Sacred Name Sacred Codes by Drs. J.J. Hurtak & Desiree Hurtak with Steven Halpern

Sacred Name Sacred CodesIn recent years the number of albums being released which center on devotional singing, chanting mantras, kirtan, etc. has been on the rise. This is a good indication that more and more spiritual seekers are looking to sound and music that goes beyond entertainment, and which can be used as a tool for inner attunement. A new entry into this genre, although based on very ancient teachings, is Sacred Name Sacred Codes by Drs. J.J. Hurtak and Desiree Hurtak, that features a musical soundtrack well known new age music pioneer and sound healer Steven Halpern.

The album opens with a track called “Prologue,” set to Steven’s ethereal synthscape, along with soft female voices chanting the Divine Name of YHWH. This creates serene and sacred backdrop for an introduction and invocation, first by J.J. Hurtak and then by Desiree Hurtak speaking of the power of Sacred Language and its relationship to our Higher Self, the blueprint of our DNA, and more. Following this are 9 tracks of the Sacred Names chanted in Hebrew by the male voices of J.J. Hurtak, as leading Cantor, and Paul Thomas Burns, along with the female vocals of Desiree Hurtak, Anyah Dishon, and Mary Gilbert, all set to a Steven Halpern soundscape. The album concludes with “The Prophet’s Blessing,” which offers a prayer for the transformation of life and feeling the strength of the Covenant.

Steven Halpern

Steven Halpern

J.J. Hurtak beautifully chants the Sacred Names in a rich and powerful voice that along with the other voices form a majestic angelic choir that is quite moving and is further enhanced, or should I say entranced, by Steven’s celestial keyboard arrangements. Some tracks are more predominately female vocals, while some are more male focused, as well as those, which blend together like yin and yang. The use of reverb adds to the grandeur of the sound evoking the ambience of a vaulted cathedral. The album is beautifully recorded and produced, capturing the deeply spiritual intention of the project.

The CD comes with an informative 12-page booklet that delves into the science and metaphysics behind this music. I will say that this is not casual reading and can be quite deep or esoteric in places. Likewise, the music is not something one would put on while kicking back with a glass of chardonnay, but is a serious sound-healing tool for connecting with higher states of awareness, and seems geared towards those who are committed to their spiritual path and seeking advanced means of attunement.

Considering the depth of the concepts and inspiration behind this project it would be a challenge to do justice angelto them in an article of this scope. However, I’ll share a quote that will provide some degree of insight: “The Sacred Names of the Most High are included here to prepare us to think and work on many levels so we can create a holistic unity that reaches from the Universal to the DNA wave forms within us. The combination of the Names with music opens our mind to visualizing a cosmic frontier and thinking non-locally.

The music invites us to enter into the companionship of the Divine as we sing the Names with the angelic orders and feel the joy of being in orchestration and devotion as we move into the next phase of our spiritual ascension.” The Names on the CD are from J.J. Hurtak’s book entitled The Seventy-Two Living Divine Names of the Most High, which is a collection of Divine Names from the sacred scriptures of the Near East, first published in l973.

Desiree Hurtak & J.J. Hurtak

Drs. Desiree Hurtak & J.J. Hurtak

The album is subtitled: “Sacred Songs that Create the Vibrations of Inner Harmony.” J.J. Hurtak, Ph.D. is the author of several books, including The Book of Knowledge: the Keys of Enoch, translated into over twenty languages. He continues to participate in interfaith studies with leaders of all the major religions and has been an ongoing speaker at the Parliament of the World’s Religions since 1999.

 

Desiree Hurtak, Ph.D. is a social scientist and is the co-author with Dr. J.J. Hurtak of several books including A Commentary on The Gospel of Mary (Magdalene) and The Over-self Awakening. She has also produced several award-winning films.  Steven Halpern is a bestselling composer and recording artist of healing and meditative music who is considered a “founding father” of new age music. He was recently nominated for a Grammy for his hugely popular Deep Alpha CD, which blends healing music with sound technology.

Once again, the accompanying booklet provides information about each of the Sacred Names and is an invaluable part of the listening experience as well as furthering understanding about the meaning and intention behind the recording. While Sacred Name Sacred Codes can be esoteric to some, for those who feel the calling and find resonance within, it is a profound and divinely inspired tool for deep spiritual transformation.

Songs of Leaving by Angelo Râpan

Songs-of-LeavingThe subtitle under Angelo Râpan’s name on his website reads: “Musical Versatility.” This is a bit of an understatement concerning the talents of this Romanian-born pianist/composer, whose musical repertoire expands beyond his classical roots, encompassing music theatre, opera, music for dance, Argentine tango, world music, and with the latest chapter in his life, which he describes as, “contemporary instrumental music of a reflective, soothing nature.” Although this diversity is not surprising considering that Angelo is truly a citizen of the world, having lived and attended school in Romania, Belgium, Spain, Switzerland, and the US, as well as serving as a musical director for a variety of organizations in Belgium, New York, Hong Kong, and his current place of residence in Memphis, Tennessee.

But lets go back to the beginning and trace the career path of this talented artist. Angelo loved music from the earliest age and remembers that: “my parents would find me asleep on the floor listening to my sister practicing the violin.” That Angelo chose the piano is only logical considering that his mother who was a classical musician herself began angelo-pier-41tutoring him at the age of 4. Within a couple of years he was accepted into a prestigious music academy in his native Romania. It was not long until he was earning first and second place at competitions in Romania, Spain and Belgium. However, political tensions in his home country were worsening and by the age of 13, Angelo’s parents encouraged him to leave and continue his studies in Barcelona. He eventually went on to earn a degree in Music Performance at Conservatoir Royal de Bruxelles in Belgium. In my interview with Angelo, he shared: “I am very blessed to have lived around the world and feeling at home in every place that I lived. Being respectful of other musician’s talents, opens the opportunity to engage in sharing emotions that flow directly to the heart of the audience/ listener.”

Interestingly, although Angelo has had extensive classical musical training, he has always been drawn to the art of improvisation. As he recalls: “My first improvisation was from age 6-7, I was very shy then, and I loved to stay in front of the piano and explore scenarios and pathways, discovering emotions that I never discovered with any other artistic expression.” He goes on to say: “I always improvised, I remember being at the piano and making up stories with sounds. Later the classical repertoire opened doors in to how the technical abilities are so important to improvisation; mind and fingers need to be working as one. Working with dance companies in Europe and US was also an important contribution to the ability to reflect the movement in music.”

Gallery-Small-ImagineWhich brings us to the present and his latest release Songs of Leaving. As I mentioned, despite Angelo’s extensive experience in music, this is his first recording in the contemporary instrumental genre. And what better place to launch this phase of his career than the iconic Imaginary Road Studios of Windham Hill Records founder and GRAMMY winning producer Will Ackerman. Overseen by Will and producer/engineer extraordinaire Tom Eaton, the album also features accompaniment by a number of world-class musicians from Will’s exclusive roster of top studio players. Foremost among the things in life that inspire Angelo is nature, and the bucolic splendor surrounding Will’s studio provided the perfect setting for creativity. Not to mention the opportunity to record on the legendary Steinway piano at Imaginary Road.

