Elders & Ancestors by Agrelia’s Castle

EldersandAncestorsIf I had to choose one word to describe the music on Elders & Ancestors, it would be “enchanting.” It’s diaphanous tones and textures, along with strings, subtle percussion, and sounds of nature create a magical soundscape for ethereal vocals and earthy Native American flute to drift dreamily over. Agrelia’s Castle is the musical identity of husband and wife team Paul and April Brown. According to them, this offering to the world is their way to give back to all of the wonderful teachers they have met along their journey, many of whom are no longer with us, who have shown them how to live, under difficult circumstances, with beauty and grace. This music is dedicated to all of them. These words serve as a preface to the inspiring story behind this album.

“Brother Paul” Brown is a GRAMMY nominated producer and keyboardist for the well-known Celtic folk/rock band from the UK called The Waterboys that began in 1983. Although Paul has been involved with the music world for quite some time, April was drawn into it much more recently, in a roundabout way, as a result of circumstances beyond her control. While that may sound mysterious, it is an essential part of the story behind this music.

As April tells it: “Our story started in June of 2017, when Paul and I met. Not two months later, I found out I had breast cancer. So, our story has always been entwined with my cancer journey. I feel like God – or the universe, or whatever appellation you might give to what I have come to understand as the collective consciousness of everything – brought Paul into my life just when I was going to need him the most.” In 2018, April’s breast cancer had returned and spread Native fluteextensively through her body, beginning a long and difficult road of intense challenges. One time, while on a healing retreat, April participated in a drum circle and she became entranced by the sound of the Native American-style flute, which she found to be a soothing and magical instrument. She goes on to say, “Paul gave me my first flute for my birthday that year and it felt as if I was being united with an old friend. I felt so much peace and joy when I played.” According to Paul, “It was as if she’d played this instrument all her life. Her articulation, her vibrato and her choice of the very notes themselves all just completely blew me away!”

Paul and April’s first musical collaboration was on a guided meditation recording, on which Paul insisted that April be involved on every level as a participant rather than a spectator, much to her reluctance. As he shares: “Not long at all or perhaps even right as we were nearing the finishing line of the guided meditation album I knew in my soul that we had to keep somehow keep this going.” As Paul recollects after recording their first track of original music they created together: “When we finally played the last note and looked at each other I swear it felt like we had just made the most amazing, intimate passionate love without as much as a single physical touch. Then we went back and listened to the track in the control room and as this AprilandPaulBrowntrack was playing I felt this overwhelming mountain of joy welling up! Like we’d just hit the relationship lottery! That for me is truly what every track on this album represents. Every track has been a healing, growing challenging experience, and a new and beautiful means of self-discovery on both a musical and personal level.”

While creating the album was a joy and an accomplishment it was also a huge challenge. As April shared with me in an interview: “The album overall has taken us over three years to complete. We worked together between Paul’s other projects and gigs, and when I was feeling well enough to spend time in the studio. There was a period of time when a medication I was taking affected my voice – I had difficulty speaking much of the time and couldn’t sing at all. So between the two of us, just finding time to work on the album could be challenging. But it was also the best time we ever spent together. It was our quality time together. In creating music together, I think we were also creating a new paradigm for our relationship. Our old roles in the relationship had changed dramatically after my metastatic cancer diagnosis. This was a healing experience for us, a growing experience, as a couple.” On Ancestors & Elders, Paul and April share their music, inspiration, and healing energy to all those going through challenges of any kind. It also provides an oasis of calm for anyone seeking a relaxing listening experience.

Painting by April Brown

            Painting by April Brown

This is actually an abbreviated telling of the couple’s story and what went into the making of this album. But it’s enough to give the reader an idea and a greater appreciation of the music we will now be discussing. The album begins with the title track, and true to its name, Elders & Ancestors, there is an ancient feel to it that is both earthy and ethereal at the same time. Dreamy synthesizers, nature sounds, percussive textures, Paul’s echoed keyboard notes, and April’s Native flute and wordless vocals create an archetypal new age music ambience that immediately draws the listener into their sonic landscape. That serene vibe flows into the next track, entitled “Adrift.” I love the way it starts with the sound of water and the warm bell-like tones of Paul’s vintage Fender Rhodes electric piano. Throughout the album, Paul also plays organ and other keyboards, as well as drums and percussion. April’s angelic vocals float over the aqueous soundscape with subtle percussion adding a bit of earth element.

On track 3, “Breathe,” Tom Shinness, who plays guitar, harp guitar, cello, and bass, joins the duo. And adding a bit of world music influence is Richard Cushing on the sitar. And speaking of world influences, after the piece begins with the sound of wind and tinkling chimes, the first instrument heard is a kalimba, or African thumb piano creating a nice little groove that the other instruments begin to layer over. In addition to April’s previously mentioned wordless vocals, on this song she sings lyrics as well. “Breathe” is an extended track that unfolds gradually over nearly twelve and a half minutes. When the sitar comes in over a lively beat after about 4 minutes, it provides a nice change up and an exotic flair.

AprilandPaulBrown2After this rhythmic romp, the music migrates back to a more meditative mood on the appropriately named “Spirit Dreaming,” as well as into the following piece entitled “Sonnet” with its lovely cello accents. On track 6, “Wayfaring Stranger,” a new accompanist, Mike Farris, handles the lead vocal part in a soulful style that tells an inspiring story. The album ends as it began with just Paul and April. Opening with the sound of the ocean and a spacious piano intro by Paul on “Agrelia’s Lullaby,” April’s layered wordless vocals create a heavenly choir that brings the album to a lofty conclusion.

