Friday, November 18, 2022

REVIEW: DANA CUNNINGHAM: - Homecoming: Songs of Comfort and Joy

Homecoming: Songs of Comfort and Joy 
Fountain Creek Music (2022)

With so many holiday/Christmas music offerings out there, even in just the new age/contemporary instrumental genres, it always helps to distinguish oneself from the “pack.” Dana Cunningham does that in two distinct ways. One is her playing which is the epitome of a blend of nuanced control and technical proficiency. The other aspect, and the most important for this review, is to arrange traditional carols in a way that they are both recognizable and yet completely fresh, without losing the carols’ seasonal appeal. In this latter way, Cunningham’s Homecoming: Songs of Comfort and Joy is a testament to the artist’s composing and performing skills.

As seems to be the norm these days, Cunningham features nine traditional carols and three “seasonal-sounding” originals. As to the latter, it’s difficult to adequately describe what makes an original song “fit” on a holiday album, but in this instance, whether it be tone, tempo, or melody, they do.  Regarding the subject of traditional carols, Cunningham’s arrangements are certainly imaginative, but each one does retain enough musical “references” to be recognizable. In some cases, more than others, her alterations (for lack of a better word) actually enhance the backbone of the “standard” arrangement. It’s obvious that this album is intensely personal to Cunningham and her carefully nuanced playing, which either flows with a lyrical sensation or flirts in a sparser approach, conveys discernible intimacy. I hesitate to refer to the album’s mood as fully introspective, but it’s closer to that than cheerful or celebratory.

Two guest artists appear on certain tracks - Max Dyer on cello and Mike Sakash on saxophone. While their background playing provides soulful and extremely complementary elements, Cunningham’s piano is always in the forefront on the carols and songs. It’s the core of the listening experience. For myself, I think this is a great late-night soundtrack or, perhaps, on a cold, grey, even stormy days (a snowstorm, of course!). Lastly, from a technical standpoint, the album is excellent, thanks to Gerry Putnam’s production.

Homecoming: Songs of Comfort and Joy would be a welcome and worthy addition to anyone’s holiday music collection. It is one of more heartfelt Christmas albums I have reviewed in many years.

Homecoming is available for purchase via the artist's website here

All piano arrangements of traditional carols by Dana Cunningham. Original songs composed by Dana Cunningham
Album produced by Dana Cunningham
Album recorded, mixed, and mastered by Gerry Putnam at CedarHouse Sound and Mastering, North Sutton, New Hampshire
Art direction and design by Bruce Kennett
Cover painting "Winter Forest" by Michelle Courier

Thursday, November 17, 2022


Positano Songs 
West River Records

Instrumental music pioneer Will Ackerman has not exactly been in hiding for the last ten years or so. Whether he was producing scores upon scores of albums by the constant parade of artists visiting his Imaginary Road Studios in rural Vermont, making guest appearances on some of those same artists' albums, or recording works as part of an ensemble (two albums with FLOW, plus as part of the ensemble releases Four Guitars and Brothers) he maintained a vibrant presence in the musical scene. However, Will's last album on which he performed his original compositions and as lead artist was eleven years ago. So, it was high time, at least in this reviewer's opinion, for him to return and step into the spotlight, a spotlight he rightfully deserves.

When he launched the Windham Hill label, Ackerman began popularizing the fingerstyle method of acoustic guitar playing. That subgenre is now almost as well-populated as solo piano. However, while many people play guitar in that style, Ackerman is a true original. If you listened to his earlier works, and then played Positano Songs (without knowing it was his work), a well-trained ear for music would almost certainly recognize it as his work. Over my many years of reviewing, only a handful of artists have a clear and unmistakable signature sound, and Ackerman resides in that select group. 

The long wait for Positano Songs was well worth it as the album flows non-stop, one melodic gem after the other. The story behind the why and wherefore of the album is too lengthy to recount here (buy the CD and read it for yourself, as it will prove insightful), but this project is, arguably, the most personal recording of Ackerman's lengthy career. This makes sense since the seedling of Positano Songs was planted during a trip to that small Italian town seven years ago.

While I think his legion of fans would've been more than happy with a full album of solo guitar music, Ackerman did include some of the Imaginary Road "usual suspects" on all but two of the ten tracks (the opening "Nighttime In The Chapel" and the closing "I Had To Go There"), and that's apropos, in a way, since when he started producing other artists at Imaginary Road, it began a new chapter in his life. It only seems fitting to feature those folks who have traveled this road with him over the last decade or more to "drop in" and contribute to this fantastic album.

