Wednesday, March 16, 2022

REVIEW: Jill Haley - Wrapped in Light

Wrapped in Light
Coranglais (2021)

With the Covid pandemic shutting down mostly everything in 2020/2021, Jill Haley, a fantastic musical interpreter of the awe, wonder, and beauty of the National Park system, was not given the opportunity for another artist-in-residency position to draw inspiration from for her next album. Since she felt a desire to compose and record just the same, Haley turned inward for a wholly different, yet strangely appropriate, source of beauty to inspire her muse. In this case, Jill delved into the Book of Psalms, which provided her with a literate source of the beauty of nature. In fact, in the liner notes, each track's title is lifted from a specific Psalm and the Psalm number is listed along with the specific instruments played on each track.

I found Wrapped in Light to be Haley's most soothing, serene album to date, lacking the occasional invigorating or playfully dramatic song featured on her national park series of recordings. Another aspect that makes Wrapped in Light different is that it's her first album featuring synthesizer (played by her). Sometimes, the synth provides texture via washes, synth strings, etc. and other times, it's used more directly as a melodic keyboard instrument, e.g., the pleasant bell-like tones at the start of "Forest Sings For Joy." Since this is the first time I heard Haley play synth, I was quite impressed with her dexterity on the instrument.

Jill plays her usual English horn, oboe, and piano, the latter which (to my ears) features more prominently than on any of her other releases. Also on the album are husband David Cullen (guitar and bass) and son Graham Cullen (cello). Only two tracks feature "just Jill" while Graham plays on seven of the ten songs. His cello playing keeps getting better with each album, and, of course, David's guitar playing is his usual stellar work.

Even though the mood of this album (compared to, for example, The Waters of Glacier or The Winds of Badlands) is more serene, don't come here looking for somber or melancholic soundscapes. This is music suffused with warmth and, at times, palpable but subtle affirmation. It's just more low-key in essence than her previous work (although all her albums feature similar tracks, just not as pervasive as on Wrapped in Light).

The synth fills on the opening title track are spot on, and piano plays the most prominent role with a slight but discernible cheeriness, while "Clouds Rise" has David's fingerstyle guitar dominating at the beginning, again with some discrete synthesizer in the background. The first time I played the album, and this song in particular, I thought the music would take a dramatic turn due to the song's title, but any drama, either on this track, or throughout the album, is always subdued. As mentioned earlier, the bell tones/chimes at the start of "Forest Sings For Joy" are classic new age keyboard ones, which made me smile, taking me back to that great period of the genre in the late '80s and early '90s. I just wish that they were sprinkled throughout the track, not just at the intro. "Wings of Dawn" opens with some wonderful synth strings but Haley holds them in check so their effect does not overpower the album's overall sensation of peace and calm.

It shouldn't need stating that Haley's superb woodwind playing (on all but one track) displays her abundant talent, but her piano playing proves to be ear-pleasing as well, and it's featured on all but one song ("The Mountains Rose") which has synthesizer, oboe and cello. It's easy to see why Jill Haley appears on so many other artists' albums when it comes to playing oboe and English horn. She plays them with equal parts emotion and talent, but never in a melodramatic or showy manner.

I'm sure we all want the pandemic to be over soon for any number of reasons. I, for one, can't wait to see Jill Haley once again being invited to be artist-in-residence at another National Park. Personally, I'd love to see her gain one at Acadia on the coast of Maine, because it would be interesting to compare what she comes up alongside one of my all-time favorite recordings, that being pianist Jim Chappell's release, Acadia (1996). Having visited the park myself, I have no doubt Jill's interpretation would equally enjoyable.

Co-produced by Jill Haley and Corin Nelsen
Music by Jill Haley
Photos by Jill Haley
Piano, synthesizer, guitar, and bass recorded by Glenn Barratt at Morningstar Studio
Oboe, English horn, and recorder recorded by Corin Nelsen
Mixed and Mastered by Corin Nelsen


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