This gorgeous gift that Paul and April have given us in the form of Elders & Ancestors is imbued with healing, hope, and above all, love. The energy they have put into this creation illuminates each beautiful composition. While I was both moved and elevated by the music itself, knowing the story behind it made the listening experience that much more inspiring. Having said that, I will leave the final thoughts to April to conclude this feature article. In her words: “The songs on this CD are very meaningful to me. They have grown from our journey through the cancer landscape. They come from a desire to create peace, joy, and hope in our lives. When I listen to our music, I feel soothed and uplifted. It is my hope that other people, people living with chronic illness or those in caregiver positions, will experience the same soothing, uplifting feelings when they listen to our music.”


Chakra Love by Mantrananda

Chakra LoveChakra Love is the debut CD from a Los Angeles-based duo of Vicki Howie and Jeff Bonilla who record under the name Mantrananda. The word means “the bliss of spiritual sayings (mantras).” Incidentally, for those who may not be familiar, chakras are the energy centers of the body as described in Eastern spiritual teachings. The project began with Vicki, who is a master hypnotherapist, life coach and advanced yoga instructor. According to the album’s liner notes: “While teaching yoga in 2005, Vicki started singing accapella mantras during the final resting portion of her classes. She didn’t consider herself a “singer” at the time, but simply felt compelled to share the healing energy of the mantras she had learned from world-renown devotional singer, Deva Premal. As her students began asking her if she had a CD they could buy, Vicki gradually got used to the idea of creating one. She knew she needed to find the right musical partner who could bring instrumentals, inspiration and creative collaboration.” The project had a long germination period and seven years later she met singer/songwriter Jeff Bonilla who helped her bring it to fruition. Jeff is a former police officer, with over 20 years of experience in a wide variety of musical styles. But what made him the perfect person for this project was the fact that he had previously written and directed a film called “Chakra Love”, which he won a Best Director award for. They chose to use that name for their album in homage to the film. I found it particularly interesting that Vicki sees the chakras as gender-based pulsations – 3 female, 3 masculine, and one unity, so for that reason, she especially wanted a male collaborator for the project.

Vicki and Jeff knew they had made the right creative connection with each other when at their initial Jeff-Vicki-musicmeeting, they wrote the first song literally within minutes. They felt their muse was with them and that the music seemed to flow through them of its own accord. Over time, they got together regularly and composed a song for each chakra. Vicki’s vision was that each song would remain true to the energy of the chakra, which was an idea that appealed to Jeff. In his words: “There are a lot of chakra albums out there but what I found was that for the most part, most of the chakra music sounds very ethereal and indistinguishable. So that was the challenge. On our CD we use the seed sound of each chakra and captured the essence/element in the music and lyrics. So 3rd Chakra “Manipura” whose element is fire, sounds fiery and upbeat and not ethereal like the 6th Chakra “Ajna,” which is an upper chakra and should sound ethereal.” Rather than use the same style of music on each track, they varied it considerably, incorporating elements of acoustic, pop, and electronica along with vocals by both Vicki and Jeff in Sanskrit and English. This blend creates a melodious melding of ancient and modern.

As the album opens on the first chakra, we are greeted with the sounds of nature – crickets, rain, and thunder, establishing an appropriately earthy ambience. Soon after, a funky beat lays down a groove that is overlaid with Jeff’s shimmering electric guitar and synthesizer background. At this point, it occurred to me that this song could have been called “Chakra Rock,” for its foot-tapping, head-nodding sound that draws you in right from the start. It is definitely a departure from the more meditative chakra music commonly heard. But it is true to their purpose of having the music match the energy of each chakra. With the stage set, Vicki makes her entrance chanting the name of the chakra and Sanskrit mantras. Midway through, the music drops down in volume and Vicki does a beautiful spoken word segment honoring Mother Earth, before the groove and chanting resume. Later in the piece, Jeff joins in on synthesizer and vocals processed through electronic effects adding a bit of psychedelic atmosphere to the track – very cool. While some mantra-based music can, by nature, be fairly repetitive, the skillful arrangement of this composition kept it interesting and diverse, while maintaining the needed sense of continuity for meditative purposes.

On the second chakra, the earthy beat-driven vibe of the first track, gives way to a more watery guitar and syntheszier soundscape, with Vicki chanting in English about letting the river flow and letting your self go. In places, her vocals were multi-tracked, giving an Enya-like choir effect. The third chakra, which is related to the solar plexus and the fire element, definitely brings the heat on a highly danceable track with an 80’s rock vibe complete with lead guitar solo, and Vicki entreating us to “feel the fire in your soul…” There was a touch of Auto Tune used as an effect on her vocals to give that contemporary sound that is so in vogue these days. Again, like the first piece, there is a nice breakdown in the middle where the beat drops out for a bit leading into a more spacious section before rocking out again.

chakras-caduceusAs to be expected, a very different energy pervades the fourth track, related to the heart center. In an interesting choice of musical background, this mid-tempo piece had an opening chord progression and overall sound that reminded me of the hit song “Every Breath You Take,” by The Police. However, it soon moves into a dreamy drifting space with Vicki chanting the Sanskrit name of this chakra – “Anahata.” In one section, Jeff steps out a bit more vocally singing a repeated phrase: “The heart is the bridge between body and soul.” This was a beautiful piece with another fine arrangement. Not to overdo comparisons to other music, but echoes of Pink Floyd reverberated on the trippy track 5, “Visuddha,” which, in certain sections, featured some of Vicki’s most soulful singing heard thus far. As mentioned earlier, the music evolves from earthy to ethereal as it progresses through the chakras, and by the time we get to “Ajna,” the 3rd eye center, it is quite airy, and is enhanced by very creative use of reverb and electronic effects to help achieve that ambience. That said, the 7th or crown chakra was a bit more up-tempo than I would have expected, although the lyrics fit perfectly with the thematic meaning of this chakra. In addition to the seven chakras are three additional tracks: “Abundance Song,” “The Healing Song,” and an ancient mantra “Loka Samasta Sukhino Bhavantu,” which translates in short to: “May all being be happy,” and is a prayer for the people of the earth, in comparison to the first track which is a prayer for Mother Earth herself.” I thought this was a nice touch to bookend the album with these two pieces.

