Thursday, November 9, 2023

REVIEW: MASAKO - Call of the Mountains - Ascent

Call of the Mountains – Ascent

Just one or two songs into my first playing of Masako’s newest release, Call of the Mountains – Ascent revealed why this pianist has garnered universal acclaim and recognition in the well-populated genre of new age piano with not just this album but with all her previous releases. She is not just an artist with technical mastery of her instrument, but also a gifted composer who understands how to infuse her playing with a sense of intimacy that translates into music that can be enjoyed over and over with equal enthusiasm each time. Her style is a combination of accessibility with a subtle sensation of poeticism, never literally minimal but at times exploring the melody through the playing of fewer, rather than more notes. In addition, as she traverses a variety of tempos and moods, her actual method of playing the piano is signature enough that her albums, including this one, remain wholly cohesive. Masako’s “softer” side is somewhat dominant (something I prefer from a subjective standpoint) although a few sparkles of cheerfulness and fun can be heard as well. The overarching theme, if you will, is one of warmth and positivity, influenced by her deep-rooted love of the natural world, as some of the album’s song titles clearly display, e.g., “Conifers,” “Embraced by Green,” “Swift River,” and “Above the Treeline.”

Joining Masako on the recording are some of the Imaginary Road Studios hugely talented musicians that I whimsically refer to as the IRS usual suspects (see credits below) and, obviously, when they contribute their talents it ratchets up the music’s emotive impact, although, truthfully, Masako is one of those pianists that, while she benefits from some accompaniment, she can, from a musical standpoint, stand just fine on her own two feet (or, better choice of words would be her own two hands).

On the promotional one sheet for the album, it's written that Masako lives in the northeast United States and that " Most of her compositions have been inspired by nature. She hopes that her love of nature and eco-consciousness are reflected in her sound, and that her music could help in some way to protect our beautiful planet." The abundant beauty where she lives is absolutely reflected in her music on this album. In this way, she is like Jill Haley who is equally inspired by nature (in the latter case, her many artist-in-residencies at assorted National Parks). Both these ultra-talented musicians create music that can take the listener on walks through landscapes showcasing a variety of natural beauty.

Two of the biggest draws I found on Call of the Mountains – Ascent was its gentility and its sincere soulfulness. Masako is one of those few pianists who, when she plays, imparts a feeling that she is playing just for you, i.e., creating an intimate listening space where she and the listener occupy simultaneously. This is talent of the highest degree and it requires immense control of nuance and tone for a pianist. Masako never veers into melodrama, always tending to the subtler expressions of emotion. As mentioned earlier, Masako allows the fewest notes to communicate her theme yet without veering into overt minimalism, which can prove alienating to a casual listener.

The tone and mood of the music itself is mostly low key and slower in tempo, even on a track titled "Swift River." Many songs have a haunting quality to them, like that of a recalled pleasant memory. Call of the Mountains – Ascent is custom-tailored for afternoon daydreaming or relaxing after a busy day. The music will seep into your heart and you will likely feel your cares slowly dissipate. Embrace the gentleness of spirit that permeates Masako's superb playing and know you are in good hands.

All songs composed by Masako
Produced by Masako, Will Ackerman, and Tom Eaton
Mixed and mastered by Tom Eaton
Recorded at Imaginary Road Studios

Masako: Piano
Charlie Bisharat: Violin
Eugene Friesen: Cello
Jeff Haynes: Percussion
Jeff Oster: Flugelhorn and trumpet
Noah Wilding: Vocals
Premik Russell Tubbs: EWI
Tom Eaton: Bass and synthesizer

No comments: