The Gathering II, produced by Will Ackerman and Tom Eaton

The Gathering II_CoverIts hard to believe that two years have passed since the release of the first compilation entitled The Gathering – a landmark album that garnered international radio airplay, and was honored as the ZMR “Album Of The Year,” with the highest rating of any record in the history of those charts. For those who may not be familiar, The Gathering is a compilation of songs from 22 different artists who had albums produced and recorded at the famed Imaginary Roads Studios, the recording Mecca of GRAMMY winning producer and Windham Hill Records founder Will Ackerman.

Will Ackerman

Will Ackerman

Now, the eagerly awaited sequel, appropriately titled, The Gathering II, presents another luminous line up of musical talent. As explained in their press release: “The Gathering IIcontinues to showcase the productions of Will Ackerman and his engineer and co-producer Tom Eaton. Together they produce and record some of the most talented acoustic musicians in the world. The intent of the Gathering collections is to give a collective identity to the musicians that are produced at Imaginary Road Studios in Windham County, Vermont.” Just as the original Windham Hill recordings created a distinctively recognizable sound that essentially became a sub-genre in itself, the Gathering collections play a similar role for what Will describes as “a new generation of musicians.”

Since Music and Media Focus is honored to have previously posted feature articles on 15 of the 21 artists included on The Gathering II, the high level of musicianship and production heard on this new release is well known. Among the many benefits of recording at Imaginary Roads is having access not only to Will’s legendary experience as a producer, but also to his roster of world-class studio musicians who grace the tracks of many of the recordings found here. Although there are too many to mention them all, a partial list of the “Imaginary Roads all-stars,” as I affectionately refer to them, includes Paul Winter Consort member Eugene Friesen on cello, percussionist Jeff Haynes who played with Pat Metheney, Peter Gabriel bassist Tony Levin, violinist Charlie Bisharat who Steinwaytoured with Yanni, and frequent Will Ackerman collaborators Jeff Osteron flugelhorn and trumpet, Jill Haley on English horn, vocalist Noah Wilding, and many others. Will and engineering wiz Tom Eaton also both step out of the control room to add their instrumental talents on a number of compositions. Another bonus to artists recording at Imaginary Roads is the opportunity to take advantage of their renown customized Steinway grand piano and the exceptional microphone array they utilize to capture it’s distinctive sonic nuances. As the saying goes: “it doesn’t get better than that.”

The album, in fact, opens with the signature Steinway sounds on a track called “Sojourn.” by pianist Jim Gabriel, an artist who was new to me. Accompanying Jim on this graceful musical voyage are cellist Eugene Friesen and ambient guitarist Jeff Pearce on a unique amplified 10 string instrument called the Chapman Stick. Although Will is best known for his iconic acoustic guitar playing, here he actually adds a rhythmic element on percussion. As much as I’d like to write about all of the 21 selections on the album, space dictates choosing a number of the highlights – a near impossible task, given what I referred to in my original article on The Gathering as “a treasure trove of virtuoso musical performances.”

A song by Lawrence Blatt called “Where the Pines Once Stood,” was inspired by the last stand of pines that were destroyed during Hurricane Irene on Will Ackerman’s land. Although the piece references a sad occurrence, I found inspiration in the spacious beauty of Lawrence’s acoustic guitar that is tastefully accented by the French horn of Richard “Gus” Sebring. Next up is an exquisitely reflective piano solo by Laura Sullivan from her Love’s River album, which earned her the distinction of being the 2013 GRAMMY winner in the New Age category. Another beautiful piano-based track is “Sailing”by Louis Colaiannia from his album “Closer.” This recording charts an interesting course change for Louis, who is well known, particularly in the Denver area, for his ornate playing style and upbeat Latin jazz ensemble performances. It seems that the bucolic rural surroundings of Imaginary Roads Studios in Vermont, as well as the influence of Will Ackerman and the lingering aura of Windham Hill had a calming effect on Louis in the creation of this decidedly more serene recording. While the piece starts out as a piano solo, he is joined halfway through by six of the aforementioned accompanists.