The opening track, an 8-minute piece called “As We Left,” begins with an extended solo piano intro that has a pensive, searching quality to it which opens up after a couple minutes into a brighter melody, like the sun breaking through the clouds. It’s not long before Angelo is joined by the sonorous cello of Paul Winter Consort member Eugene Friesen as well as Tony Levin on bass, who is best known for his work with Peter Gabriel and King Crimson. Adding a flute-like sound to the mix on Lyricon (an electric wind instrument) is Premik Russell Tubbs who has played with everyone from Ravi Shankar to Carlos Santana, Herbie Hancock, Sting, and more, even including Lady GaGa. Angelo’s lovely dancing melody and adept performance on the piano is perfectly complimented by these outstanding musicians.

The next piece is a touching and heartfelt song entitled “The Light In Kristin’s Eyes.” In our interview, Angelo described the story behind the title: “My wife Kristin had a massive stroke right after the recording was done and after few weeks in ICU the first time she opened her eyes I could see the reflection of hope and the trip that she already made. I thought that naming this track after this experience had a specific purpose for her and me. However, he shares that: “the listener does not have to reflect on a tragedy to identify with this, and that it could equally be about the reflection of the all universe in the eyes of a loved one.” It is alternately romantic and powerful, with elements of Angelo’s classical background shining through.

Will Ackerman

Will Ackerman

Lively up-tempo piano arpeggios begin a track called “Remember” that also features Will Ackerman himself on guitar, the ethereal vocals of frequent collaborator Noah Wilding, Charlie Bisharat, who played with Yanni and John Tesh on violin, bassist Tony Levin, and percussion by Tom Eaton and Jeff Haynes of the Pat Metheney Group. The piece has a triumphant soaring feel that leaves the listener feeling uplifted and energized. This is followed by a couple more introspective and sentimental pieces including an ensemble track called “Places In Our Heart,” and a gorgeous, appropriately reverent piano solo entitled “Prayer.”

The next two songs are graced with a special guest appearance by one of my very favorite musicians on the planet, Jeff Oster, whose unusually ambient applications of the flugelhorn are in a class by themselves and add a spectral presence to any song they accompany. The album concludes with a solo piano piece called “Just Before,” that is a real showcase for the incredibly expressive and emotionally evocative nature of Angelo’s playing. There is a wonderful relationship between notes and space that reveal his ability to tell a story in sound in a more understated manner. I must agree with Will Ackerman who said of Angelo’s musical abilities: “Angelo Râpan inhabits the smallest ecosystem known to musicians: The place where heart and mind are perfectly in balance.”

will-piano-5-3501The joys and hardships that have shaped the life of this outstanding musician are evident in his heartfelt melodies. In his words: “All of this album is an open journal to the life that I can remember, surrounded by music, family, friends and nature. That mixed with a significant social political pressure in Romania in the 80s, a volcano that was about to explode, but family and music being the peaceful silence inside the eye of the hurricane.” From his life experiences, Angelo Râpan has drawn deep inspiration that he shares with grace and eloquence in this exquisite recording. I was impressed by his technical virtuosity and moved by the emotional energy of his melodies. On Songs Of Leaving, Angelo has surrounded himself with stellar musicians and producers to most fully animate his musical vision. While this is his first foray into the contemporary instrumental genre, I’m sure it won’t be his last as listeners tune into the evocative stories in song from this gifted artist.

My Own Little World by Eichstaedt

eichstaedt_coverMy Own Little World is the debut solo album from guitarist Petra Eichstaedt of Munich, Germany. Since all of the songs are instrumental, nothing is lost in the translation and her six strings speak a universal language. It wasn’t always that way though, when she performed and recorded albums in 2002 and 2010 as part of a duo called “Clare,” that created melodic songs with poetic lyrics. Petra’s musical background goes back even further, however, to the age of 14 where she studied classical guitar at the local music school in northern Germany. Her artistic leanings also extend beyond music to painting, photography, and graphics, including a degree in graphic design. For Petra, all these art forms blend in the cauldron of her creative process. In her words: “I always have different pictures and scenery in my head which eventually blends with the music I create.” Other things that influence her songwriting are books and films, particularly ones like “The Wizard of Oz,” “Fantasia,” and “Lord Of The Rings.” Also quite prominent in Petra’s music are reflections of the many places she has visited in her own travels. A number of the tracks heard on this recording are her impressions evolved into songs.

Petra describes the album as “a musical trip into my dreams,” and the journey starts with the title track, or at least Part 1 of it. Nature sounds Petra Eichstaedaccent gentle finger-style guitar colored with reverb and effects to create an almost harp-like quality. A subtle synthesizer string pad in the background fills in the pastoral picture. Her characterization of the song as being “like a dance of elves” provides a good idea of the vibe of this piece. A music video for this tune accompanied by Petra’s nature and travel photography, as well as her other videos can be seen on her website. I liked the way on this song and a number of others that she used effects like chorus and echo on her guitar to add atmosphere and dimension. The next song, “Clandestino,” continues the musical mood that has been set. In an interview she shared a bit about this song and her compositional style in general: “The process for each piece is different. “I always begin with playing guitar. Sometimes, for example with ‘Clandestino,’ I can already hear the violins when I’m just playing guitar. So I have the arrangement in my head when I compose the songs.” Petra writes, arranges, and produces all her music.

A different facet of Petra’s musical spectrum is reflected in a tune called “Gypsy,” which features fast rhythmic strumming in a style alluded to by the song’s title, laying down a driving groove for an ethnic-sounding synth to solo over. A real highlight for me on the album is an emotionally evocative composition entitled “Theme From A Secret Place,” with its simple yet heartfelt melody and soundtrack-like quality as played on acoustic guitar and keyboard. On a track called “My First Song, a lilting flute sound drifts over the folk guitar background, evoking an image of a butterfly fluttering over a field of flowers. And just when we thought we had Petra’s style figured out she introduces new elements in a tune called “Crazy,” that kicks off with a contemporary electronic beat and multi-tracked guitars that almost sound like a laid-back U2. It’s a different feel from the song that precedes it, but I like them both. I also enjoyed the percussive energy of the conga drums that energize a breezy optimistic tune called “Nice And Easy.” One of the aforementioned songs influenced by a place Petra traveled to is “Achill Island,” which is off the Irish coast. Not surprisingly, the piece has a bit of Celtic influence. As Petra describes: “Ireland Petra-Eichstaedt-East-Capehas such a mystic past with castles and fortresses everywhere.  And I love the ocean, wild cliffs and beaches. That is why in some of my music I use the accordion which I associate with the seaside.” Another location-inspired song is the last track, “Sunrise,” written about the East Cape in New Zealand. According to Petra: “The people from New Zealand say that this is the place where the rays of light touch the earth first. I was there and could see the most beautiful sunrise of my life. A New day, a new beginning… new hopes.”

The songs have a slice-of-life quality to them and present little vignettes and glimpses of various realities. My Own Little World has an earthy unpretentious quality that doesn’t seek to dazzle with extravagant production but tells its stories with simplicity and heart. The debut album by Petra Eichstaedt shows potential for this evolving artist. As the saying goes, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with at single step,” and Petra’s first venture as a solo recording artist shows that she is on firm footing and following a promising creative path. I’ll look forward to her continuing adventures.

wellnessmusik

The Gathering – produced by Will Ackerman

While many musicians record albums, few are responsible for creating a music label with such a distinctively recognizable sound that it is practically a genre in itself. Windham Hill Records founder and Grammy-winning guitarist Will Ackerman is one of them. When Windham Hill is mentioned, a clear image comes to mind. According to Wikipedia: “The label is best known for its high sound quality, groundbreaking music, unique flagship collections and tasteful album art within the form of an identifiable label brand identity.” Whether it is the solo piano artistry of George Winston or Liz Story, the acoustic guitar virtuosity of Alex de Grassi or Michael Hedges, the world fusion influences of Shadowfax, or Ackerman’s own superb guitar recordings, to name but a few, Windham Hill has left its footprint on the landscape of contemporary music.

