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.

REVIEW: Paul Adams - Imaginings

Lake Front Productions

Imaginings, the new album helmed by multi-instrumentalist Paul Adams, is a delicious smorgasbord of tasty musical treats from across the globe, although that doesn't properly describe the unique approach Adams and his guest stars (see below) have applied to the world fusion genre. There is genre-bending, and then there is Imaginings. On the latter, the genre isn't bent, it's intertwined and intermixed and spun out into a glorious multi-hued comforting quilt of musical goodness, embodying an assortment of moods and evocations but all of them aimed at enriching the listener's well-being. In the accompanying one-sheet with the album, Adams states "We need diverse elements working together. We need playfulness, growth, and perhaps a pragmatic sense of mysticism to get us there. Imagination." Amen to that!

Joining Adams on the album are long-time collaborator and close friend, David Hoffman (flugelhorn and conch shell), as well as Elizabeth Geyer (piano) and Pravin Godkhindi (bansuri flute). Adams plays (get ready for it!) flutes, Chinese hulusi (a wind instrument), electric sitar, hang drum (a tuned metal percussion instrument), percussion, guitars, and piano. Without taking anything away from the other three artists, Adams' virtuosity and proficiency on all these instruments winds through the album's twelve tracks like a river coursing through a serene landscape. I have been a huge fan of this talented artist since I reviewed his album The Propertyof Water in 1997 and hopefully he is finally going to garner the praise which has more or less eluded him up to this point.

Moving on to the music itself, Imaginings encompasses a broad range of influences, but the presence of Godkhindi's bansuri and Adams' own sitar playing give the tracks where those instruments are predominant a distinct Indian sound, obviously. There are also moments where Native (wood) flute is emphasized. However, what makes this album so special is how these surface influences are sometimes peacefully overcome by the diversity within many tracks, e.g. the whimsically titled "Panda Bears at Breakfast" starts out with haunting Native flute against minimal piano accented with shakers, and you would think you are in for a serene meditative Native fusion peace—but ever so slowly other elements are introduced. The piano takes on a slightly jazzy undertone and before you know it, a shuffling funky rhythm has emerged and what sounds like a Hammond organ to me is churning away with a jazz refrain underneath the flute, which now and then flits about with unrestrained liveliness. It's a very cool transition. "Giggles and Grooves" opens with birdsong and, yes, a child giggling, and one might muse "hmm, a new age soundscape coming up" but then sitar comes into the picture, albeit played in a distinctly bluesy way, and as the track builds, one realizes that all these musical (and natural) elements are coalescing into something whole that is unlike its parts. Hawaiian-esque guitar and tuned percussion only serve to elevate the tropical spice in the piece. Wordless vocals and flugelhorn join the party and, well, I dare you to not smile. The title track morphs from a brief ambient-like opening to a midtempo chill-out tune, percolating beats under a sprightly flute melody, jazzy sitar, and synthesizer (un-credited, although I would guess it's Adams) shadings that color the song perfectly. "Like Blue and Velvet" once again starts off in a Native flute vein, but the early introduction of sensual blues piano steers the affair into a different direction, followed by dobro guitar. One can almost picture the sun cresting on the horizon as "Upon Early Rising" starts off, with plaintive piano, flute, and keyboard textures combine to evoke the slowly brightening sky at dawn. Unlike some other tracks on Imaginings, this one more or less just builds on the same elements and doesn't twist and turn into something else, but that is only meant as a description and not a criticism, because the song is so good that it could easily be from a Deuter album and you know that is high praise.

I wish I had the space to cover every track on the album in detail, but that would spoil the fun of hearing the other great songs (not mentioned in this review) for the first time with no preconceptions. I strongly recommend/suggest quality headphones or a decent stereo system for your first listen to this recording. Adams obviously spent a lot of time mixing this because every instrument sounds gorgeous and the balance of each one is spot on, along with the environmental sounds when they are present. Paul Adams, Elizabeth Geyer, David Hoffman, and Pravin Godkhindi have created something special on Imaginings. They have tapped into a universal element of music, a cohesive vision that encompasses a global perspective but merges those separate influences into a sum that invites everyone to the party. It may sound cliché but music is the universal language and Paul Adams is one of its great speakers.