While a good number of the artists on the compilation are seasoned veterans, one notable exception is guitarist Matteo Palmer, who still in his teen years, displays a level of fretboard mastery that many more “mature” guitarists would be envious of (present company included.) Although I have heard her name before, I was not familiar with the music of pianist Rebecca Harrold, whose stunning composition “Photograph” graces The Gathering II. Rebecca has an extensive musical resume that includes her work as the pianist for the Boston Ballet, in addition to being a talented vocalist. While Rebecca’s track here includes a number of accompanists, the interplay of her graceful piano work and the soulful violin of Charlie Bisharat is particularly outstanding.

acoustic guitarWhile I don’t give my own awards for Album Of The Year and such, if I did, a top contender for 2013 would have been Dreaming Of Now by guitarist Shambhu. That recording is represented here by a composition called “Devodance,” that is absolutely gorgeous and one of the most heart-opening pieces I have heard in a while. The track also includes Eugene Friesen on cello, Brazilian drummer extraordinaire Celso Alberti, Jeff Haynes on percussion, bassist Kai Eckhardt who plays with John McLaughlin, and keyboard master Frank Martin who recently performed at Carnegie Hall with Sting. I would be remiss if I did not mention the elegant flugelhorn solo of Jeff Oster that is the icing on the cake of this most evocative composition.

Two other fine instrumentalists whose music I had not heard before, but was quite impressed with are guitarist Ryan Michael Richards and pianist Dominic Silla. Also enhanced by the accompaniment of Jeff Oster, as well as engineer Tom Eaton on bass and keyboards, Ryan’s “Pathway To Love” from his Experiences album was beautiful and opened my ears to an artist I look forward to hearing more from. Although I first listened to The Gathering II in the month of August, the warmth and peace of Dominic’s “Early Falls the Christmas Snow,” evoked cozy feelings of sitting by the fireplace with a steaming cup of cocoa on a cold winter’s day. Perhaps the most internationally inclusive track on The Gathering II is “Naked Love” by Australian pianist Fiona Joy from her breathtaking 600 Years In A Moment album. In addition to piano, the song features a mix of instruments from Mongolia, China, Romania, and more, all of which add exotic flavors to Fiona’s eminently expressive keyboard artistry.

Once again, I sincerely wish that I could go into detail on all the accomplished artists found on The Gathering II. In addition to the ones written about above, that distinguished list includes: Stanton Lanier, David Kydd, Kathryn Kaye, Masko, Denise Young, Heidi Breyer,  Ann Sweeten, Vincente Avella, Vin Downes, Isadar, and Lynn Yew Evers. All are worthy of the highest critical acclaim. Readers who are interested in learning more about the recording artists who have been previously featured here on Music and Media Focus, can click on the names that are highlighted to read their reviews.

Imaginary RoadsAll these incredible musicians on The Gathering II are like spokes on a wheel that are connected to a central hub. That creative focal point is Will Ackerman. In my 30 years as a new age music journalist, I can’t think of another producer in this genre who has not only maintained the momentum, but continued to grow and expand his artistic influence to successive generations as the maestro Ackerman. The number of gifted artists who have passed through the rustic natural wood portals of Imaginary Roads Studios over the years is impressive to say the least. And while the musicians themselves may be gifted, the opportunity to work with Will Ackerman is truly a present to them. Everyone I have spoken to who has had that experience describes it in glowing terms.

Tom Eaton

Tom Eaton

One listen to this compilation will provide but a small sample of the magic conjured in these creative collaborations. And an essential element of that alchemy is provided by Tom Eaton, who not only does all the intricate engineering, mixing, and mastering, but also never fails to amaze with the variety of instruments he plays, which add support and sparkle to these sessions. The Gathering II an absolute masterpiece on every level – a harmonic convergence in the truest sense. The profusion of masterful composing, arranging, and instrumentation create an experience to enjoy again and again, as you get to better know each composer and savor the subtle nuances that are heard in new ways with each listening. Lovers of the classic Windham Hill sound and contemporary acoustic music in general will find endless inspiration in the mellifluous melodies of The Gathering II.

Where the magic happens:
A behind the scenes look at an Imaginary Road Studios session with Will Ackerman, Tom Eaton, and Shambhu…  feeling the vibe.