Although Windham Hill may be fondly remembered, Will Ackerman is certainly not resting on his laurels and continues to be a prolific producer of extraordinary music at his Imaginary Roads Studios in Vermont. In an interview with Tom Beninate, Will is quoted as saying: “It’s a great lineup of talent that pours through Imaginary Roads. It’s just mind-boggling. I’m happy to report that some of the best stuff I‘ve worked on in my life is going on now. That is not lip service. I know it in my heart because I feel it. I ain’t dead yet, nor is the music! Some of the most exciting stuff I’ve ever worked on is either in the can or is about to be here. I’m very grateful to still be active and productive.”

The evidence of this can be experienced in a recently released album called The Gathering, which is a compilation or “sampler” of 22 artists presented by Will Ackerman. The tracks were produced and recorded by Will at his state of the art studio, with editing and mastering for the CD by engineer Tom Eaton. Many of the songs make use of the studio’s incredible customized Steinway grand piano. A number of the tracks include session work from Will’s stable of world-class musicians such as T Bone Wolk who played with Hall and Oates, drummer Jeff Haynes from The Pat Metheney Group, long-time Ackerman collaborator Jill Haley on English horn, and bassists extraordinaire Michael Manring and Tony Levin who tours with Peter Gabriel, among others. Having done full-length reviews of the CD’s by a number of the artists on this compilation, I’ve had the opportunity to speak to some of them directly, and have heard glowing praise about their experience of working with Will Ackerman. The music on this collection is diverse and includes solo compositions on piano or guitar, duets, and larger ensembles, ranging from earthy folk melodies to world music influences, and beyond. The Gathering is a harmonic convergence of outstanding talent and a tribute to the work of one of the preeminent producers in music today.

The Gathering convenes with an elegant opening piano solo by Masako. Although she was born and raised in Japan, she now makes her home in the Green Mountains of Vermont, where the mysterious ghost town of Glastenbury inspired the piece. I was impressed with the way her left hand traced drifting clouds of chords, as her right hand rained down a delicate shower of notes. In fact, Ackerman himself commented: “Her timing is breathtaking and the dance between her left and right hands is unlike anything I’ve ever encountered.” This is followed by a beautiful track called “Taoist Winds” by acoustic guitarist Paul Jensen, whose gentle arpeggiated notes contrasted beautifully with the longer sustained sounds of cellist Eugene Friesen, a member of The Paul Winter Consort. On “Bread Of Angels,” by Stanton Lanier, the ethereal vocals of Noah Wiiding add a celestial complement to Stanton’s piano composition that according to him “was inspired by Psalm 78:24-25 and dependence for daily provision, which is like manna from heaven.”

Of her song “Mountain Laurel,” pianist Kathryn Kaye relates: “the simple melody in this song first came to me many years ago while I was living in Kentucky. At Imaginary Road Studio, on the last day of recording Heavy as a Feather (her recent CD), the song blossomed (much like the Mountain Laurel) into its current form. It’s now one of my favorite compositions.” “The Prophet” by Rudy Perrone, which opens with a descending progression that reminded me slightly of Pachelbel’s Canon, evolves into a pastoral soundscape of acoustic finger-style guitar that is further enhanced by the fretless bass playing of former Windham Hill recording artist, Michael Manring. The exotic Aboriginal sound of the didgeridoo is right at home on Australian pianist Fiona Joy Hawkin’s  “Feeling Sunshine” which also features bass, percussion, and a rare appearance by Will Ackerman on electric guitar. One of my favorite artists is trumpeter Jeff Oster, and his song “Serengeti”. This song departs a bit from the primarily acoustic nature of the compilation and adds elements of jazz, ambient electronica, and ethnic influences. According to Jeff: “There are places in the world where things still run wild and free. I hope you can feel the soul of the Serengeti in this music.”

The above introduction provides a general overview as to the content and character of the compilation, however with songs by 22 artists on The Gathering, a description of each track would make for quite a lengthy review, so I’d like to share a few more highlights and memorable moments. Without a doubt, one of them would have to be “The Brightest Night” by the uniquely talented Todd Boston. His acoustic guitar skills shine on their own in the first half of the song before being joined by a full ensemble including violin, cello, drums, and percussion. Another interesting guitar-based composition is “Hide And Seek” by Shambhu, which features wordless vocals adding to the melody, supported by bass and percussion. Shambhu is an inspiring musician, and I once had the pleasure of seeing him perform an acoustic guitar duet with Carlos Santana, many years ago.

A song, which stands out, not only for its atmospheric beauty, but because the primary instruments are synthesizers, is “Carpe Diem” by Kori Linae Carothers. The track also includes guitar, bass, percussion, and ethereal vocals that would no doubt find favor with fans of Enya. An interesting mix of instruments is found as well on “The Color Of Sunshine” by Lawrence Blatt, on which he plays guitar, piano, and Hopi drum, along with accompaniment on bass, percussion, guitar, and flugelhorn by the aforementioned Jeff Oster, who has contributed his talents to many Ackerman-produced sessions, in addition to being a recording artist in his own right. Capturing the gentle feel of the first light of a new day is “Dawn On Red Mountain” by pianist Ann Sweeten. This peaceful vibe extends into the next song, a solo acoustic guitar composition entitled “Forever” by Ken Verheecke, who also contributed some of his photography to the compilation. He shares that the song was inspired as he stared out of his mountain cabin window: “… the weight of time sat heavily upon my heart. Time is temporal… but the gift of friendship can last forever.”

The Gathering draws to a graceful conclusion with a lovely composition entitled “The Wheel” by none other than the maestro Ackerman himself. Will’s acoustic guitar playing is stunning in its tone, articulation, phrasing, and the way it sets the stage for the cream of the crop of his studio musicians to shine. The accompanists include Tony Levin on bass, percussionist Jeff Haynes, Noah Wilding on vocals, and the exquisite violin playing of Charlie Bisharat who was a member of Windham Hill artists Shadowfax, as well as having performed with Yanni, John Tesh, and many others.

The depth and breadth of the music on The Gathering is astounding, as is the emotional range it evokes. Yet no less impressive is the fact that one person, Will Ackerman, stands at the center of this creative vortex with the power to draw some of the world’s finest musicians into the magnetic field of his musical momentum. The legacy of Windham Hill Records is indelible. Yet far from just being a fond memory and a chapter in history, its founder has taken the seeds of that garden and enabled them to blossom anew in the present moment. Just as leaves that once stood vibrantly in the sunlight from the highest tree branches eventually fall to the forest floor providing nurturance for new life, Will Ackerman continues the evolution of artistic energy in the latest music he has produced. The Gathering is a treasure trove of virtuoso musical performances and an affirmation about the continuity of the creative flow.