There are a number of chakra-related albums that have been released over the past few decades and Chakra Love is certainly a unique entry into this highly specialized niche. While the concept springs from Eastern spiritual teachings that have come down through the ages and have been interpreted musically in a variety of ways, I don’t think I’ve heard it done as a vocal album with such a strong instrumental background that incorporates as many contemporary musical styles. To be honest, I didn’t expect as much rock and pop influence, although I really enjoyed it. With the current popularization of kirtan and devotional music mixed with electronica, there is certainly a growing market for an album like Chakra Love. The recording is well produced by Jeff and the energetic balance between he and Vicki is perfect – like yin and yang. Also, as a guitarist myself, I was constantly aware of Jeff’s playing, and in particular the exquisite rich chorus-laden tones he gets – nice synthesizer textures and electronic effects too. The thing that stood out most to me about Vicki is the purity of her voice and her soul, which shines through the mix, and the absolutely clear intention to charge these songs with spiritual energy for healing and upliftment. I also give her a lot of credit for having the vision for this project and not giving up until she found the exact right person to collaborate with to make it a reality even though it took many years. Chakra Love is a thoroughly modern and highly accessible take on ancient spirituality that is sure to be warmly welcomed by a growing number new age music lovers.

Love heals

Getaway by Lisa Hilton

Lisa Hilton - "Getaway"Having written a feature article about Lisa Hilton’s previous recording, American Impressions, in which I covered much of her musical background, biographical information, and music education work with visually disabled children, I’ll refer readers who might be interested to that article, rather than reiterate it here. But briefly, Lisa, who has been called “The Lioness Of Jazz,” is pleased to present her latest release, Getaway, which is, incredibly, her fifteenth album as a bandleader. She is also a pioneer as one of the first major jazz musicians to pursue a career as an independent artist. It’s a strategy that seems to have worked for her since she has gained international critical acclaim, performed at top venues with highly regarded musicians, has her music regularly programmed on jazz radio around the world, and hosts nearly 200 tracks on iTunes.

Before delving into the inspired music on this new album, I wanted to share some of Lisa’s motivation behind it and her philosophy of music in our time. She explains: “Conceptually the title Getaway references our need to ‘get away’ from what we were doing musically last century. In our post iTunes and post YouTube lives, the entire world is now at our musical fingertips, and that should be reflected in twenty-first century music. When we listen to Jelly Roll Morton or Beethoven, we instinctively understand what era those composers date from, but a twenty-first century composer and musician reflects the past and the present on a global scope. Getaway is about finding freedom in our busy, technologically distracted lives – whether we get up and move, or renew ourselves through art, music, nature, or with friends. For me, music and art are the original social networks.”

On Getaway, Lisa reprises her collaborative chemistry with all-star bandmates, bassist Larry Grenadier (whose recording credits include Pat Metheney, Brad Mehldau, Joshua Redman, and more) and drummer Nasheet Waits (who played with Jason Moran and Kurt Rosenwinkel, among others). The jazz trio is a perfect format, providing three strong musical personalities plenty of space to make their presence felt, individually and collectively. The album gets off to a rolling start with the title track. An excellent music video for this song, which can be seen at Lisa’s Lisa in Corvettewebsite, perfectly captures the mood of the piece. It starts out with Lisa beginning the getaway by loading her luggage into the trunk of a classic ’61 Corvette convertible and hitting the road. This also ties in symbolically with what she was saying earlier about how the title references our need to ‘get away’ from what we were doing musically last century. The album’s cover shows a still frame photo from the video of Lisa carrying the luggage, which she makes an interesting comment about: “ Visually we added the vintage luggage – our past – but we are definitely moving forward.” And the theme of forward momentum is certainly personified in this piece, which, like Lisa in the Corvette, musically puts the hammer down and lets the good times roll with an adventurous modal romp. The getaway has begun!

The next stop on the journey is a bouncy bluesy tune called “Just For Fun,” which allows Lisa plenty of latitude to detour down some of the more avant-garde side streets she is known to frequent. And speaking of the blues, the old favorite, “Stormy Monday Blues” gets an instrumental workout, complete with a tasty upright bass solo by Larry Grenadier, whose work on the recording is exemplary. Painted in subdued nocturnal musical colors is a tune called “Evening Song,” which portrays a more impressionistic mood. I was impressed on this song, as I was throughout the album with the way Nasheet Waits transcends the traditional role of drummer as strictly a timekeeper, and brings elegant innovation to the mix both texturally and percussively. A driving Latin beat kicks off a tune called “Lost & Found.” Larry, Lisa, & NasheetInterestingly, though, the propulsion derives from Lisa’s dynamic left hand pattern on the piano rather than the drums, which are more atmospheric than measured in this piece. Even in the drum solo, Nasheet works to fill the soundspace with percussive ambience, not divide it into blocks of time and rhythm. The interplay between these three virtuoso instrumentalists is impressive and manifests itself in sometimes unexpected ways yielding intriguing twists and turns. Lisa’s sense of composition incorporates many diverse influences, yet comes together in a way that is truly her own unique expression.

