Monday, November 26, 2018


Grumpy Monkey Music (2018)

Noël, the Christmas carol album from pianist Charles Denler, exemplifies the truism, "Quality over quantity." At a (relatively) scant 24 minutes long (signifying the 24 days of December preceding the holiday), Denler packs quite the punch (from a seasonal perspective) into this collection of nine well-known standards. His arrangements hew closely to the traditional renderings, although variations for each carol do come into play (nothing to diminish the enjoyment of the music if you consider yourself a carol purist). With I believe one exception, the album’s mood is quiet and subdued, ideal for either late night or early morning playing, when the house is quiet and a mood of repose and peace is sought. The album is listed on the cover as solo piano, but guest artist Richard Niezen makes some brief appearances on bass, cello and what I hear as orchestral strings. However, these appearances are quite sparse, so for all intents and purposes, yes, this is a solo piano offering by Denler.

I have previously noted in a review of one of this artist’s recordings that he mics his piano in a unique way. I don’t believe anyone else’s piano sounds quite like Denler's. There is a softness, a muted sense of the tone itself. It’s possible some might not enjoy this particular aspect of the album, although I find it, for me personally, it increases the music’s intimacy. The tracks include such standards of the season as "What Child Is This," "Silent Night," "O Little Town of Bethlehem," and "the title track (note: some song titles are either shortened or altered, e.g. "What Child," "Hark The Herald," and "Joy To All").

With so many new age-styled Christmas/holiday albums to choose from, across a wide spectrum of styles (e.g. secular versus spiritual carols, up-tempo to subdued, multiple instruments versus solo efforts), I think Noël easily earns a spot in almost everyone’s holiday collection. Denler’s softly nuanced playing deserves close attention but the recording can also be enjoyed in the background (I prefer the former though). I imagine this album, paired with a softly glowing fire and snow falling outside, might be a perfect Christmas Eve soundtrack.

Noël is available at iTunes and Amazon as well as streaming at Spotify and Pandora

Sunday, November 25, 2018


A Winter's Night
Many Miles Music (2018)

I have extolled the acoustic guitar playing artistry of Damon Buxton for a while now (not as much as I should have, sadly, and that is on me). His first holiday music album, A Winter’s Night (with a gorgeous album cover) underscores the praise I have heaped on him in the past. On the recording, he offers mostly-traditional versions of eleven standards (only one of which is secular, "Deck the Halls") plus a concluding original track, "Bells" (which I mistakenly first figured to be his take on "Carol of the Bells").

Buxton plays guitar with near unbelievable dexterity and technical proficiency blended with a soulfulness and sincerity that makes it easy to discern how important making music is to him. He inserts himself into every note played, investing his art and personality into each rendition, fully committing to the carol, time and time again. This abundance of a fusion of talent and heart means that (for me, at least) his music bears up well with repeat playing, each time eliciting a deeper sense of appreciation and even wonder.

Each carol gets its own special treatment, as the opening "Angels we Have Heard on High" is less celebratory than one might hear at Midnight Mass, but still retains the glory and wonder of the carol itself, albeit subdued. "Good King Wenceslas" gets the up-tempo treatment, with Buxton’s fingering shining as he flies over the fretboard with ease and grace. One of the aspects of Buxton’s recordings I admire is how, while he doesn’t settle in on one tempo or mood, he finds a way to "bridge" the differences without causing a "disconnect" in the listener. "O Come All Ye Faithful" goes mid-tempo which fits quite well even though, as a sung carol, this can sometimes become quite powerful. Beethoven’s tried-and-true "Ode to Joy" is treated to an introspective interpretation making this carol, which is played to death during the seasons for many of us, sound fresh, given a more introspective rendering. "Deck the Halls" injects a healthy dose of English folk music elements, appropriately so, and lightens the mood, but not distractingly so. "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," a carol I always felt was meant to be melancholic and somewhat somber, is played slightly up-tempo but retains the feeling of somberness and subtle sensation of shadow. "What Child Is This" (sometimes referred to as "Greensleeves") aptly displays Buxton’s nuanced fingering and he pares the carol down to the bare essentials, in my opinion, which befits the emotional core of the song. The concluding original "Bells," showcases Buxton’s composing skills, which I have lauded numerous times before. Also, his business acumen, as by placing it last, should the listener only want "traditional" carols, one can end the album there. However, the mood and tone of the piece certainly fits in with what has preceded it here.

A Winter’s Night should be appreciated for its emotional core and its musicality, both of which unfurl throughout the album. Damon Buxton has given us an album that is versatile enough to be played (at low volumes) in the late evening for relaxation or at a louder setting for meal times or gatherings of loved ones. What more can one ask for?

A Winter's Night is available at Amazon, Bandcamp, and iTunes.

REVIEW: DAVID WAHLER - Christmas at Home

Christmas at Home
Self-released (2018)

New age soundscape sculptor extraordinaire David Whaler weaves a soothing, serene ode to Christmas on his digital-download only EP release, Christmas at Home. As I have recounted in my reviews of previous Wahler recordings, very few artists are as adept as interweaving layers of electronic keyboards into a seamless whole as this artist does (Kevin Kendle comes to mind, but as of yet, Kendle has yet to release a holiday album). Wahler excels at melding his assorted keyboard melodies, textures, and rhythms in a way to make the end result sound almost organic in nature, rather than assembled bit by bit. This brief but extremely enjoyable selection of five carols is no exception. Ranging from four and a half minutes to just a literal tick below six, this EP is sublime at creating a mood of relaxation and beauty, although admittedly the opening "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" does up the melody’s tempo and a subtle rhythm is in the mix. From that opening, though, we are setting the meter for slow and serene (until the concluding song). An ethereal take on "Oh Holy Night" features harp and angelic chorales and well-placed ambient textures. "Silent Night" begins with celestial tones set against echoed piano, steeped in beauty and beautifully rendered. Twinkling tonalities and plucked guitar are featured on "What Child Is This?" alongside gentle bell tones, as if chimes being blown by gentle winds. Later, flute takes the lead as well as horn and the beautiful base melody of the carol is brought to the forefront. Christmas at Home concludes with the spirited original composition "Snowflake" and it  energizes the conclusion with piano, synth pads, and ambient elements coalescing into a playful celebration of childlike exuberance with fast tempo rhythm carried not by beats but by the music itself. A joyous conclusion to a too-short but ever so sweet musical delving into the wonder of the holiday season.

Christmas at Home is available at CDBaby, Amazon and iTunes