Perfect Imperfection by Tom Carleno

cover“It is our very search for perfection outside ourselves that causes our suffering.” ~ The Buddha

These words of wisdom are part of the reason behind the title of Tom Carleno’s brand new solo album, Perfect Imperfection – but more on that later. Let me first say a few words of introduction about this talented artist. Hailing from my old stomping grounds of Denver, Colorado, Tom is an award-winning composer and musician who performs solo as well as with the acoustic jazz group Perpetual Motion, which has been performing and recording for over 20 years. Interestingly, Tom formed the group with violinist Josie Quick, who were at first band-mates and friends, and eventually husband and wife. In his quarter of a century career, Tom has played at numerous venues and festivals in the Rocky Mountain area, as well as being a session player on several projects, most notably with Danny Seraphine of the band Chicago. From 1982 to 1990, Tom studied with a stellar guitarist named Steve Mesple’ from the group Wind Machine, who broadened his horizons to include the fingerstyle guitar and alternate tunings which can be heard on Perfect Imperfection.

Although he has recorded numerous times with his group, this is Tom’s first release as a solo artist, and in the words of Crosby Stills and Nash: “It’s been a long time coming.” The process began in 2009, and took until 2013 to reach completion. With something in the works for that length of time, one could assume that it was due to the artist being a perfectionist. And that is where the title of the album comes in. According to Tom: “I used to think perfection was when you performed a task perfectly from start to finish and were left with absolutely no doubts about what you accomplished.  I did not think that I was a perfectionist. But then it occurred to me that maybe a perfectionist was a person who strives so hard for perfection that they think they never quite attain it no matter how close they might come. Nature is perfect only in it’s imperfection. That’s when I came up with the perfect title for my CD: Perfect Imperfection.

“Have no fear of perfection – you’ll never reach it.” – Salvador Dali

From the opening notes of the first track, “In Search Of,” it is obvious that Tom is an accomplished guitar Tom Carlenoinstrumentalist. His intricate fingering is precise, yet fluid as it moves from one passage to another. I couldn’t help but notice, not only in this composition, but characteristic of his playing in general, are the unusual chord changes and progressions he comes up with. I liked the occasional unpredictability of it and enjoyed not knowing where it might lead next. In fact, it sounds like Tom, himself, wasn’t sure where it was going while he was creating it. As he describes: “This song seemed to trying to find its own way as I was writing it. Many times I thought I knew where it was going only to find it had taken me somewhere else. I discovered that sometimes it’s best to just go along for the ride” – and a wonderful ride it is. While most of the 11 songs on the album are originals, Tom does offer his take on a few cover tunes. The first is an intriguing version of Al Stewart’s “On The Border.” The original arrangement is an epic composition with vocals and full orchestration, so I was interested to hear how Tom would play it on solo guitar. Actually, I think Tom wondered himself, when he said: “This song’s Spanish flavor inspired me to arrange it for guitar and it proved quite a challenge to combine all the instruments into one.“ But he did an admirable job, and I enjoyed hearing this familiar melody in a more elemental form. As I mentioned, Tom uses a lot of alternate tunings, and this is one of only two songs on the album that are in “standard” tuning.

And speaking of alternate tunings, a track called “Welcome To the Milky Way,” was actually written by Tom as an entry into a guitar magazine “alternate tunings contest” in 1998. While the acoustic guitar is somewhat of an earthy sounding instrument, Tom’s playing on this piece is out of this world. The second cover song, “Working Up An Appetite,” was originally by Tim Finn of the colorful and offbeat, 80’s new wave band from New Zealand called Split Enz. I’d heard of the band, but wasn’t familiar with this tune, like I was with “On The Border,” so I can’t compare it to the original. But I liked how it evoked a different aspect of Tom’s playing. This song features him using the body of the guitar as a percussion instrument in parts, tapping out a rhythm on its resonant hollow body. The fact that he was able to do this while simultaneously playing the guitar strings was impressive. I also liked the jazzy fretboard octaves that Tom incorporated in his arrangement.

Timbeline TreeA song called “Timberline Tree” was one Tom composed for his mother, and was inspired by her painting of a tree twisted and gnarled by the wind at timberline, which graces the back cover of the CD. Both the tune and the painting are quite lovely. An upbeat folky tune called “Childs Play” also features Josie playing a catchy rhythmic accompaniment on the spoons. A light-hearted moment on video of them playing this live finds Josie not only playing the spoons with Tom, but also on him. The final cover song is one that I, and probably everyone on the planet, is familiar with – “Imagine” by John Lennon. Tom’s gentle and respectful version captures the peace and love vibration that marked much of Lennon’s writing. The last two compositions on the album, in a way, book-end Tom’s career, highlighting past and present.  “Brief Encounter,” written in 1985, was his debut fingerstyle composition and is about first love and first heartache. The album comes to rest with a new song called “What A Difference A Day Makes.” This is one of my favorite pieces on the album and has a meandering bucolic feel, like a Sunday drive on a country road – a sublime ending to this wonderful recording.

While I made mention previously of the painting on the back cover, the front cover also features an original painting. This one by TJ Reilly is an impressionistic portrait of Tom, appropriately called “Master At His Craft.” There is no doubt that Tom Carleno is a masterful fingerstyle guitarist. His songwriting is innovative and often intriguing, full of unexpected twists and turns. Perfect Imperfection is perfectly wonderful instrumental guitar music.

Patterns of Sun and Shade by Kathryn Kaye

Front_CoverThere can be little question as to the source of Kathryn Kaye’s creative inspiration. The beauty and mystery of nature have always played prominently in her artistry. Even the title of her latest release Patterns of Sun and Shade reveals her fascination with the natural world. Of this she shares: “I’ve always been fascinated by sunlight filtered through leaves or bare branches, the play of light and shade in clouds and high mountains, and shadows on a rock wall or on a narrow path winding through the woods.” There is no doubt that her home in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado provides an endless bounty of natural splendor, where she captures its essence in music and photography. However, another source that feeds into her musical wellspring are the hymns and folksongs of the Appalachian Mountains of southeast Kentucky, where she grew up.

Listening to the music of Kathryn Kaye, for me, evokes the same feeling of comfort and warmth as a reunion with an old and treasured friend. This is the fourth album of hers that I’ve had the pleasure of writing about. Previous recordings include: What The Winter Said, Heavy As A Feather, and her debut release Dreaming Still. GRAMMY winning producer and Windham Hill Records founder Will Ackerman, who has produced all of Kathryn’s albums has said of Kathryn’s music: “Some of her pieces feel so hauntingly familiar that they seem like part of your DNA.”

In an interview with Kathryn, I gained some interesting insight into her music. In her words: “Most of the listeners of my music describe it as soothing, but a few have commented that it conveys a sense of longing. Immediately after listening to one of the songs, one listener turned to me and asked, ‘What are you longing for?’ I believe the music conveys both comfort and longing, at least in part because it was inspired by the very old folk ballads and hymns that I heard, sang, and played while growing up in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky. Those beautiful old songs often carry a message that includes a mixture of hope, loss, sadness, peace, and longing.” This blend of contrasting emotions make Patterns of Sun and Shade the perfect title for her music.

