Waking the Muse
It's hard for me to believe that pianist Michele McLaughlin was feeling somewhat uninspired to record music (which is what she states in the liner notes to Waking the Muse) because her two previous recordings, Breathing in the Moment (2012) and Out of the Darkness (2010) were some of her best releases. Yet she professes that just recently her muse began "…coming to life with renewed inspiration and creativity, changing my world from a dark, uninspired landscape to a colorful palette of music that had been hiding inside of me." I know that McLaughlin had, prior to Out of the Darkness, recovered from some personal tragedy and perhaps the two previous albums were part of the healing process and now, with Waking the Muse, she is truly free and alive to follow her muse. Whether my analysis is correct or not, McLaughlin has released an album full of passion, vibrancy, and personal power, traits which she has always exhibited in her music but which seem intensified and more affirming than before.
McLaughlin is what I refer to as a "heart on her sleeve" composer, i.e. there is no subterfuge, no subtlety at work in her music - she presents her emotional intent of a song forthwith and front and center. It's a testament to her considerable talent that this baring of her soul always works so well, because in the hands of a lesser talent, the music would be melodramatic, overly self-conscious, and would grow tiresome. However, it's not just her technique and artistry, which is impossible to ignore, but also her artist's soul, which seems woven into every piece of music she writes. No matter how pyrotechnic she can be (and this woman can really play piano with the best of 'em), there is always she presence of heart, sometimes "in your face" and sometimes between the lines, but never hidden behind artifice.
One aspect of Michele's music that has always stood out to me is how she allows for fluidity in her time signature and moods within songs, a characteristic that she shares with only a few other pianists in the same genre (I am thinking of Timothy Davey in particular). However, where Davey roots his music in jazz and bluegrass motifs, McLaughlin is influenced by classical composers with an occasional nod to minimalism. She is unafraid to change a song in midstream from fast and powerful to slow and soft, morphing the melody from a roar to a whisper. Hearing her play live, and she plays live a lot, would be something to see and hear, I imagine.
It's always been difficult for to encapsulate her albums in just a few sentences, owing to her diversity, so all I can say in summation of Waking the Muse is that it's full of great solo piano music, although if you prefer your music to be staid, relaxed, and with a single dominant motif, you may want to steer clear. Waking the Muse paints for the listener with a broad and deep color palette: romantic, somber, passionate, lively, inviting, and reflective. Take note, though, that these terms may apply only to part of any one song, again because of the artist's ability, perhaps even preference, for mixing it up on a song, allowing the composition to flow with an almost organic sense of evolution over the course of its three to five minute duration.
"Waking the Muse" infuses the uptempo refrain with a hint of mystery and then injects a passage of positive energy. "A Beautiful Distraction" is a somber yet warm classically-rooted piece, and is one the few on the CD that stays put, so to speak. "Humbled" starts off slow and builds toward a faster pace with an uptick in mood as well, erupting with a sensation of celebration near the end before winding back down. Paradoxically, the opening refrain of "Misty Fjords" sounds more Celtic than Norwegian, but regardless, it's a joyous, jubilant, and playful song that kicks up its heels. "Until We Meet Again" is a real gem, and showcases that McLaughlin can write a great romantic ballad, as she switches from soft and sparse to passionate and pyrotechnic, flowing with pronounced yet gentle power. "Torn" may be the most "heart on her sleeve" piece on the album, as the song musically evokes the pain that lies in wait when one arrives at the crux of a difficult decision.
Michele McLaughin is one of the most tireless artists recording in the solo piano genre today, as I always read (on Facebook) about her touring or performing and sandwiching in recording new pieces when she is home in Utah. McLaughlin is also one of the most "open" personalities in this business, always freely sharing her feelings about her life and the world, so it's no surprise that her music presents an equally open book picture of this gifted musician. What I am left with is simple wonderment, because if her muse has only recently woken, I can scarce imagine what lies ahead for her many fans.