One of my favorites, and a most interesting musical inclusion on the album is an instrumental version of a soulful tune by Grammy-winning British pop vocalist Adele entitled “Turning Tables.” It’s a much more intimate rendering than the original and draws you into its wistful air. In the only non-trio piece, Lisa brings the album to a relatively laidback conclusion with a solo piano composition called “Huckleberry Moon.”  This song, for me, evoked somewhat of a rustic Windham Hill vibe compared to the urban jazz influences, which are present in some of Lisa’s playing. As much as I enjoyed her playing and musical synergy in the ensemble, it was also nice to experience this side of her artistic palate as well. Getaway, as an album title is most appropriate because by the time it ends, you really feel like you have gotten away on a whirlwind road trip to many exotic musical locales. As I said in my write-up of Lisa’s previous release: “The album reflects an ever-changing spectrum of styles, moods, and influences,” and the same holds true for this one as well. While many musicians shine in a singular style, Lisa Hilton’s musical world reflects a rainbow, and her latest release, Getaway, is like a pot of gold at the end of it.

Lisa Hilton

All the Days of My Life by Vicente Avella

Vicente Avella CDAlbums with a particular focus or niche come in many varieties. From relaxation, meditation, yoga, spiritual attunement, Goddesses, healing, sleep induction, and more, the list goes on. Yet one of the more unique niche albums I’ve come across recently is Vicente Avella’s piano music for weddings, entitled All The Days Of My Life. Here he describes his inspiration to create this recording: “Through working with couples over the years, I have encountered an ever-growing need for music that, simply put, gives a current expression to the traditional wedding classics. I kept finding that brides and grooms loved the timelessness of the classics but that, at the same time, they really wanted music that spoke today’s language; their language. This inspired me to create this album: a collection of music that embraces both the traditional and the contemporary.” Keep in mind that the modern touch he is referring to does not mean synthesizers, hip hop beats, and electronica, but is a present day perspective on “timeless classics” performed on solo piano in a style that brings to mind George Winston, David Lanz, Peter Kater, and many of the Windham Hill artists.

The connection to Windham Hill goes even deeper in that this album was produced by the iconic label’s founder, Grammy winning producer Will Ackerman, who had this to say: Conceived as the soundtrack of a contemporary wedding, “All The Days Of My Life” is, of course, perfect for weddings, but is so original in the arrangements of even traditional wedding music that the album is a joy on any day. Vicente is a brilliant player and arranger. Very few musicians could have pulled this off so gracefully and successfully. There is a freshness to his approach to this material that utterly avoids cliché and provides depth and beauty in its place… a remarkable achievement.” That is high praise coming from someone of Will’s perspective and experience. Not surprisingly, there is a mutual admiration as expressed by Vicente: “Working with Will was wonderful. He is an amazing musician with a keen sensibility who generously shares his wisdom. He helped bring out the best in me and this album is so much better because of his involvement. And recording at Imaginary Road was idyllic. Can’t think of a more inspiring place to record.”

VICENTE AVELLAVicente brings a formidable skill set to this labor of love. Born in Caracas, Venezuela, he went on to receive his bachelor’s degree in piano performance from Indiana University and a master’s degree in music composition from Eastman School of Music. As a pianist and composer, he has been writing and performing internationally since 1998. Areas of specialization Vicente has excelled in are film scoring and orchestration where he has worked on numerous award winning films and animations, as well as music production for major network television shows. I find it fascinating with a musical focus such as this, that Vicente felt the impetus to create this particular kind of album. He shares a bit more explanation: “As one who has been honored to provide the music for hundreds of ceremonies, I can say with certainty that your wedding is an experience that you will never forget. Personally speaking, I hold the memory of my own wedding as one of the most beautiful days of my life. Those memories will remain with me forever. They hold within them everything that is most meaningful to me.” That he was able to apply his talents to provide music that will enhance the treasured memories of others is a gift that will be cherished by many.

The album’s opening track, “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” is played with a tenderness that sets just the right mood for this blessed time in a couple’s lives. I was also aware of and impressed with his sense of timing and way he Vincente Avella video on youtubeimpeccably used the space between the notes, as well as the notes themselves. This is followed by an original tune called “Dressed In White,” which was inspired by the first time Vicente saw his bride, now his wife in her wedding dress. Next up is “Romanze,” an elegant rendition of “Canon in D.” One of my, and I’m sure many other people’s favorite melodies is interpreted in a stately and graceful manner that is truly moving. Of course, no album of wedding music would be complete without that most archetypal song for the occasion, “Bridal March,” sometimes referred to as “Here Comes The Bride.” This is an emotionally evocative melody to begin with and Vicente’s heartfelt version of it might even bring a tear or two to the eye of the most unsentimental listener.

ODE TO JOYOne of my favorite pieces on the album is Beethoven’s “Ode To Joy.” I particularly liked the contrast between Vicente’s sprightly right hand arpeggios and the more restrained left hand chords. Another song that means a lot to many people and carries a deep emotional resonance is Schubert’s “Ave Maria.” Interestingly, Vicente’s soulful playing on this classic, in one respect elevates it in spirit, yet at the same time, brings it down to earth with simplicity and grace. However, out of all the beautiful music on the album, my absolute favorite is the next to the last track, “Spring” by Vivaldi.  I love the light-hearted optimistic air about it and the image of hopefulness it evokes of a couple on their special day contemplating a new life together. The album draws to a touching conclusion with a lovely interpretation of Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March.”