Tom, Will, & Kathryn in the studio

Tom, Will, & Kathryn in the studio

The album was recorded at Will Ackerman’s Imaginary Road Studios in Vermont, where he, along with Tom Eaton and Kathryn co-produced the recording. There is certainly no shortage of breath-taking natural vistas there either in the beautiful rolling hills of Windham County, Vermont. There is also an abundance of world-class studio musicians in Will’s roster to add accompaniment to the compositions of artists who record at Imaginary Road. On Kathryn’s album, the list includes Paul Winter Consort cellist Eugene Friesen, percussionist Jeff Haynes of the Pat Metheny Group, violinist Charlie Bisharat who plays with Yanni and John Tesh, Peter Gabriel touring musician Tony Levin on an exotic electric stringed instrument called the Chapman Stick, and frequent Will Ackerman collaborators Jill Haley on English horn and Gus Sebring on French horn. Engineer/ producer Tom Eaton who is a fantastic musician in his own right also provides additional instrumental support, as does Will himself.

While mountains and memories provide a good deal of inspiration for Kathryn, the opening track, “Julia’s Eyes,” is drawn from even closer to home. As Kathryn tells it: “I wrote this song for my daughter, who was born with the largest and most beautiful pale blue eyes I had ever seen. She’s grown up now, and her eyes are still a striking shade of blue!” Starting out on solo piano and evolving into a duet with cello, the piece is written in ¾ time as a waltz, and as such, has an elegant and graceful ambience.

With five musicians in addition to Kathryn, the next composition, “Elk Creek in the Fall” is one of the largest ensemble pieces on the album. It also has a lovely story that Kathryn shared: “By an old dirt road near my childhood home in southeastern Kentucky, a little creek trickles down from higher in the hills. It winds gently through groves of deciduous trees (glorious in autumn), past an old family cemetery and the remains of an abandoned cabin where I once sat by the fireplace with friends, playing and singing folk songs during an autumn thunderstorm. I remember the dinner bell on a tall post in front of the cabin, and sometimes when I play or hear this song, I imagine the resonant gong of the bell at dusk. The musicians who joined me on this recording didn’t know the stories behind it, but nevertheless, were able to capture the images and memories perfectly.”

In contrast, “Something Like a Dream” is a solo piano piece, and according to Kathryn: “ThisSteinway song feels like a dream to me as I play it. It’s one of the few compositions on the CD that isn’t directly connected with nature, and it wanders in and out like the patterned images of sleep.” In addition to Kathryn’s wonderful playing, the song also highlights the incredible highly modified Steinway piano that is the crown jewel of Imaginary Road Studios. The lower registers of the keyboard are remarkably rich and resonant, providing a strong foundation for the lighter midrange and higher melodies to dance upon. It is quite stunning to hear someone of Kathryn’s sensitivity take full advantage of its stellar tone.

One of my favorite tunes on the album is “Adrift in Fading Light,” not only for the music, but for the title as well. I love the evocative mental picture it creates. According to Kathryn: “A visual image and the experience of drifting on a still lake at dusk were with me when I wrote this song.” This piece features some of Kathryn’s most impressionistic piano work, along with subtle accompaniment on percussion, bass, guitar, and violin.

Photo by Kathryn Kaye

Photo by Kathryn Kaye

I also liked the image of a song entitled “Tiny Sliver of a Moon.” The piece has a romantic air tinged by a trace of longing, as mentioned earlier. An interesting touch was the addition of accordion played by Tom Eaton. As Kathryn shares: “I think the moon in all its phases holds some magic for us all. The melody in this composition is drawn from a folk song that I don’t remember, and the entrances of the accordion and violin near the end of the song seem to bring together the spirits of people in different parts of the world.”

Kathryn KayePatterns of Sun and Shade is another stunning recording from a gifted musician who has consistently revealed the depth her artistry and vision with each successive release. In Will Ackerman’s opinion: “Kathryn Kaye is as talented a composer and pianist as any with whom I’ve ever had the pleasure to work.” That is high praise coming from a producer who has worked with some of the best. Although classically trained as a pianist, Kathryn’s style is her own, and above all else, articulates the language of her heart. Sometime the softest, simplest melody speaks volumes emotionally and resonates with the listener in the most profound and personal of ways. The sensitivity heard in Kathryn’s playing is not something that can be taught, but comes from deep within. Like the album’s title, the music expresses both light and shadow in subtle shadings and more saturated colors. I’ll leave last words to Kathryn who in reaching out to Patterns of Sun and Shade listeners shares: “May you discover your own patterns, even if very different from my own, when you listen to this music!”

Summon The Wind by Timothy Wenzel

CD cover Summon the Wind (Wenzel)I ended my review of Timothy Wenzel’s previous album River Serene by saying: “I’ll certainly look forward to hearing more of his sonic alchemy in the future.” And with the release of his new recording Summon The Wind that future is here. I’ve been a fan of Timothy’s imaginative and visually evocative music for a while, and my enthusiasm is only bolstered by his latest creative effort. Although the title is Summon The Wind, it could have been called “Summon The 2nd Wind.” As he shares: “Almost all the songs have been written since the release of the last album, River Serene. I was so exhausted after doing my own mixing and then working with Corin Nelsen (Grammy winning engineer) to master the songs on River Serene that I thought maybe the life had been sucked out of me. Not so. After a two-week break I started writing songs again with new found passion.”

Known for his thematic approach to creating an album, this one is no exception, and there is quite a lot behind the album’s title. In his words: “How humankind relates to wind is symbolic to life itself. We have no absolute control over wind. It comes and goes as it pleases, and there is little we can do when we face tornados and hurricanes.   But we have learned to use wind starting thousands of years ago with sailing vessels and kite-flying, then on to windmills for pumping water or making electricity, and flying machines that create their own air currents. Throughout history there have always been those with a mystical wish to control wind, perhaps with sorcery, to ‘summon the wind’ or ‘still the wind,’ and those elusive concepts became the titles of the first and last compositions on the CD, and the over-riding theme of the album.”

Timothy creates his conceptual music on synthesizers and piano, which he has been playing Timothy Wenzelsince childhood. My feature article on his previous album contains a great deal of info about his musical background, so rather than reiterate it here, those who may be interested can reference it at the River Serene link above. One thing I touched on there was Timothy’s professional career as a scientist. Interestingly, as I recently learned, he has now retired from that work to devote himself full time to music. As different as these two fields may seem, for Timothy, they have more in common than meets the eye: “I see a correlation between them. Scientific exploration is full of creativity and is very much like writing a song. In both cases you start with an idea and then explore the possibilities of where it can lead,” or in this case, where the wind blows. So let’s catch the breeze and see where it leads on the tracks of Timothy Wenzel’s fourth and latest release.

The title of the first song, “Still The Wind,” is particularly meaningful to me. I had a realization recently that our mind or our thoughts can be like leaves in the wind, and that one of the goals of meditation is to quiet the mind, or in essence, to still the wind. Timothy’s composition is a gentle, yet richly orchestrated mid-tempo tune that evolves through various sections, including a quiet interlude in the middle. While the majority of his sounds come from synthesizers and fairy-dance-WEBkeyboards, they cover a wide range including violin, cello, flute, harp, bells, guitars, bass, drums and percussion as well as the wordless vocalizing of men’s and women’s choirs. The next tune entitled “Elven Dance,” evokes the world of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings with it’s lively Celtic-tinged sound, which Timothy has been known for on some of his previous recordings. The mood changes with the arrival of the next song, “Peace to My Lady.” Timothy describes it as: “A song of longing, of wistful dreaming, by a young man far from home. It is not a song of remorse, but of hope.”