Imaginings is currently available at CD Baby and will soon be available at Amazon and iTunes.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

REVIEW: Kori Linae Carothers - Fire In The Rainstorm

Fire In The Rainstorm
iRoknNod Records

Kori Linae Carothers journeyed once more to the woods of Vermont and Imaginary Road Studios where she recorded her previous album, Trillium. However this time around, Carothers decided to leave her electronic keyboards at home. Under the watchful gaze and artistic guidance of the production team of Will Ackerman and Tom Eaton, Carothers took the plunge and relied on piano, and piano alone, to convey her musical message on Fire in the Rainstorm. Apparently, her muse thought it was a great idea because the album is a revelation for this gifted musician and composer. cdbaby-logocdbaby-logoBy stripping away her assorted keyboards and baring her soul through the piano's ivories, her music has reached a new level of immediacy and intimacy. Carothers has always had an amount of dynamism in her music, and there is plenty of that here as well at times. However, on Fire in the Rainstorm she displays an uncommon level of shading and nuance that could only be achieved by "going back to basics" and letting a piano be her only voice. It's certainly her most self-assured recording to date.

Of course, the album sounds terrific. Tom Eaton saw to that (as he usually does). However, a superb job of engineering can also reveal an artist's shortcomings much more clearly than a less-than-admirable job. No such problem with Fire in the Rainstorm, as the clarity of every note and chord reveals Carothers' immense talent and complete control over the keys, as well as her mastery of nuance and subtlety. I was surprised time and time again at how she combined a level of total composure and self-assuredness with deep emotion and human warmth. After reading the liner notes, I probably shouldn't have been surprised at the latter. Carothers dedicated the album to her daughter Claire who has served overseas, and I'm sure that wellspring of emotion, once tapped into, served forth with plenty of inspiration for these twelve tracks.

There is a signature sound throughout Fire in the Rainstorm, even though the individual tracks contain plenty of variety. The opening "A Day Like No Other" features a melody which flows with a feeling of restrained power while "Nunu's Sunrise" bubbles lightly over with a gentle optimism. "Meadow" features a delicate repeating refrain underneath a sunny-day lead melody and seems to convey a sense of fun-filled movement, like a musical sensation of skipping or running through the titular reference. In stark contrast, "Tidal Rift" has an edge of dramatic tension although the bridge mellows out nicely before returning to the main melody. The title track is surprisingly more subtle than I would have expected at the outset but builds to a powerful passage, subsides, and then escalates to an even greater sense of urgency and passion.
The remaining seven tracks explore various nooks and crannies of the artist's memories (Carothers describes the album as a "collection of personal stories told by solo piano soundscapes"). Whether slightly sad or somber, cheerful and triumphant, or passionate and powerful, in each case you can "feel" the emotion that the artist is injecting into each note and chord. Kori Linae Carothers took a chance with this recording and from my perspective she has succeeded in uncovering an entirely new facet of her musical personality, one that invites the listener into the artist's life in a personal and intimate way. Fire in the Rainstorm is one fire that you will not be in a hurry to put out.

Fire In The Rainstorm is available directly from the artist (via bandcamp) as well as Amazon, iTunes, and CDBaby.