One of the words that come to mind in describing Vicente’s musical sensibilities is “tasteful.” Apparently a music critic at the Boston Globe agreed when he described Vicente’s music as “good taste unto genius.” An excellent video introduction to Vicente and his music can be viewed on his website. And a brand new music video with a track from the album has recently been posted on Youtube (http://youtu.be/YTx3ataGqSI). While the album features many classic songs, this compilation of Vicente’s performances of them could well become a classic in itself. The marriage of these timeless melodies with the skill and sensitivity of an instrumentalist like Vicente Avella is a match made in heaven.

Vicente Avella

Event Horizon by Chronotope Project

chronotope projectThe word “chronotope” is not one you will find in the dictionary. It is, however, the nom de plume, or nom de synth in this case, of electronic music recording artist Jeffrey Ericson Allen. By his definition: “Chronotope refers to the essential unity of space and time. The music of Chronotope Project explores this time-space confluence and invites the listener on ambient journeys of deep texture infused with gentle pulsing rhythms and soulful melodies.” And after listening to Jeffrey’s self-described “Sensuous Ambient Music,” I’d say that gives a pretty accurate idea of what you will hear on this, as well as other albums by Chronotope Project.

Jeffrey’s background in the arts did not start with electronic music, however. Growing up in a musical household, he began cello lessons at the age of 8 with his grandfather, a cellist, conductor, and music educator. He went on to compose and perform classical music and even had his own string quartet as a teenager. While he didn’t major in music in college, he did take various music courses and has studied piano, voice, and the Japanese koto (a 13 string zither-like instrument). The flute is another of his favorites and he has a large collection of them from around the world. However, in the early 1980’s the emerging oscillations of electronic music became a focal point for Jeffrey. Immersing himself in the sonic circuitry of synthesizers, he has become quite adept at not only composing on them, but on programming and creating libraries of original sounds. Since that time Jeffrey has recorded a number of albums, which have been heard on radio programs like Hearts of Space, Echoes and Star’s End. He was also commissioned to compose dramatic music and provide narration for a series of more than a dozen soundtracks for children’s picture books.

I had the opportunity to write a review of his previous release, Chrysalis, which I portrayed as: “Lush sonic Jeffrey_Allen_Studio_2013_Jtextures and ambient atmospheres conjure the element of space, with time being marked by gently pulsing rhythmic ostinatos and exotic percolating percussion. While some rhythmic elements evoke actual percussion instruments, others are created by unique and intriguing sequenced electronic sounds.” These are signature elements of Jeffrey’s sound, and are present on his latest release as well. This album, entitled Event Horizon, is described by Jeffrey in this way: “Each of the nine tracks has a strong sense of gravimetric pull toward a central motif, which enters the soundfield, evolves with the structure, then dissolves back into silence. The textures blend elements common to the art of Chronotope Project: the deep earthy foundation of sustained drones and rich chordal soundbeds, the flowing watery melodies, the scintillating sparkle of fiery sequences, arpeggios, and percussive inflections, and the etheric and mysterious veils that surround and envelop the texture.”

This description paints a perfect portrait of the first track on the album, entitled “Unwinding The Dream.” The yin-yang contrast of percolating sequencers providing forward motion with the atmospheric synthesizer textures and aqueous ambience was music to my ears. This kind of music is reminiscent of a particular sub-genre of electronic music known as “Berlin School,” which was first popularized in the 70’s by German experimental recording artists such as Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze, and Ash Ra, as well as influencing contemporary electronic musicians like Craig Padilla and Alpha Wave Movement. This is one of my favorite styles of music and I’m glad to hear it in a modern context. Track 2, “Akashic Love Songs,” features one of the elements I enjoyed most about the previous album, Chrysalis – the percussion. Jeffrey is a master alchemist in his blending of unique percussive sounds, both natural and sampled, and adding effects to them to create some of the most intriguing multi-layered rhythmic sequences that I’ve heard. On this track a tabla-like beat is accented by echoed drum hits stylistically reminiscent of Patrick O’Hearn. This entrancing groove, which is both earthy and ethereal, is the foundation of a soundscape that mixes a mélange of exotic electronic sounds, twinkling textures like stars falling from the sky, and acoustic guitar tones. I listened to this a number of times on headphones to try to identify all the elements that drift in and out of the mix, and while there is a lot going on, it definitely doesn’t feel cluttered. The word I would use to describe it is “magical.”

I was curious to hear what track 3, “Arecibo,” would sound like. I think I’m pretty safe in assuming it is a reference to the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, which has been used by SETI (Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence). The music definitely has an otherworldly signals-from-space vibe to it. At just over 10 minutes in length, the next composition, entitled “No Birth, No Death,” is an expansive exploration of deep drift that picks up a subtle rhythm part way through, and is the longest piece on the album. An interesting addition on the next composition called “The Temple Bell Fades,” is the sound of piano – one of the few non-electronic instruments on the recording. The sound of the tolling bell gave me a Pink Floyd flashback for a moment – a nice sonic touch. More of Jeffrey’s incredibly cool percussion sequences grace a track called “Automatic Writing,” which floats on dreamy drifting clouds of sound. This track segues into the next one, “Geosynchronous,” and maintains the floating feeling, although the movement is provided by arpeggiated bell sounds, draped in silky shrouds of sensual synths. Track 8, the title track, has a bit of the feel I wrote about the first piece, with its pulsing electronic sequence and washes of ambient sound. The album draws to a close with a bubbly dreamscape entitled “The Path of Least Resistance.”