Although the songs on the album are primarily instrumental, the titles often have stories behind them, with the music being an interpretation of those themes. Timothy waxes philosophic on a piece entitled “All That Might Have Been.” In his words: “What if you had smiled back at that beautiful girl so many years ago? And said hello? What if a handsome boy said hello to you, but you were too shy to respond? What if you could know… All That Might Have Been?” I’m sure that most of us have had those kinds of thoughts from time to time and can relate – I know that I can. Musically, the song carries over a bit of the wistful, dreamy feel of the preceding track, perfect for ruminating on “what if?” “Mariner’s Lament” is an emotionally evocative composition with an undercurrent of sadness, and a prayer for all those lost at sea over the years. A nice touch was the female choir sound that conjured images in my mind of the singing of the Sirens in mythology.

From the deep sea to deep within the earth, a song called “Crystal Man” was inspired by poor workers digging for diamonds in Africa. The track opens with Timothy’s lush piano melody, which is soon joined by the soulful sound of violin. As it evolves the sound of percussion, pizzicato strings, and more fill in the arrangement, providing an excellent example of Timothy’s talent for composing and his ability to build on a composition as it evolves. “The Photograph” is one of the two songs on the album that feature a special guest musician – in this case it is the soaring electric guitar of Michael Rud from Denmark. I appreciated the energizing lift it provided and it certainly achieved Timothy’s goal to have some more emotive instrumentation in parts of the song. The other track that includes a special guest is “Tesla’s Dream” which features the drumming of Lenny Levash. This was one of my favorite compositions, not only because it pays tribute to one of the great unsung hero’s of science, but for the variation in it which ranges from laid back to epic.

WhirlwindI also enjoyed the more up-tempo track, “Whirlwind,” which Timothy describes as, “a lighthearted song – sort of an intermezzo at just the right time to clear the palate for the remaining songs.” From that point three songs remain leading up to the finale, which is the title track. In Timothy’s words: “This was the longest song I have ever written (nearly seven and a half minutes). I worked on the final part of this song for several days to achieve the kind of climactic ending I wanted.” This composition is a masterpiece and highlights the many skills of this gifted composer, arranger, and instrumentalist.

The latest release from Timothy Wenzel takes the listener on a sonic journey. This feeling is Summon The Windfurther enhanced by the amount of time and attention to detail he spent on creating the sequence of the songs for the album. The energy evolves through musical peaks and valleys as well as reflecting a profound emotional spectrum. Also, on a technical level, I appreciate how every instrument is perfectly placed in the arrangement. Another distinctive feature is that on Timothy’s website, he provides notes on each song accompanied by a beautiful piece of artwork, some of which are seen here with this article. Timothy is truly a storyteller with an ability to conjure images in the mind of the listener. His songs are fanciful in a way that will resonate with a wide range of music lovers. This is substantiated by the fact that his albums regularly receive airplay on hundreds of radio stations and channels around the world, and are often found in the Top 10 on the international Zone Music Reporter Top 100 monthly airplay chart. Fans of artists such as Yanni and David Arkenstone may also find a lot to like in the imaginative instrumental music of Timothy Wenzel.

Hokulea by AOMUSIC

AOMUSIC_Hokulea_coverIn her timeless anthem, “The Greatest Love Of All,” the late great Whitney Houston sang: “I believe the children are our future. Teach them well and let them lead the way.” The members of AOMUSIC obviously believe that too, and the group’s latest efforts take their commitment to new levels. In addition to their stunning new album Hokulea, they are thrilled to announce the official establishment of their non-profit organization
AO Foundation International, enabling it to focus on serving the needs of underprivileged children on a global scale. The non-profit’s short term goal, as phrased by AOMUSIC, is to put under one umbrella some very well-organized and efficient grassroots causes for children. Long term, they strive to bring sustenance and opportunity to a billion underprivileged children around the planet, seeing the children themselves as our vital link to a sustainable future. It was exciting to hear of the official confirmation of their non-profit foundation, as I know this is something they have been working on for a long time to bring to fruition. One thing this means is that all proceeds go to children in need around the globe.

It was equally exciting to receive their new album, having been totally inspired by their previous award-winning release, And Love Rages On, which I wrote about in Music and Media Focus. That feature article contains a lot of background information about the group and their creative process, so rather than duplicating it all here, I’ll refer readers to that article. But briefly, AOMUSIC is composed of three primary AOMUSICmembers: Richard Gannaway (stringed instruments and vocals), Jay Oliver (keyboards and synth samples), and Miram Stockley (vocals) who is best known as the voice of the group Adiemus. An important supporting member of the production team is Sandeep Chowta, a  highly acclaimed  film score composer/producer from Mumbai, India. Aside from their work with AOMUSIC, the list of major artists they have collectively worked with is impressive, and includes Sheryl Crow, The Eagles, Bonnie Raitt, Celine Dion, Freddie Mercury, Chaka Kahn, Jimmy Buffett, Chick Corea, and many more. From the nucleus of their trio, they branch out to a worldwide network of collaborators. One of the key features of their music is the inclusion of children’s choirs from around the world. Since they travel to far flung locations to record them, producing an AOMUSIC album is a long and involved process – but so worth waiting for! Incidentally, the word “AO” [e’i-o] comes from the ancient Polynesian language and means “pure light” or “all colors.” As I wrote in my previous review of their music: “This second meaning is particularly descriptive as the music is a virtual rainbow of sound and soul.”

And just as a rainbow follows a storm, the album kicks off with the thunder of powerful drumming that propels the song with high velocity and sets the stage for the pan-cultural journey to unfold. In contrast to this earthy primal beat are Miriam’s ethereal Enya-like vocals that float above the rushing rhythmic current. Yet another interesting element is the children’s choir, which when it comes in, lifts the song like a great bird taking flight. If I were to use one word to describe the feeling of this song, “Kuimba,” it would be “joyous” – truly a celebration of life. This celebratory spirit flows right into the next song, the title track, which comes from a Polynesian word that translates as “Star of Gladness.” The lighter bell-like percussive tones of Indonesian gamelan open another musical doorway, which is further adorned by airy flute. The electronically processed vocals on this song are sung in English, unlike the Swahili lyrics of the first track. While a variety of languages are represented on the album, some songs are also sung in “vocalese” – made-up phonetics, crafted to inspire one’s own interpretation.

AOMUSICThe complexity and production of this album is astounding and it stirs my imagination to think about what went into creating these songs. Vocalist Miriam Stockley cites a tune called “Sisi ni Moja” as a favorite piece particularly for its level of difficulty. In her words: “I gravitate toward ‘Sisi ni Moja’ from a musical point of view; the timing is complex, and we worked very, very hard to make it sound simple, which really is the hardest thing to do. I think we succeeded, and that is gratifying in the end.” Additionally, AOMUSIC founder Richard Gannaway shares that “each track was indeed its own journey,” and he believes that “fans will respond to the album’s bolder ethnic sound.” Richard’s contributions on guitars and a variety of stringed instruments, while sometimes subtle in such a huge sonic mix, are a primary component of their sound. And speaking of the magnitude of the mix, the production, keyboards, and electronics of Jay Oliver are masterful, to say the least, providing a bit of contemporary context to ancient rhythms and cultural elements.

