Obviously, when you look at the three players on the album Brothers, you can't help but speculate the music is going to be excellent, as well as the production values. However, there are a few revelations that I took away from this recording. First, though, here's what I wrote for a pre-release quote as a courtesy to these three musicians: "Even with the stratospheric pedigree of these three musicians - Will Ackerman, Jeff Oster, and Tom Eaton - and the expectations I held as a result, Brothers still stopped me in my proverbial tracks during my first playing. The album's eight songs flow forth like a gentle breeze on a warm day, carrying relief in every note, but in this case, the relief is a palpable easing of stress, a wave of gorgeous melodies easing the listener gently into a state of utter peace and relaxation...When I've reviewed albums from these three artists, either as collaborators or solo artists, I often feared being accused of hyperbole, but trust me, you will not hear more sincere and ear-pleasing instrumental music any time soon."
So, with that overall opinion out of the way, i.e. yeah, this album is that damn good, here are some more unique takeaways from my many listenings:
- Tom Eaton's piano playing is a revelation. His solo recordings are an example of excellent contemporary ambient music, but I never suspected he had the richness of talent and depth of nuance on piano as he exhibits here. His semi-minimalist approach displayed throughout Brothers was, to be honest, wholly unexpected on my part.
- Jeff Oster owns trumpet and flugelhorn when it comes to infusing serene, contemplative moodiness, with just a hint of bluesy subtleness. He has elevated his game on Brothers to absurd heights.
- Will Ackerman once again affirms his place as a supremely talented acoustic guitarist, but one who can "blend in" with other talented artists seamlessly (a talent he shares with few others).
- This is as close to a "pure" ensemble recording as I have ever heard, with not a single degree of outright showmanship or hogging of the spotlight.
Brothers is one of the most subdued, relaxing, and "beautiful" album that has come forth from Ackerman's Imaginary Road studios. Now, understand, that takes nothing away from the dozens upon dozens of the other releases that Ackerman/Eaton have helmed, but Oster, Eaton, and Ackerman, either intentionally or by accident, recorded a "relaxation masterpiece," of highest caliber. By keeping it mostly acoustic (Eaton is credited with keyboards and electric guitar, but for me, it was hard to pick those instruments out in the mix – which is in no way a criticism; just an observation), this makes Brothers one of those albums I would bring with me on rural back-country road trips. Brothers flows with the type of music that enhances drives through autumnal landscapes, especially in the upper Midwest, where I live.
I couldn't single any one track out for excellence because all eight pieces each carve out a unique yet cohesive niche of artistry, painting in pastels with an undertone of, well, not melancholy or somberness, but reflection and the subtlest sensation of sadness; however, it's not sadness in the traditional sense. More the "sadness" that one feels as one walks through the woods on a cloudy day and with autumn drawing to a close. The world begins its long, cold slumber and yet, in a certain way, there is beauty and charm in the days ahead too.
Okay, enough of my philosophizing.
From my perspective, what Will Ackerman has done with the myriad recordings he and Tom Eaton have produced at his Imaginary Road Studio is basically a resurrection of Windham Hill Records, the label he founded in 1976 with Anne Robinson. While the (seemingly) countless albums the duo have overseen do not feature the broader canvas that the original Windham Hill presented (e.g. no Nightnoise, no Montreaux, no Shadowfax), that does not minimize what they, in conjunction with the many artists whom they have worked with, have achieved these past many years. But even a casual listener of the albums recorded at Imaginary Road will detect some overall themes and motifs, even when the individual works vary (e.g. solo versus ensemble, uptempo versus relaxed). To my mind, how this has played out is quite brilliant. Will Ackerman has created an unmistakable brand that stands for high quality music, with a trademark "essence," if you will.
Finally, to underscore my assessment (and it is, simply put, my sole assessment), take a close look at the cover of Brothers which, quite obviously, emulates so many of the original Windham Hill album covers, with its horizontally positioned nature-scape and stark white in contrast above and below the picture, as well as the use of a plain (in a good way) font for artists' names and album title. Some early Windham Hill examples of this cover layout and design include Ackerman's own Passage (1981), Alex DeGrassi's Slow Circle (1979) and, one of the most iconic albums and covers, George Winston's December (1982). While the label eventually moved into a more varied approach to album design, I think the overt resemblance between Brothers and the earlier Windham Hill "look" is wholly intentional and rightfully so. Like the three I mentioned above, Brothers stands toe to toe as a representative of the best this genre has to offer.
Brothers is available for sale as CD or download at Amazon, for download at iTunes, and streaming at all the usual venues.