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" clich├ęs. 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.