Interestingly, in scientific terms, the title, Event Horizon, commonly refers to the boundary of a black hole in space, and is defined as: “the point of no return i.e. the point at which the gravitational pull becomes so great as to make escape impossible.” I can say that from the very beginning of the first track on this album, I was drawn in by its musical gravity, and had absolutely no desire to escape. I truly enjoyed every track and every minute of this stellar CD. As a synthesist myself, I was extremely impressed with the seemingly endless palate of innovative electronic tonalities Jeffrey uses to paint his soundscapes. I also appreciate the spirituality that inspires his music. What I wrote about his Chrysalis album holds true for this one as well: “His Buddhist meditation practice has taught him the value of spaciousness and given him a sense of the transcendent, which is embodied in his music.” Jeffrey feels that Event Horizon is his “most mature and best-realized work to date,” and I would tend to agree, although I have enjoyed everything I have heard by this talented composer of time and space. Fans of Jonn Serrie, Robert Rich, and Steve Roach will find a lot to like in the sound of Chronotope Project. There is a cinematic quality to this music that could serve equally well as a film score or as a soundtrack for a movie in the mind’s eye. Event Horizon is a quietly masterful release that now occupies a place in the upper echelons of my all-time favorite ambient electronic music.

22 Piano Tales by Galya

Galya-22PianoTalesIn the world of fictional literature, tales are told in a variety of forms ranging from epic novels to short stories. Having had the pleasure of writing a feature article about Galya’s previous album, Key of Dreams, which showcased her talent for intricate and detailed composition, I was fascinated to receive her new release, 22 Piano Tales, that is more an example of the short story analogy. In an exclusive interview, she explained: “Each song in my previous albums was like a book, with an intro, story line  like wedding music, so they were long. In the album 22 Piano Tales I use a little bit different approach. Each song is like a small tale describing a moment of life or an emotional state.” So I was curious to hear how her music would adapt to this different format.

Galya has a fascinating background that draws from various cultural influences. Born in the Ukraine near Russia, she started piano at a very young age and was only 12 when the largest Ukrainian sheet music publisher approached her about publishing her works. She went on to graduate from the University of the Arts and in addition to composing and performing concerts, Galya has written songbooks and instructional books for piano. She eventually moved to Paris in 2002 and has been living there since, steeped in its rich musical history. Readers who may be interested in reading more about Galya’s background can check out my feature article on her Key of Dreams album, where I wrote more in depth about her history.

Galya - ParisGiven that at the time of this writing, there had just been a major terrorist attack aimed at artists expressing their right to free speech in Paris, near where Galya lives, I was interested to get her perspective on this and the role of the arts in these troubled times. In her words: “Yes, we have a difficult time now. Not only in France but also in Ukraine where I was born. There is a real war that has continued for more than a year. And there are many innocent people who die for political ambitions. In any time and in any place, artists should always be free to express themselves! We can create any kind of creations but there is a huge responsibility behind them. The art should not hurt or humiliate others people.” While some may agree or disagree with this, the statement reveals much about Galya’s compassionate nature and her soulful desire to use art for the highest good.

And in a similar vein, when asked whether she had personal reflections or back story about any of the songs on the album, Galya replied: “I prefer to let the people imagine their stories behind my music and let them live their imaginations freely! Very often they share them with me and this gives me a huge inspiration for my further songs!” So without further adieu, let’s see what inspirations and imaginings we can find in the music of 22 Piano Tales.

pianoAs mentioned, the songs are brief – many only a minute or two, approximately. But like a well-crafted short story or a Zen koan, it is not the length, but the depth of its content that conveys the meaning. As the title of the first track, “Fragile,” implies, the composition is a portrait of delicate beauty. Galya’s gentle nuanced touch and elegant phrasing hints of her classical background. Interestingly, although her music is sometimes categorized in the new age genre, Galya does not hesitate to affirm that it is primarily neo-classical, although like new age music it is relaxing and creates a beautiful space. As she explains: “A professional composer must be able to compose in any style of music. I have some other projects in different styles of music. This capacity enriches a composer and gives more freedom of expression.”

With 22 songs on the album, there isn’t room here to go into all of them, but I’ll touch on, what are for me, some of the highlights. I found the romantic strains of both “Live in Love” and “Merci” to be quite moving, and would work perfectly in a film soundtrack. Given Galya’s natural feel for this kind of music, it is not surprising that she published an instructional songbook called “Easy Romantic Piano.”

Among the highlights, I must mention the beautiful piece called “Turning the Page,” and the absolutely exquisite video Galya has created for it (see below). Over the past two years, Galya has had 11 videos produced for her music. Each video is her visualization of the story behind the song. As she elaborates: “In this particular video I’ve tried to share the moment of creation of a new song. Each composer and writer needs to “turn the page” after finishing one creation to typewriterpass to the next one. Having a huge inspiration from early 20th century (French “Belle Epoque”) I was looking to create a romantic environment. Creating songs is a personal intimate moment and not really well associated to our era of music writing using computers and various electronic gadgets in the process of creation. I’ve spent about month to find appropriate decorations for this video: dress, curtains, jewelry, feather, inks and all other decorations. For example the chair used was bought and completely restored to correspond the piano’s style. I also bought the typewriter – nearly 100 years old (working perfectly by the way).”

While many of Galya’s songs are romantic and light hearted, she also explores diverse emotional terrain, such as the wistful air heard on “Adieu.” The sadness of saying goodbye to a loved one is beautifully portrayed here and is accentuated by her use of space, which speaks as eloquently as the notes in the melody. I also appreciated this balance of sound and silence in her poignant composition, “Now and Forever.” Galya draws great inspiration from nature, which is reflected in songs like “Rose Garden,” “Summer Dream,” “First Autumn Leaf,” “Frozen Flower,” and “Night Wind.” Although I didn’t at first recognize the song “Brother John” by its title, I had to smile when I realized, upon listening, that it was the much-beloved nursery rhyme, “Frere Jacques,” interpreted here in Galya’s distinctive flowing neo-classical style.

