One thing I failed to mention earlier is that these three tracks are all long, running approximately 20, 20 and 15 minutes in duration, respectively. I must state that seldom have I been held so transfixed by songs of this time length. It is a testament to the musicians, but I must especially mention Collins, who displays such fluidity in her extemporaneous riffing that if you stripped away Gregoli's rhythms and Haynes' vocals, you think you were listening to a truly great jazz pianist.

The second song is "Every Man, Woman, and Child: Yoga Flow – Ambient Journey" and the track features just Collins on keyboards and Gregoli on tambura and sitar. There are no vocals of any kind on the 20+ minute track, which has a more overt world beat influence due to the sitar's presence. Collins' piano is nicely reverbed and her playing is more minimal than on the previous song, and she also adds some keyboard shadings to add a more ambient aesthetic as well. I was again struck by not just the fluid improvisatory nature of the music but how the subtle machinations by the two musicians not only staved off monotony, but added a subtle sense of complexity.

The final piece, "Every Man, Woman, and Child: Yoga Flow – We The People," reunites vocalist Haynes with Collins and Gregoli and also includes flutist Halladay and cellist Velichkin. At fifteen minutes, it is the shortest track, but follows the same format in that the musicians circle each other with their fluid melodies on flute, voice, drone, cello, and piano, like dancers in a poetic ballet. The cello introduces subtle contemporary classical textures, while Halladay's flute more than hints at new age, and Haynes wordless vocals evoke an ethereal mood of sorts. Haynes, Velichkin and Halladay dominate the song early on, with Gregoli's tabla and bass and Collins' piano joining in after the "prelude." If I was pressed, I would categorize this as a mixture of new age and classical, despite the "world" presence of tabla, as that instrument takes a back seat of sorts to the others. At the halfway point, Haynes' vocals traverse into actual lyric territory with refrains of "Every Man, Woman, and Child" being multi-tracked underneath her soaring wordless vocals above the refrain, as well as a separate refrain of "We The People." The track fades out slowly to a beautiful, soothing ending.

Every Man, Woman and Child: Yoga Flow Suite deserves the wide exposures and heapings of acclaim not just for the musical excellence that runs throughout, but because, at its core, it's so well-intentioned and sincere. This is the epitome of healing music as far as I'm concerned. The album envelopes the listener in beauty, comfort, and an overall feeling of the connectivity that music can bring to us as citizens of planet Earth. To that I simply add "Hear, hear!"
The album is available from Amazon, CDBaby and iTunes.
 

Friday, May 10, 2019

REVIEW: JULIET LYONS - The Light Within - Songs for Yoga, Healing & Inner Peace



There is a baseball expression (at least here in Minnesota) when a player hits a home run,  it's "Touch 'em all!" This, of course, refers to the player "touching" all the bases as he makes his journey to home plate. On her album The Light Within, Juliet Lyons "touches 'em all" in two significant ways. One is that this album is most assuredly a home run in the genre of new age  vocal music, and two, she also "touches 'em all" when it comes to approaching this genre in a multi-phasic musical approach. The ten tracks explore a variety of styles, influences, and classifications. The overarching message of these songs is best described by the album's subtitle, "Songs for Yoga, Healing, & Inner Peace." The unifying aspect of the album as it crisscrosses musical styles is Lyons' beautiful, expressive, and soulful voice, which makes this recording such a joy to hear time and time again (I think I have played it at least ten times so far, and each time I hear something new).

In the first paragraph I referred to The Light Within as being in the new age vocal genre, but there is a smattering of chant as well. However, most of the lyrics are sung in English, so don't be put off by this trace element if you normally do not like kirtan/Sanskrit chanting. Also, while some chant/Indian musical influences are present as represented by the presence of certain instruments, e.g. santoor, sitar, and tabla, there is more of a new age sound to the music. Guitars, keyboards, cello, bass, piano, and flute all lend a more contemporary/Western aspect to instrumentation.

Joining Lyons on the album are some prominent guests, including Ron Korb (flute), Ricky Kej (keyboards and programming) and David Vito Gregoli (programming, sitar, bass, guitars). This is not to discount the other seven guests, all of whom perform their roles admirably. Most of the guest artists only appear on one track each, with the exception of guitarist Allen DeSomer who appears on six songs. Production and mixing credits are spread among the artist, Shahead Mostafafar, Todd Boston, Kej, Vanil Vegas, CK Barlow, Scott Horton, and Gregoli. Mastering by Reuben Cohen at Lurssen Mastering is textbook. Lyons' voice sounds heavenly throughout the album, and each of the instrumentalists' contributions are treated equally as strong.

While the album's subtitle may convey to you that this is a laid back recording, some of the songs do kick it up a notch, so those would be better suited to "active" yoga, at least to my ears. The opening track, "Lokah Samastah," is uptempo, even celebratory, and also comes the closest to being more chant than new age, as it mixes mantras with English lyrics. Santoor and tabla lend a decidedly Indian feel to the track while its upbeat "pop" sensibilities swing it into Western music territory. The intermixing is seamless and delightful. Next up, "Om Shanti" dials the pace back to midtempo, but again, there is a discernible blending of Eastern and Western influences. The beats here are not performed by hand percussion but instead are programmed, so one could also identify this as a chill-fusion tune.