Friday, May 8, 2015

REVIEW: Fiona Joy - Signature - Solo

Signature - Solo
Tiny Island Music (a division of Blue Coast Records)

Fiona Joy's Signature - Solo, her first solo piano album, is something special and is, to my ears, her best work to date. Fiona Joy's earlier albums did a fine job of showcasing both her piano playing and her composing talent, but by putting her in the solo spotlight, her inherent warmth, sensitive touch on the ivory keys, and superb control over a variety of styles, tempos and moods is much more clearly laid out for the listener. This is a pure treasure of a solo piano recording, one that grows on you after each successive playing (and you will probably want to hit "repeat" more than once when you play it). In addition to the music itself, the album sounds tremendous (the liner notes state "recorded by Cookie Marenco at OTR Studios" and Marenco did an exemplary job. High notes ae pure and crystalline and the lower register punches through with drama and passion.

"Ceremony" opens the album with a rapidly played upper register note progression that soon moves down the scale to the middle register with a playful exuberance. Fiona Joy balances upper and middle with adroit skill and artistry, finding the perfect balancing point, and sometimes taking the melody down into the lower registers with equal aplomb. The refrain on this track is ultra-infectious and certainly conveys a sense of the title's evocation of something worth celebrating. "Grace," the second track, goes in the opposite direction, the music being pensive and somber, yet laced with a warm gentility at times (also an occasional deep-seated sense of power). Fiona Joy's subdued playing, with expert command of nuance (especially in the early passages) is beautiful. "Fair Not" has an ebb and flow feel to it, cast in a shadowy mood that is mysteriously romantic and sometimes neo-classical. I hear a subtle gothic (as in gothically romantic) influence at times, but it may not be discernible to everyone. "Once Upon Impossible" (intriguing title, that) features a fluid lead melody with a melancholic air to it to it. The track will appear later on the album done as a duet with acoustic guitarist Lawrence Blatt (the only other artist on the album and only on that one song). Fiona Joy likes to play around with time signatures occasionally and on this song she handles this technique well, slowing down and then elevating the tempo to emphasize the drama of the piece. On "Calling Earth," the sustain pedal (and its reverb effect) conveys (to me) a sense of loneliness and despair which, I imagine, is intentional as perhaps this song could potentially portray being adrift in the blackness (one might see this as music to accompany Sandra Bullock's character trapped above Earth in the film Gravity or that's perhaps my isolated take on it). "Invisible Train" (yet another enigmatic title) captures the feel of traveling at great speed, yet with an undercurrent of darkness or foreboding. Fiona Joy's playing bursts with a mixture of unbridled energy and dramatic tension. Her fingers fly with breathtaking rapidity yet never falter once, even when the upper register explodes in a flurry. Great technique! Other tracks include the reflective tone-poem like title track (one of my favorites not just here but among all the songs she has written over her career), the quasi-minimalism of "From The Mist" (with an undercurrent of stately drama), and the closing "Little Star" with its gentle feeling of nostalgia and a deliberate yet slow tempo. On "Once Upon Impossible" (the second version of the song on the album), besides Lawrence Blatt's guitar (which is quite subdued in the mix), Fiona Joy also sings, her lovely voice giving the track a pronounced, almost ethereal, sense of mystical beauty (part of that is how her vocals are recorded, with some reverb so that they sound especially alluring and mysterious. Her singing reminds me of some of the female vocalists on the Projekt label with that same quality of whispery, breathy, dark sensuality.

While I have enjoyed all of Fiona Joy's previous piano/ensemble recordings or her blend of piano and keyboards, e.g. Blue Dream, 600 Years In A Moment, ICE-Piano Slightly Chilled, et al., I was unprepared for what Signature - Solo unveiled to me. Pared down to the bare essentials, Fiona Joy's piano playing can not only stand on its own, but is a delightful feast for the ears, full of emotion, resplendent with artistry and technique, and draped in a myriad of emotions that comes through on each and every note and chord. It's sure to be one of the best piano recordings of this year and represents a new high water mark for this talented woman, for whom the future looks ever brighter all the time.

Signature - Solo is available at Bandcamp, Amazon, and iTunes.