And it is, of course, fantastic. Yes, at times, it does resemble some other albums that have hatched from IR by other artists, but Ackerman is the sole guitarist here, so that special, identifiable performing method of his dominates the overall sound throughout, thereby elevating this album to a particularly lofty summit. Ackerman has always excelled at guitar playing which lets a few notes do a lot of "talking." I have no doubt that Will could go all out and yield fireworks if he wanted to, but his music is about the soft glow of embers, not the roar of a fire. I applaud him for that, and that element is the driving force here. I sometimes use the term "elegant simplicity" to describe a choice few artists' oeuvre and that term is well-deserved for Will Ackerman. The songs on Positano Songs are gentle, reflective, warm, and rich with a subdued sensation of deep emotions (but only the pleasant ones, no somberness or sorrow here). Serving as a tribute to the town and people of Positano, Italy, which Will Ackerman has visited for decades (and where he and his wife, Susan, were married), one can go so far as stating outright that this album is a musical love letter to Positano, brimming affection and suffused with many memories that are dear to the artist.

The only downside to this album is, I imagine, how poor Will Ackerman is going to be hounded by his fans to record another album…and not wait eleven years this time! Sorry, Will, but that's the price of greatness!

Positano Songs is available directly from the artist here 


All music written by Will Ackerman 
Produced by Tom Eaton and Will Ackerman 
Recorded at Imaginary Road Studios, Windham County, Vermont 
Mixed and mastered by Tom Eaton at Universal Noise Storage, Newburyport, MA 
Cover and back cover art: "Etchings of Positano" by Anna Rita Fattori 
Booklet cover photo by Inge Johnsson 
Design by Cynthia Reed

All guitars: Will Ackerman 
Charlie Bisharat: Violin 
Noah Wilding: Voices 
Tom Eaton: Bass and piano 
Eugene Friesen: Cello 
Jeff Oster: Flugelhorn



On A Cold Frosty Morning
IRok’nNod Records (2022) 
Kori Linae Carothers makes a triumphant return to recording and releasing music after an eight-year absence with her delightful and beguiling holiday album, On A Cold Frosty Morning. This is the ideal soundtrack for the run-up to the Christmas holiday, especially when you are seeking an introspective and subtle album for de-stressing at what is (for most people) the most stressful time of the year. Even though it’s been a long time since we last heard from Carothers, to say she hasn’t missed a step is a huge understatement. In fact, for this reviewer, her control of nuance and control of melody has never been better.

Recorded at (where else?) Imaginary Road Studios under the watchful gaze and adroit production of Will Ackerman and Tom Eaton, with Eaton performing his usual mixing and mastering magic, Kori is joined by the crew of usual suspects (see credits below) and, as if it needs stating, they all preform admirably. However, while only one track (“G├ęsu Bambino”) is a solo piano cut, Kori is front and center on every song/carol. In addition, her arrangements of the assorted traditional carols present on the album walk the fine line between note-for-note and imaginative yet still recognizable classics. Her originals fit in perfectly with the traditional carols, too, somehow managing to sound wintry and holiday-seasonal. Another thing to note is the exceptional job done by Tom Eaton on keyboards (six of the ten tracks) applying the subtle but oh-so-perfect amount of “coloring” to the songs. His skillful fills are as textbook as they could be, coloring the piano melodies with just enough atmospheric texture without once intruding. In fact, I did a double take more than once because I wasn’t sure if I was hearing perfectly captured sustain from the piano are actual fills. Well done, Tom!

The mood here, as mentioned above, is reflective and subdued. Don’t expect a rousing version of “Deck The Halls!” As a result, the album is best suited for late night (or even early morning) listening, especially in front of the fire/hearth (what can I say? I’m a romantic at heart).

There’s no sense singling out any particular track because every one of them hits the mark. However, I would like to point out Jill Haley’s exquisite English horn performance on “Coventry Carol,” as well as Charlie Bisharat’s beautiful yet somewhat mournful violin playing on “Memories of Christmas Past.” This does not, in any way, diminish the talents of the other players, but these two performances struck a deep emotional chord in me.

Over my more-than 25 years of reviewing holiday music, I believe that On A Cold Frosty Morning is one of the best “quiet” holiday albums I’ve ever heard. In addition, it is wonderful to see/hear Kori Linae Carothers recording once more after all these years. I know she has had a hard go off it since releasing Fire in the Rainstorm in 2015. I seldom “vouch” for an artist except for recommending her/his album, but in this instance, if you are looking for a holiday carol album to add to your collection, I know Kori would appreciate the support. She certainly deserves it! In the liner notes, she writes “I have always adored Christmas music. After 7 years of various trials and tribulations, I needed to express myself through my music and was encouraged by my family and friends to make this album.” 

On A Cold Frosty Morning is about as perfect as a holiday album can be. It’s also a welcome return to recording and releasing music for Kori Linae Carothers. The album is ideal music to accompany your seasonal activities and merits my strongest possible recommendation.

Produced by Will Ackerman and Tom Eaton
Mixed and Mastered by Tom Eaton at Sounds & Substance
Recorded at Imaginary Road Studios
All arrangements by Kori Linae Carothers. Original songs written by Kori Linae Carothers
Photos by S. Whittle
Piano: Kori Linae Carothers
Cello: Eugene Friesen
Violin: Charlie Bisharat
Voices: Noah Wilding
English horn: Jill Haley
Bass and keyboards: Tom Eaton
Guitar, rainstick, and Hopi drum: Will Ackerman