One of my favorite tracks was a more instrumentally-focused piece entitled “Edge Walkers,” that feature Richard playing a bouzouki – a track he describes as having a “mysterious feel.” After experiencing the world music flavors of Africa, the Far East, Pacific Islands, and more, I was surprised and intrigued when the album took a Celtic turn on a lively tune called “Irie Grá Medley.” However, I shouldn’t have been too surprised having read in the liner notes that one of the two new children’s choirs on the project is from Western Ireland (the other being from Nepal.) The album ends with an exotic composition entitled “O Re Piya,” which is sung in Hindi as a prayer of devotion to the Divine Source. The focus of this song underscores the idea that while there are widely diverse cultural elements in AOMUSIC, there is a universality that is found in the connection we all share with Life itself.

Nepali singerThis article could easily be five times the length in trying to describe the detail and nuance of this incredible music.  But to paraphrase the old saying that “a picture is worth a thousand words,” I will say: “a listen is worth a thousand words.”  However, a way to combine both pictures and sounds is on a number of beautiful and moving music videos that can be seen at their website and on YouTube. AOMUSIC is truly one of the most unique groups I have encountered in my 30 years as a music journalist. Not only is their music in a class by itself, but the humanitarian work they are doing is a shining example of what can manifest when art and Spirit combine with heartfelt dedication. I have ultimate respect for their commitment to uplift children through music, and with their foundation’s goals to empower them with skills to improve their futures.

On a related note, I wanted to mention that Richard Gannaway is also an accomplished metaphysical author, and I had the pleasure of writing about his book Drops and Sparks here on this site. 

ao foundation

Keepsakes in the Attic by Jeff Bjorck

cd coverAs the title, Keepsakes in the Attic, implies, pianist/composer Jeff Bjorck has created an album filled with nostalgia and treasured memories, both real and imagined. (Note: Bjorck is pronounced as Byork – one syllable, rhymes with “York”) In my interview with Jeff, he spoke about the inspiration and concept for the album: “As I composed the pieces for this CD, I repeatedly imagined myself in the attic of an old house, with sun drifting through a single window, casting a warm light on an old steamer trunk like the ones my great-grandparents used when immigrating from Sweden in the late 1800s. I envisioned myself perusing many of my family’s heirlooms, and it was this vision (also depicted on the back cover) that inspired this album.”

He goes on to say: “As I prepared this CD, the stories seemed to coalesce into a meaningful sequence.  I hope that many of these compositions can prompt some of your own favorite personal memories, rather than merely conveying the sense that you are sharing mine.” I greatly enjoyed the concept for this album and along with the track notes he has provided for each song, I found myself imagining many of the scenarios he described. And while Jeff’s music is instrumental, it is quite visually evocative and conveys imaginative stories in musical notes, rather than words.

In addition to music, Jeff leads a rich life filled with many professional and personal interests. His “day job” is as a clinical psychology professor, researcher, writer, and psychotherapist. In his spare time Jeff enjoys weight lifting, hang gliding, gardening, and photography. While he has Bjorck-Headshot-Outside-Mediumbeen called a: Renaissance man, in his words: “I believe this is a kind way of saying that I have so many life pursuits that there is not sufficient time to become a true master of any of them.”

The current of inspiration that nurtures his life and music flows from the deep wellspring of his spirituality. In our interview Jeff related: “ My faith is my primary inspiration for all facets of my life, including music and all other forms of artistic expression. I have often said that my creativity merely imitates the Creator. When meeting new people, however, I typically do not immediately disclose my Christian beliefs. Especially today, when Christianity seems to be so often draped in the unkempt garments of politics and hypocrisy, I prefer to let my actions reflect my beliefs. To that end, I have always loved the quote that is often (although probably not accurately) attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: ‘Preach the Gospel always, and if necessary, use words.’”

In this regard, Jeff shares: “My greatest joy, however, is hearing that my music has been a comfort particularly to those who are suffering or grieving. To that end, I believe that my most significant musical accomplishments have been those instances where I have helped to lift someone up. I am especially thankful that, through a cooperative effort several years ago with the nonprofit organization, Guideposts, my music helped to comfort 75,000 hospitalized children and their parents. I have also been deeply honored hearing of a number of individuals who have requested that my music be played during their final days and hours on earth. In short, the same core drive that motivated me years ago to become a psychologist who encourages hurting people also drives my music.” Jeff also gives of himself by doing active service and travel to Africa as well as other parts of the world with Lifewater International, a Christian group dedicated to ending the global water and sanitation crisis.

in concertThis album is Jeff’s sixth release, following a string of well-received and critically acclaimed albums. Highly-regarded music reviewer Kathy Parsons of MainlyPiano.com calls Jeff’s new album: “His best and most personal album yet.” So let’s climb the stairs to the attic and see what treasures and memories we can uncover. The appropriately named opening track, “Afternoon Reverie,” captures the nostalgic mood one might feel while searching through family heirlooms and the bittersweet memories of loved ones long gone. There is a wistful yet warm ambiance to Jeff’s solo piano melody that provides a perfect introduction to the album. This feeling continues into the next track, Returning Home,” which as Jeff says: “…was inspired by the times I found myself driving from far away back to my hometown and to the house where I grew up.” There is a sense of forward motion in the melody that captures the feel of driving, as well as a sense of anticipation in getting closer to home.

Not surprisingly Jeff’s spirituality and his fascination with the past come together in his love for traditional Christian hymns. In fact, his 2008 album is titled: This I Know: Ageless Hymns of Faith. This is further reflected in a track called “Mother’s Hymnal,” which evokes this memory for Jeff: “We always went to church as a family of five, and I would typically sit next to my mother. I can still hear her voice in these memories.” There is a tinge of “old time religion” in this piece, as well as bit of a wistful air. And speaking of family, I was moved by the tender heartfelt strains of a composition entitled “Grandad’s Rocker.” With 13 tracks on the album, there isn’t room to go into detail about each one, but what follows are some of my highlights and favorite moments.

An ethnic ambiance is embodied in “Midnight in Moscow” which Jeff describes in this way: “This is another composition inspired by imaginary recollections. Here, I picture old plane tickets being lifted from the steamer trunk, wrapped in brittle tissue paper inscribed with the words, ‘Father’s Russian adventure.’” (See the video below for a live performance of this track.) Another composition with a “father” connection is “Hope in the Heartache” which expresses the grief Jeff felt after his dad’s passing. However, as the piece evolves, it moves into a lighter and more hopeful space, as the title alludes to. Yet another song that connects with this paternal theme is “Playing Catch with Dad,” which Jeff describes as one his “favorite boyhood pastimes,music box” and one that I can relate to from my own experience. While nostalgia is often tinged with wistfulness, here it takes on a more upbeat feeling. The album concludes with a lovely little piece called “Nana’s Music Box,” that recalls the love in a grandmother’s eyes as her grandchildren lift the lid on her antique music box to delight in it’s enchanting song. According to Jeff, “I chose to end this melody by figuratively leaving the lid open so the echoes and memories can continue on in the listener’s heart.”

In today’s world where there is so much fascination with “the latest thing” or what is on “the cutting edge,” I found Jeff’s appreciation for the past to be refreshing. In his words: “I certainly find much to value in our current day and age, but given its increasingly frenetic pace, my love for, and sense of connection with, the past has only grown.” With regard to his music, Jeff shares: “I believe my playing often has more in common with the feel (but not the skill!) of composers like Satie, and Debussy, and even a bit of stormy Beethoven, rather than New Age composers. Given my love of nostalgia, I suppose it is no surprise that I gravitate toward “Old Age” music!” Keepsakes in the Attic is a warm-hearted musical journey that I greatly enjoyed taking and particularly appreciated the wide range of emotions portrayed within its beautiful melodies. Jeff Bjorck is a talented and expressive pianist with a particular gift for sharing evocative stories in song.