REVIEW: Jeff Oster - Next

Retso Records
Jeff Oster's Next (as in "the next big thing") is a masterful collection of tunes that blurs the lines between jazz, chill, funk and ambient/new age as if boundaries simply didn't exist. It is certainly one of the most entertaining albums of recent years, one that is polished to a chromium sheen by the ace production/engineering team of Ackerman and Eaton (I shouldn't have to give you their first names at this point), suffused with genuine warmth and humanity, and overflowing with a sense that the many musicians on the album had a great time recording it. And what a cast of players Oster assembled for Next! A huge tip of my hat to all of 'em: Chuck Rainey (bass), Tony Levin (bass), Michael Manring (fretless bass), Bernard "Pretty" Purdie (drums), Philip Aaberg (piano), Catherine Marie Charlton (piano), Ricky Kej (keyboards and bass), Vanil Veigas (sarangi), Nile Rodgers (guitar), Todd Boston (guitar), Taylor Barefoot (guitar), Scott Tarulli (guitar), Carl Weingarten (slide guitar), Shambhu Vineberg (guitar), Britt Thomas Brady (Fender Rhodes, guitar and keyboards), Melissa Kaplan (vocals), Jeff Taboloff (tenor sax), Noah Wilding (vocals), and Ackerman (guitar) and Eaton (keyboards, guitar, bass, percussion). Whew!

Even with all these sterling talents on Next, the unifying factor throughout the album's twelve tracks is Oster's flugelhorn and trumpet playing which, frankly, has never been better. Oster's control of nuance and tone is almost eerily perfect, it's just so sublime and fluid. It doesn’t matter what the music calls for, be it funky licks, soothing ambientish soundscapes, or blues-tinted jazz runs, he is not just up to the task but excels at it. Other than a very solid cover of the classic tune "I Can’t Make You Love Me" (made famous by Bonnie Raitt) and two other tracks ("And We Dance," co-written by the artist and Will Ackerman and "On Mother's Day," a compositional collaboration between Oster and Shambhu) Oster penned the remaining nine tunes which makes Next even more of an accomplishment.

For me, Next excels at one thing more than anything else—creating an atmosphere of laid-back relaxation without resorting to "relaxation music" clichés. Even when Oster and crew "kick it" in the funky opening title track, the expert way the song is mixed (spot-on laying of the drums and bass in the mix) brings the tune in as nicely chilled funk as opposed to a "tear the roof off the sucka" funk a la George Clinton. "Night Train to Sofia" washes over the listener with a flowing jazziness laced with a sense of bluesy longing. The drums and bass impart a noticeable rhythm which ties in nicely with the titular reference without directly aping the sound of steel wheels on rails. Kaplan's vocals cry out in muted fashion like a distant siren song, calling to her lover. Superb stuff! "Gardens of Varanasi" features Veigas' sarangi playing (an Asian string instrument) which casts a subtle world fusion shadow but the mood of the cut is more jazz-oriented by the ending with a mellow beat and Oster's fluid lead melody. Eaton's Fender Rhodes that kicks off "Turn Left at San Pancho" places the cut in a fantastic slightly-retro jazz vein (think vintage era Bob James) and once again, the solid drum/bass rhythm section lays down a solid groove over which Oster plays one of the album's catchiest refrains.  

Track after track, Next delights with outstanding musicianship, sterling production, and some of the tastiest horn licks that Oster has ever committed to a recording.  "I Can’t Make You Love Me" is every bit as soulful and sorrowfully romantic as Raitt's version while "Ibiza Sunrise" sounds like you would think it would, unfurling slowly over a downtempo groove with layers of synthesizers, guitar and vocals and Oster's flugelhorn circling above it all like a graceful bird gliding over the titular island's coastline. "Avenue D" pulses with one of the more uptempo beats on the album, set aglow with Eaton's twinkling Fender Rhodes' keys while Oster's trumpet and flugelhorn intertwine with a graceful sense of subdued joy. Carefully placed environmental sound effects enhance the carefree nature of the song and Todd Boston's tasty guitar solo in the bridge adds yet another playful dash of spice. "The Mystery of B" slows way down with an ambient-like sensibility, an atmospheric blending of flugelhorn, bass, guitar, piano, and assorted keyboards that flows ever so patiently, slowly building to a mild elevation of drama. "Heroes" is the most dynamic track on the album with Charlton's piano and Taboloff's sax providing the opening mellow passage before the song comes to life with a more pronounced bass-heavy beat and percolating synthesizers over which Oster and guitarist Taylor Barefoot set things afire, eventually joined by Taboloff before the track ends. Next comes to a perfect ending with the restrained "And We Dance," a beautiful duet with Ackerman playing his trademark warm, introspective acoustic guitar and Oster blissing out on flugelhorn.