Among the qualities that stand out most to me in Galya’s music is her exquisite balance ofGalya technique and training with deep expressiveness and emotion. When I asked her about this, she replied: “I think for composing or playing music you need to use your heart and your head equally. Emotions are our road and the head is our guide on this road.” Galya’s songs are quite evocative and are felt as much as heard by the listener. I wasn’t sure how I was going to relate to these much shorter pieces compared to her more lengthy previous recordings, but I enjoyed them very much. It reminded me a bit of “tapas” in Spanish cuisine, where small servings of a number of different dishes are served. Galya’s short pieces were just enough to give a burst of musical flavor and a tuneful taste without filling the listener up on a longer, more musically caloric composition. As such, 22 Piano Tales makes a wonderful introduction to this gifted artist, as well as being a welcome addition to the music collections of Galya’s long time fans.

Drops and Sparks by Richard Gannaway

Having recently reviewed the incredible CD by AOMUSIC entitled “And Love Rages On” I was excited to read the book “Drops and Sparks” as it was written by one of the principle members of AOMUSIC, Richard Gannaway. The book is intimately connected with the music in that it began as a journal to focus the message of AOMUSIC and contains insights that inspire the vision behind the music. For a greater understanding of this symbiotic relationship, I highly recommend reading the review of the CD here on Music And Media Focus. This book is actually one of two written by Richard – the first one bearing the same title as the CD. They were originally written as one work, although he decided to separate them and “Drops and Sparks” expands on some of the concepts put forth in the first book. “While they can definitely stand alone as separate works, there may be some benefit to reading “And Love Rages On” first.

The vision of AOMUSIC is to express a theme of universal coherence or unity – nature’s most fundamental message. Correspondingly, the books mirror this theme through an in-depth exploration of music, color, form and movement, which are the components of beauty. He sees music as a “lens to understand a language in the heart of all phenomena.” I like the quote he included by Thomas Carlyle: “See deep enough, and you see musically; the heart of nature being everywhere music, if you can only reach it.“ Through observing expressions of harmonic design in nature Richard came to the awareness that this structure is conscious and permeates everything in the universe… a core essence, which can be thought of as unconditional Love. Not surprisingly, “Drops And Sparks” is subtitled: “Proof That Love Created The Universe.”  Incidentally, the book’s main title is inspired by the two elixirs for biological life: a drop of water and a spark of sunlight.

The scope of this book is expansive to say the least, as is its depth. Among the myriad of topics it weaves together are quantum physics, metaphysics, sacred geometry, symbols, music and music theory, color, cycles of time, astrology, planetary and consciousness evolution, dimensional shifts, fractals, 2012, the unseen forces of the universe, and much more. Obviously these are not casual topics and the exploration of them in the book is extensive, penetrating, and thought provoking. As such, some degree of familiarity with this area of study would stand the reader in good stead in getting the most out of this book. As mentioned earlier, a reading of the first volume “And Love Rages On” may help set the stage for greater comprehension. However for one versed in such heady subject matter, “Drops And Sparks” offers a treasure trove of wisdom and insight. On his website, Richard provides a surprisingly generous portion of the book for one to peruse and see if it something they resonate with before paying to download the complete volume. As I was reading the book I had the feeling that some of the concepts were like seeds that would come to fruition in time as I nurtured and assimilated them. In fact, Richard addresses this when he writes: “take your time and be patient with how the information rediscovers you. These insights know their place in our cognitive intuition and how to find us when we are ready.”

While the concepts and observations presented in the book are deep intellectually, one thing I came away with on an emotional level was a pervasive sense of optimism, in particular about our evolutionary trajectory in the days and years to come. He observes, “In humanity, when things seem most chaotic and hopeless, they are often very close to the inverse potential—what is termed, phase lock; as in the darkest before dawn proverb.” One place this was addressed at length was in the chapter on 2012, which I found to be most fascinating and timely. Richard talks about the Mayan Calendar, the ancient people who created it, and how it has been greatly misunderstood and sensationalized in recent years. Far from being a foretelling of apocalypse, it heralds the end of a great cycle and the beginning of a new one, the implications of which we can scarcely imagine. In his words, “A dimensional shift is upon us, and as it progresses, individuals may wake up in a new dream of experience, where incredible acceleration in consciousness begins a cycle of unprecedented, global cooperation.” He believes that “In the century ahead, those who adapt together in a spirit of commonwealth will emerge as the strongest cultures on earth.” To sum it up I will share one more quote: “If such an eternity of growth, evolution and promise has a word, it is Love. It is the original force behind every texture of our temporal experience.”

In addition, the downloadable book also includes color graphics, clickable links, an extensive reading list, and an extremely informative glossary of terms relevant to the subject matter. Besides being a writer, musician, and producer, Richard is also a talented artist, and all the graphics on this page are his original designs.

Learning To Fly by Neil Tatar

Learning To FlyWhile his new album is entitled Learning To Fly, guitarist/pianist/composer Neil Tatar is one of the most down to earth people you could meet – although his music certainly does have wings. Neil’s previous release and collaboration with cellist David Darling, Where Did The Time Go, was excellent, and those who are interested can click the link to read my feature article about it. With Learning To Fly, however, Neil has taken his music and collaborative efforts to the next level entirely.