National Park Soundscapes by Jill Haley

jillhaley4If anyone comes close to expressing the ineffable splendor of nature through music, it is Jill Haley. Her National Park Soundscapes album illuminates both the grandeur and subtlety of these natural wonders. Each piece is beautifully written in tribute to a particular park and enhanced by the musical chemistry between Jill and her talented accompanists, making for a most enchanting listening experience.

But before we delve into the music, let’s focus on the artist who created it. For those who may not be familiar, Jill Haley is best known for her exquisite artistry on English horn and oboe and has been a guest artist on a great number of albums recorded by GRAMMY winning producer and Windham Hill Records founder Will Ackerman at his iconic Imaginary Road Studios in Vermont. However, as I discovered when I wrote feature articles about some of Jill’s own music, she is quite an accomplished pianist as well.

jill1The two albums of hers that I wrote about are Mesa Verde Soundscapesand Zion and Bryce Canyon Soundscapes. These were sequels to an earlier release about Glacier National Park. As we can see, there has been a theme to Jill’s recordings over the past few years, which continues on this new release. In her words: “The National Parks are a precious resource in the United States that needs to be protected for future generations. Many environmental issues have an impact on the National Parks, such as climate change and encroaching development. This recording is dedicated to the National Park Service which is celebrating it’s centennial in 2016.”

Jill has created this series as someone with not only a personal interest in the National Parks, but from a jill-haley-mesa-verdeperspective few of us get to experience. According to her bio: “During the recording process of Zion and Bryce Canyon Soundscapes, engineer and co-producer, Corin Nelsen, suggested Jill explore the possibility of applying to be an Artist in Residence in a National Park. Mesa Verde National Park invited Jill to be an Artist in Residence for 2 weeks. During this residency Jill lived in a hogan style building in the Park while she wrote the music. She was offered the opportunity to visit the sites in the Park after hours and record music while they were empty of visitors.” Last Spring, Jill was an Artist in Residence for a month at Badlands National Park, and was just offered another month-long residency in Glacier National Park in Montana for the month of October 2016. According to Jill: “It is so great to live in these parks while I am writing the music and am able to capture lots of different moods in the park.”

As mentioned, this new release, National Park Soundscapes, is a tribute and a thank you to the National Park System on their centennial. The album includes 4 tracks from her previous albums, as well as 8 new songs inspired by other National Parks such as Acadia, Badlands, Cuyahoga Valley, Everglades, Grand Canyon, Shenandoah, Valley Forge, and Yosemite. The recording is, to some degree, a family affair with Jill being joined by her husband David Cullen (guitar and bass), Dana Cullen (horn), Graham Cullen (cello), and Tony Deangelis (percussion and snare drum). All are excellent musicians in their own right and each brings their particular gift to this project. I must also point out the gorgeous packaging of the CD, which includes a 15-page full color booklet with a photo of each National Park that is portrayed in the music. For me, it added a lot to the experience to look at the photos while listening and get more of a visual sense of the landscape. This kind of artistic packaging has been a trademark of Jill’s National Park Series albums. It also makes the CD a wonderful gift for nature lovers everywhere.

G- Prairie Grass Dance

Badlands National Park

The album opens with a track entitled “The Ledges,” which pays tribute to Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio. According to Jill: “The Ledges are 300 million year old sandstone formations in a hemlock forest. Moss covered stones and ferns add a green vibrancy to the gray rock. The music creates a peaceful ambiance with rolling piano arpeggios anchored by Tony’s subtle percussion providing a foundation for Jill’s graceful English horn passages. From this green-forested landscape we shift to wide open spaces of Badlands National Park in South Dakota with a track called “Prairie Grass Dance.” The title relates to this description by Jill: “The strong wind in this stark landscape creates constant motion in the prairie grasses.” That movement is portrayed in David’s lively acoustic guitar strumming, tasteful lead, and bass, as well as Jill’s English horn playing which glides like the wind over the rhythm tracks.

Acadia inside shot

Acadia National Park

“Waters of Acadia” takes us across the continent to the shores of the Atlantic Ocean and Acadia National Park in Maine; a dramatically different landscape than the previous track. This is one example of where the pictures in the booklet help to illustrate the music by pairing a visual image with the music. While the photo shows the rugged coastline by the ocean, Jill also makes note of the many ponds and waterfalls that are part of the scenery. Similar instrumentation as the first track is heard here as well. On “Shenandoah Stillness, gentle acoustic guitar and piano reflect the serenity that can be found just a short walk away from Skyline Drive in Virginia.

Jill Haley and David Cullen

Jill Haley and David Cullen

“Towers and Kiva’s” depicts Jill’s musical impression of Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, which in addition to it’s natural wonders is also a World Heritage Site and archeological preserve. According to Jill: “The ancient Pueblo people utilized space in the cliffs by building towers vertically and creating kivas in sunken areas of the dwellings.” The upbeat guitar, bass, and English horn tracks create a bright joyful feeling that goes perfectly with the photo of the sun reflecting off the golden cliffs of the Park. This piece is also a wonderful showcase for David Cullen’s exquisite guitar work.

With 7 more songs on the album, there isn’t room to go into detail on all of them, but here are a few highlights. On “Kabib Trail,” which is a tribute to Grand Canyon National Park, Jill switches from the English horn heard on previous songs to the oboe, which adds a bit of a different vibe to the piano and percussion tracks. Whenever I hear the oboe in a context like this I can’t help but think of Paul McCandless from the Paul Winter Consort, who incidentally, was a huge influence on Jill. On “Waves of Wind,” (Bryce Canyon National Park) in addition to piano, oboe, and guitar, the cello of Graham Cullen adds an earthy sonority to the tune’s high-spirited waltz rhythm in 3/4 time.

G- A Soldier's Sacrifice

Valley Forge National Park

The last two songs reflect places that couldn’t be more different. “Ten Thousand Islands” is about Everglades National Park and “A Soldier’s Sacrifice” pays respect to Valley Forge National Park with the loss and hardships endured there. This last song held a particular significance for me having grown up and lived a good part of my life in Philadelphia and spending a lot of time over the years in Valley Forge Park. It’s also the most different song on the album for its wistful reflective ambiance. A snare drum beats out a military march quietly in the background while Jill’s spacious piano and haunting English horn evoke a sense of both melancholy and honoring the history associated with this place. It is quite a moving tribute.

One of the things I’m most impressed by in Jill’s playing is her melodic sensibility. Every note is perfectly placed and just right for the context it is in. But beyond the structure of her music is the emotional expressiveness Jill evokes from her instruments. These qualities are beautifully utilized in painting musical portraits of each of these diverse natural landscapes. I admire and respect Jill’s dedication to preserving the treasures of our National Park System and helping to create awareness about them through these musical projects. I highly recommend getting the CD with the booklet of color photos to enjoy the ultimate experience of National Park Soundscapes. After writing about dozens of albums that Jill has played on over the years as a studio musician and special guest, its wonderful to see her stepping into the spotlight and reflecting the full spectrum of her creative rainbow.