When I have to review an album as outstanding as Next, I worry that my praise will come off as gushing hyperbole, or even worse, sycophantic ramblings. However, I would be remiss if I didn't state that Next is flat-out amazing. Certainly this is Jeff Oster's best recording to date (which is no small thing in and of itself). But it's more than that. It is a landmark album that should hold almost universal appeal to anyone who has even a mild love for jazz or chill, as well as groove-oriented instrumental music. Next truly is the "next big thing." I wouldn’t want to be Jeff Oster, though, 'cause I have no idea how he will top this! It's hard to improve on perfection!

Next is available at Amazon, iTunes, and CDBaby.

Friday, April 24, 2015

REVIEW: Erik Scott - Spirits


There was a marketing campaign for an automobile manufacturer that stated "This is not your father's Oldsmobile." Well, folks, Spirits is not your father's bass guitar album. Erik Scott, who cut his teeth in rock groups such as Alice Cooper and Sonia Dada, as well as a slew of session work and also producing other artists, has taken the electric bass guitar and reinvented it in a way that is refreshingly original, startlingly innovative, and flat out fantastic to hear. Spirits is one of those albums where I thank my lucky stars that I haven't retired from reviewing yet. This is emotionally rich, warm music that draws you in from the first track and holds you in its beguiling grasp until the final seconds of the last song. Whether relaxed and mesmerizing, pulsing with rhythm and energy, or laid-back with a nicely chilled vibe, Spirits delights at every turn.

Besides plying his craft on bass guitar (fretless and fretted), Scott also plays keyboards and drums and percussion programming. He is joined by a great crew of guest artists, all of whom contribute mightily but the one person I feel I would be remiss not mentioning up front is John Pirruccello who plays steel guitar on five tracks and man, does he play steel guitar! (He also performs on mandolin on one song). Other guests appear on acoustic guitar, piano, organ, drums, electric guitar, percussion, violin, flute, and English whistle, I hope that, as I listed all those instruments, you started thinking, "Wow, this sounds ambitious!" Yeah, Spirits is all that and then some. Crisscrossing between genres with tasteful audacity, Scott and crew have hewed out a meshed genre that they then call their own. Jazz fusion, blues, world beat, ambient, chill-out - hell, it’s all there in one way or another, but the real joy of Spirits is what a melting pot approach it embraces. The songs are just this singular achievement of taking elements and combining them into a stew that is both wholly accessible (to say the least - I have played this album something like 10-15 times and love it more each time) and also boldly adventurous. The most amazing aspect of this recording is how effortless it sounds, as if Scott and his compatriots did all this instinctively, yet adhering to a cohesive musical vision that is, well to be honest, kinda mind-boggling.

