A lot has been said about the importance of first impressions, and the stunning cover art on the new release by Catherine Marie Charlton certainly makes a good one. Although not surprising, as her previous release Red Leaf, Grey Sky won the award for “Best Cover Art” in the 2011 Zone Music Reporter Awards. It also won “Best Instrumental Album – Piano,” providing a good indication that a creative effort from Catherine not only has style, but substance as well. So with expectations for her new release running high, I’m happy to say that fans of hers will not be disappointed.
In 2012, Catherine released a re-mastered and re-packaged 10th Anniversary Edition of her best- selling River Dawn: Piano Meditations. A one-hour uninterrupted solo piano performance, the original release debuted at number 3 on the NAV radio charts. Her new album, River Flow – Sanctuary is actually a sequel to this earlier release. This one follows the same format with the music created spontaneously as one continuous 60-minute performance. Although there are track markers sprinkled throughout to reference different sections of the improvisation. It’s an interesting format in that the markers make it seem like there are separate songs each with its own name and inspiration. However, it is as they say, “all one.” As a recording artist myself, it’s hard for me to imagine sitting down and improvising for a solid hour and maintaining the focus, inspiration, and technique to create a flawless performance that seems to flow so effortlessly and cohesively, but that is the way Catherine creates her works of art. Although there are sections that are her personal favorites, and she does think of them as individual pieces. While she was inspired from an early age by the classical masters such as Debussy, Chopin, and Rachmaninoff, and later by the new age instrumentalists like George Winston and Liz Story, her passion runs deep for jazz improvisers, in particular Keith Jarrett as well as Cecil Taylor, and Chick Corea.
Interestingly, at the time this music was born, Catherine had just given birth to her second child, and the strong maternal energies were a part of her creative process at the time. In fact, some of the track titles reference the experiences and emotions from her pregnancy and time nurturing a newborn, and the fact that she always listens to this recording while she nurses the baby to sleep. Catherine relates an interesting story about the role of a painting during her pregnancy that went on to indirectly inspire the cover art: “I had a vision of a beautiful bird with a rust-colored head coming to my side and guiding me. The imagery was extraordinarily vivid – not a bird I’d ever seen in “real” life. I was determined to find out more about the bird, because I just knew that it would help me on this journey to a beautiful birthing. I spent a few hours on the internet trying to find a picture of a bird that looked like the one in my vision – for the longest time I thought the search was in vain because no photographs of birds looked quite right. And then, I found it- a picture of a painting by the artist Doreyl of the red headed bird from my vision- and the bird in the painting was carrying a laughing joyful blonde-headed girl through a gorgeous multi-colored sky and the painting was entitled “Learning to Fly”.
For me, the first section of the improvisation appropriately entitled “Prelude,” perfectly expresses the flowing river imagery as well as the sanctuary aspect of the album’s title. It put me in a state of being ready to drift downstream with the current. The inspiration for the next movement is described by Catherine in this way: “Bluebirds of Happiness was referencing the amazing experience I had watching a pair of bluebirds build their nest in my backyard while I was holding a 10 day old newborn on my lap- but I also like the reference to a bluebird of happiness statue that came from my grandma who our daughter is named for, and also the song that says that no matter what goes on in your life, not to fear and to look for the bluebird of happiness.” The movement does have an air of lightness, and while looking at the cover image of a bird in flight, the music made a wonderful soundtrack for it. Already by this point, I was beginning to appreciate the improvisational nature of Catherine’s solo piano, free from the structured verse and chorus convention and not knowing exactly what was coming next, but enjoying the journey.
Because the music is meant to be experienced as one piece, I’ll refrain from referencing individually named sections as “songs” like I usually would, and will focus on the bigger picture of the album. I agree with a description of Catherine’s music from a review on her website that says: “Her music ranges from meditative soundscapes to robust sweeping crescendos with hints of the avant-garde and 20th Century classical abstraction.” In my own review of her Red Leaf Grey Sky album I wrote: “Overall, her compositions are quite sensitive and lovely, however, every once in a while you hear something in them that makes you aware that she is not afraid to tread closer to the edge musically and let her more left-of-center jazz inclinations show.” However in River Flow, that element is not present, although not unexpected given the context the music was created in. The “sanctuary” aspect, as reflected in the title, is like a sonic scent that wafts throughout the performance. Given that, I could see this album having wide appeal for its tranquil, yet evocative flow. While I enjoyed actively listening to it for its detail and nuance, it could also create a perfect ambience for massage, yoga, relaxation, an intimate dinner, etc. There is a nurturing quality to these evolving melodies that listeners will resonate with on an emotional level. On this note, perhaps Catherine should have the last word: “My wish for you is that the music becomes your Sanctuary – a safe place to remember to breathe, to release, and to just be.”