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

Friday, April 17, 2015

REVIEW: The Candlelight Guitarist - Sleepytime Special: The Lullaby Train to Dreamland

Sleepytime Special – The Lullaby Train to Dreamland

Geofonica Records (2011)

Throughout his recording career, Brad Powell (The Candlelight Guitarist) has shown that he likes to stretch his boundaries, having released albums of soft instrumental music with nature sounds (such as his debut), a John Denver tribute album (Golden Eagle) and a blending of jazz, acoustic, and neo-classical (Sunflower Serenity). Now, he turns his performing and composing talents to yet another new theatre - lullabies. As I would expect, he has succeeded as this is a fantastic CD, perhaps his best yet.

Many artists put the word "lullaby" in their album titles, but this may be the first one I have ever reviewed where the title is so well-earned. Not only is the music on this excellent album perfect for helping infants and children fall sleep, but the majority of the songs actually are lullabies: "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star," "Rock-A-Bye Baby," "Brahms' Lullaby," and many others. In fact, even those whose titles may not ring a bell will be instantly recognizable when you hear the melody itself.

One caveat, though—if you decide to buy this recording (as you should) to help your young 'uns fall asleep, be sure to buy an extra copy because, trust me, you will want one to play for yourself. This is one of Kathryn's and my favorite "cooking dinner" albums, one that we have enjoyed time and time again. This is due to both the treasured melodies of the many fine songs, but more importantly, the superb arrangements by Powell and the equally sublime performances by himself (on guitar) as well a host of guest stars on piano, violin, flugelhorn, clarinet, percussion, string bass, and tuba (yes, tuba).

Three of the songs on the album are originals by Powell: "All Aboard the Sleepytime Special" (which opens the album in a slightly uptempo but still gentle vein, befitting its placement as the first track), "Hush Little Tuba (Instrumental Fantasy)" (on which Powell once again interjects some classical elements—love the Mozart riff!), and "Ann and Andy's Ragtime Lullaby" (which also has a little spark of energy to it, but again, it's restrained). All the others are timeless classics and will wash over the listener (i.e. if, like me, is old enough to recall them) with warm waves of loving nostalgia.

There's way too much great stuff on this disc to highlight every track. "Brahm's Lullaby" is sweet and tender while "Rock-a-Bye Baby" has that gently rolling fluid feel to it that musically conveys the titular rocking. "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" features a delightful bell tone keyboard alongside Powell's guitar and "All the Pretty Horses" uses flugelhorn to great effect, imparting a pleasant etherealness to the song. "Hush Little Tuba" lets the tuba carry the main melody of "Hush Little Baby" and then evolves into the aforementioned series of classical piece interludes (something Powell has done before on previous albums). "Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Rai (That's an Irish Lullaby)" carries just a hint of Irish folk influence, as does Powell's laid-back rendition of "Oh, Sleepy Boy (Danny Boy)." The last two tracks are the classic "Frére Jacques (Are You Sleeping)" followed by an unexpectedly and thoroughly delightful "Beautiful Dreamer," that seems to float out of the speakers on feathery wings, featuring some of Powell's most nuanced fingering work and spot on string accompaniment. Honestly, if your child/children are still asleep by this point, no music in the world is going to help them hit the hay.

Every Candlelight Guitarist album I have reviewed (he has two more recent ones I haven't heard yet) has proven to be a delight. Whether he is playing as a solo artist or with talented accompanists, performing his own originals or his great arrangements of others' works, he always brings heart, soul, and tons of artistic virtuosity to the recording. Sleepytime Special will calm the busy mind of your young children as well as soothe your own troubled spirit. There's nothing wrong with wanting to feel like a kid again and this wonderful album will take you back if you have the inclination to make the trip. My highest, wholly unqualified, recommendation.

The album is available CDBaby, Amazon, iTunes, and Rhapsody.