Pealing steel guitar opens "Peace On Saturn" quickly joined by Scott's bouncy, cheery lead bass line. The merging of the steel guitar's "island" feel with the laid-back thumping of the bass notes is instantly appealing; it's funkalicious but in an oh-so-relaxed way. "Other Planets" starts off in a spacey vein before ethnic percussion cuts in on the synth pads and ethereal vocals, and here comes Scott spiraling in with a simply beautiful bass melody accented by some electric guitar that adds some cool sound effects without becoming too "out there." This music is just so darn mellow and gorgeous. Headphones are a revelation as the mix on this disc is something else, as all sorts of coolness lies in the peripheries on most songs. "Free" also kicks off in an ambient vein but when the violin cuts in, the song takes on a mournful cast with a hint of Irish melancholy. When the mid tempo rhythm enters (via percussion, drums and Scott's bass) the sad melody becomes even more pronouncedly Irish-inflected. "Donnie and Sancho" swirls out on moody synths at the outset before an acoustic guitar in the lead (accented by Scott's bass) takes the cut into spaghetti western territory, with a dash of menace and danger laced into the Spanish-flavored guitar and soulful bass lead. One expects to hear the Man With No Name utter a sparse line of dialogue at any minute. "Weightless" once again shines the spotlight on Pirruccello's steel guitar, pealing languidly alongside Scott's lead bass which pumps out another slice of laid back goodness. Scott composed all twelve of the tracks on the disc, save one which is an interesting take on Lennon/McCartney's classic "Yesterday." What strikes me every time I play Spirits is that Scott composed all this diverse music and also how unselfish he is with all these guest artists. Yeah, bass is frequently prominent in the mix, but always as part of an ensemble sound. Scott is one of the best "team players" I've heard in a long time.

There's so much more I could write about Spirits…the joyful Celtic-fusion-flavored "Run," the down-home folksiness with a hint of blues on "Foggy Bridges" and the dramatic miasma of world fusion (with Indian spiciness) meets infectious chill-out (think Ace of Bass catchiness - and don’t deny that the beats from "All That She Wants" weren't classic!) with a dash of Fargo soundtrack on "Gypsy Mother and the Royal Bastard."

Spirits is just so damn fantastic that I can’t think of a fitting end to this review except to say that it's one of the best performed, most imaginative, and most engaging albums I've had the pleasure of reviewing in the last several years. Erik "Eski" Scott is a visionary artist and Spirits is solid proof of that statement.

Spirits can be purchased at CDBaby, Amazon, and iTunes

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Issue 12 - the final issue - is now available for viewing

Issue 12, (view it here), was published two and half years after the debut issue and marked the end of Wind and Wire as a hard copy magazine. The end came abruptly and occurred simply because I ran out of money. This issue marked the reviewer debut of RJ Lannan, and for that reason alone, it is a significant milestone, as RJ has gone on to a fantastic career as a music reviewer and I am proud and honored to have given him a leg up on his path to where he is now. Ironically, this is li also likely the best looking issue layout-wise and is certainly the most professional looking. The main interview (with David Parsons) was conducted by guest writer Bert Strolenberg who graciously allowed me to re-print it.

I hope you enjoyed all 12 issues of Wind and Wire. Revisiting these issues is, of course, bittersweet for me. I can't help but wish it was still being published, but I am proud of what I and my staff accomplished from 1997-1999.

Huge thanks are owed to Neil Leacy, Judy Markworth, Kathy Parsons, David Hassell, Chad Gould, Hannah Shapero, Phil Derby, Mann Makula Hawks, Fred Puhan, RJ Lannan, and all the people who advertised, subscribed, encouraged, and supported our efforts. Wind and Wire would not have existed without the encouragement and love from Kathryn as well as support from my good friends Barbara Gottfried, Ellen Yarns Fredrickson, and John Seaborn.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of true.

Issue 11 of Wind and Wire now available for viewing

Issue 11 of Wind and Wire can be viewed at this link.

Featuring four interviews with artists, including an interview with Tony Gerber of Spacecraft by Phil Derby, the issue also featured a noticeable printing error by the company that printed the issue, namely, margins for some pages were non-existent with the print sometimes barely fitting on the page.

The most notable article in the issue, though, and the one I received a lot of feedback on, was non-music related. My editorial this issue was a tribute to Kathryn's and my dog, Piaf, whom we lost between issues 10 and this issue. I received a lot of letters from fellow dog lovers who told me it was one of the most touching memorials to a pet they had ever read. To this day, when I read it, I cry remembering Piaf's gentle nature. She was the first dog I ever "owned" (Kathryn had her when we started dating in 1996).