There are also some mellow selections on the album. "Eternal Now" has a slow tempo rhythm and Lyons' voice swirls and flits above Korb's flute and DeSomer's guitar. "Dawning Equilibrium," an instrumental, crosses into over spacier new age stylings with layers of keyboards and a plaintive piano in the lead. What might surprise you (as it did me) was the occasional foray into more overt chill-out ("Calm" features a nice slow-tempo beat and Lyons' sings the lyrics with sensual breathiness, and "Heal You" sparkles with a subtle, bouncy effervescence and here Lyons' voice is captivating and enchanting).

The Light Within is about as perfect a mixture of gorgeous vocals, delightful musical compositions, sterling performances, and superb production/engineering as you're likely to hear this year (and probably for a few years to come). It stands toe to toe with albums from the likes of Enya and 2002's later releases as well as similar artists. While there are elements of chant present, they are relatively sparse (with two songs mentioned earlier being the exceptions). The album is more closely aligned with the new age vocal genre (and one could also throw in references to both folk and pop for good measure). It's a truly special recording in every way.

The Light Within is available at Amazon, CDBaby, iTunes, and Spotify

Thursday, April 25, 2019

REVIEW: FOUR GUITARS - Four Guitars


FOUR GUITARS (Will Ackerman, Vin Downes, Todd Mosby, Trevor Gordon Hall)
Four Guitars

You'd likely have sky-high expectations for an album which featured instrumental music pioneer and Grammy winning guitarist Will Ackerman, joined by three of today's brightest stars in the same genre (acoustic guitar instrumentals).  Four Guitars unites Ackerman with Vin Downes, Todd Mosby, and Trevor Gordon Hall (all of whom recorded solo albums produced by Ackerman) bringing together their collective talents and artistic visions. Even if you do hold those sky-high expectations, prepare to have them not just met, but exceeded with ease. This is an album that even fulfills stratospheric expectations. I suspect that you can't bring four virtuosos together and achieve better results than what Ackerman, Downes, Mosby, and Hall have wrought with this fantastic recording.

All but one of the songs here is previously released as a solo effort by the composing artist (the original is the opening track, "August Light," composed by Todd Mosby and featuring all four playing together) but each of the "covers" is reworked, rearranged for one, two, three, or all four musicians. Because of this, there is no reason to consider these songs as being mere carbons of the previously released versions. Each of the ten covers reveals new aspects, new points of appreciation, and an overall exploration of nooks and crannies that were heretofore unheard.  As he has shown whenever he has guest starred on an artist's album, Ackerman (despite his stature) does not assume the spotlight any more than the other three players do. Instead, what the listener hears is a four-way symbiosis of talent, passion, deftness, and mastery of technique.  

The overall mood of the album varies, although the more pensive aspect tends to dominate (which is typical for most of the recordings which Ackerman has helmed since opening Imaginary Road Studios many years ago). Ackerman's iconic "The Impending Death of the Virgin Spirit" is one of more powerful moments on the album, while the opening "August Light" (penned by Mosby and featuring all four guitarists) has a light-hearted feel to it, buoyed by a warm mid-tempo pace. Downes' "Departure" (with he and Hall play) does indeed sound like a musical image of walking out the front door towards a new adventure, but not in a rush, instead a laid back journey where the destination is less important the trip itself. "The Blue Hour" (penned by Hall and played by he, Downes, and Ackerman) combines fingerstyle with some well-played strummed chords and, at times, it sounds like the guitars are birds circling each other in flight. "The Meeting at the Window" is solo Hall and among the more reflective pieces on the album, while Mosby's "The Dolphin Song" (with Mosby, Ackerman, and Hall) sparkles with sunny notes yet maintains a mellow vibe as well, as if capturing (in music) an early morning stroll on a tropical beach and maybe even spotting one of the titular creatures off cavorting in the waves.  Another one of Ackerman's well known songs, "Hawk Circle," features all four of the players, and the tune never sounded fresher with the quartet finding new angles to both the quiet passages and more fiery eruptions of passion.

With ace engineer Tom Eaton performing his usual feats of engineering and mastering magic*, you just know that Four Guitars will sound exemplary, which only underscores the four guitarists' width, breadth, and depth of talent as well as their commitment to making the best possible recording that each of them has in them. They have succeeded, not just admirably (after all, what else would one expect with this pedigree?) but to a degree that we can only hope/pray/cajole that this is merely the tip of the iceberg with many more wonders from these four preeminent composers and performers. As Oliver Twist implored, "More sir, please?"

* Track 4, "The Impending Death of the Virgin Spirit" was produced and engineered by Corin Nelsen

Four Guitars is available for purchase at CDBaby, and Amazon