I hope you enjoy the issue.

Monday, April 20, 2015

REVIEW: Peter Kater & Michael Brant DeMaria - Heart of Silence

Heart of Silence
Sounds True (2015)

Michael Brant DeMaria (Native flutes) and Peter Kater (piano) collaborate on one of the most meditative releases so far in 2015, Heart of Silence. Wholly improvisational, the eight tone poems on the album showcase both artists’ talents for playing in a restrained, subtle yet powerful method. Regardless of the particular piece’s tempo or mood, the overall evocation is one of introspection, a traveling inward to explore the depths of one’s emotions, memories, and connectedness to the world and others.

The opening title track starts the album off in an extremely minimalist vein; both DeMaria and Kater develop the musical theme with utmost patience, delving as much into the silence between the notes as the notes themselves. While no detail is listed in the liner notes about the assortment of flutes DeMaria plays on the recording (other than the three individuals who crafted them), on this track, the flute is low-pitched, which lends an earthiness and a more pronounced primal sensation to it (it even apes the sound of a didgeridoo at times). The second cut, "Radiant Dawn," while opening softly, builds in energy and tempo over its seven-plus minutes, no doubt seeking to evoke the titular reference of sunlight flowing over the horizon and signaling the start of a new day. The shift in momentum from the first track is not jarring, but instead is handled fluidly by the two artists. DeMaria's short flute notes are matched by Kater’s fingers flitting nimbly over the piano keys. "First Breath" returns the music to a sparse vein and also re-emphasizes lower register flute tones. Sustain pedal on the piano notes underscores the mood of patience and even contains traces of haunting mysticism, while DeMaria holds some of those low notes so long that he sometimes achieves an almost drone-like sound. "Holding Space" continues in the same sparse vein, but the piano seems to take a more prominent position in developing the minimal melodic structure, which at times has a somber/melancholic aspect to it. There is an underlying tempo to this piece, but it’s quite slow, and as the song progresses, there is a lightness of mood intermixed with the darkness. "Tender Heart" develops the piano-led melody even more, although long gaps between notes are still heard at times. As the track develops, a more structured, less minimal motif by both instruments takes over and the music evolves into something more fluid. As befitting the song’s title, there is warmth and comfort in the music.

The last three cuts, "Timeless Echoes," "Midnight Dreaming," and "Awakening" all travel more or less the same basic path but with enough deviation so that a seamless integration of musical vision cohesion and variety of particular motifs and thematic approaches is achieved. Each song allows for ebbing and flowing, from sparse musical phasing to more flowing melodic content. "Midnight Dreaming" is particularly evocative, painting a serene yet subtly disquieting soundscape, perhaps conveying a troubled, sonic portrait of a sleeper's dreamscape.

Heart of Silence is obviously ideal accompaniment for massage (the album running time is one hour, likely intentionally), but I can also see it being used in situations such as stress-relief, background for mental activity (played at low volume) such as studying, or perhaps as a sleep aid for young children (you may want to program "Radiant Dawn" out of the sequence for that instance though). The excellent production and engineering quality would also allow listeners to enjoy it as foreground, not just background, music, although the lower register flute notes will require good speakers if the album is played above a quiet volume setting—those low notes are low enough that they may cause resonant distortion in mediocre speakers (understand, this is not the fault of the recording in any regard; I listened once through my computer speakers and some buzzing occurred, but not on headphones or decent speakers). DeMaria and Kater are very much simpatico with each other and in sync musically throughout Heart of Silence, each one displaying their unique gift for expressing the theme "less is more." It's a special recording, one to savor time and time again in order to fully appreciate the detail and nuance exhibited by these two musicians.

Heart of Silence is available from Amazon, iTunes, or directly from the label