I had the opportunity to sit down recently with Neil at the ZMR Awards in New Orleans and got the scoop on this new release and all that went into it. For starters, Neil made the decision to work with one of the most iconic studios and production teams that frequently serve the new age music genre. Imaginary Road Studios in Vermont is headed by GRAMMY winning producer, guitarist, and Windham Hill Records founder, Will Ackerman. Also contributing his Imaginary Road Studiosconsiderable professional expertise is producer, engineer, and multi-instrumentalist Tom Eaton. A number of Will’s A-list studio musicians are also featured. As Neil shared with me: “Working at the studio was an experience that I will always cherish. The level of support that ultimately was provided by Will and Tom Eaton was well beyond my expectations, and they both deserve a huge amount of credit for the end result of Learning To Fly.” Neil also acknowledges his wife Lini, in addition to Will for their support during the songwriting phase of the album.

Like myself, Neil started out as a guitarist playing blues, rock, and R&B before finding his way into instrumental new age music. Neil’s shift in direction was facilitated, in part, by his good friend and mentor David Darling. As Neil describes: “He offered me the opportunity to discover and to honor my own musical path, and opened within me the awareness that I could follow my own unique sound, which is what the listener is hearing on my albums today. I see music as a wonderful form of communication. It is my way of telling a story, and providing the listener with a palette that allows them to color in their own interpretation, while guiding them with my feelings and musical expression.”

piano at Imaginary Road Studios

The famous Steinway at Imaginary Road

So what are some of the stories Neil tells with his music? Opening with a reflective pastoral piano piece called “Wait For Me,” Neil is joined by Paul Winter Consort member Eugene Friesen on cello, long-time Will Ackerman collaborator Jill Haley on English horn, and bassist extraordinaire Tony Levin, who performs with Peter Gabriel, King Crimson, and many others. While many associate Neil with the guitar, this lovely track illuminates another aspect of his musical spectrum. It’s not long, however, before the six-string sound of Neil’s acoustic guitar is heard on the laid back jazzy strains of “Breeze In Blue.” In addition to Tony Levin on bass, the track includes the airy ethereal wordless vocals of Noah Wilding, and the soprano sax of Premik Russell Tubbs, who has performed with major league players such as Carlos Santana, John McLaughlin, Jean-Luc Ponty, Jackson Browne, and many more.

As the title implies, “Ode To My Mentors,” is a musical tribute. In Neil’s words: “This is a piece that honors those who have guided and mentored me during my lifetime.” In addition to the aforementioned David Darling, Neil cites his parents “who offered support and encouragement to me while they were present on Earth, and now through the example they set in my memories.” It’s a touching piano-based song that is accompanied by Premik, this time on alto flute, as well as Eugene Friesen, Tony Levin, and percussionist Jeff Haynes, who has performed with The Pat Metheney Group. Neil’s compositional skills and piano work are exquisite and you really sense his heartfelt emotion throughout the piece. In fact, Will Ackerman described Neil in this way: “Neil Tatar carries the heart of a romantic around with him. His emotions are rarely hidden and seldom contained.”

On “Missing You,” Neil not only plays on the strings of his acoustic guitar, but on the heartstrings of the listener as well, in Neil at Imaginary Roadthis emotionally evocative composition that memorializes his profound feelings about his mother’s recent and unexpected passing. In his words: “The beginning guitar passage is my mournful expression of missing her presence, and the gradual buildup to full instrumentation is an expression of honoring her rising spirit and the brightness of her memory. The title becomes clear to the listener as the meaning of the writing is disclosed.” It is a powerful and expressive homage that draws from a deep well of feelings. In addition to some of the previously mentioned accompanists, this track also includes the soulful violin playing of Charlie Bisharat, who is best known for his work with Yanni and John Tesh. As you can see by now, the description of the accompanists on the album as being “A-list” is certainly not hyperbole.

This is followed by the upbeat and exotic “Twilight Dance” which Neil describes as: “a connection to my ancestral roots, and channels a subconscious remembrance of a nocturnal dance experienced long ago. The swirling and driving music becomes a reflection of my own primal identity and honors generations from the past, watching folks moving in a frenzied yet rhythmic connection to the present.” A new instrumental voice heard here is that of fretless bass virtuoso Michael Manring who joins the ensemble. Also featured is a standout performance by Jeff Haynes on hand drums that energizes the piece with his propulsive rhythm.

The album’s title track, “Learning To Fly,” is about the proverbial “leaving of the nest,” and for Neil, “symbolizes recognition of opportunity and the excitement of exploring new horizons.” He goes on to say: “While writing this piece, I discovered the right hand that was played on piano began to express an image of a bird taking flight for the first time as it leaves the safety and comfort of the nest, while the left hand provides support and reassurance.” It’s primarily a piano piece with touches of sweet violin in places. One of my favorite songs, and perhaps the most unique on the album, is the bouncy Latin jazz-tinged “Summer Strut,” which features the maestro Ackerman himself on guitar along with a full cast of accompanists. It’s a real toe tapping “feel-good” piece, and serves to highlight the range of Neil’s music, from deeply reflective to exuberant and energetic.

Neil and Tom Eaton

Neil and Tom Eaton

At this point, I want to reiterate that while Neil’s previous album with David Darling was excellent, this new release provides an even more colorful palette for him to paint his musical pictures. One of the trademarks of a Will Ackerman production is that of providing some of the finest studio musicians in the world, yet always in a supporting role, keeping the spotlight on the featured artist. Neil has taken full advantage of this scenario and totally shines in his interaction with the maestro Ackerman and company. I must also compliment the superb sound quality and mix that is tweaked to perfection by master engineer Tom Eaton. Learning To Fly certainly lives up to it’s title as it explores diverse musical terrain from a lofty perspective. Neil Tatar is an up and coming artist whose skills as a composer and multi-instrumentalist on piano and guitar provide a thoroughly satisfying musical experience, that will leave listeners eager to hear more in the future.

To See You Again by Cathy Oakes

Cathy 0akesAlthough pianist Cathy Oakes  is relatively new to the world of recording, she has taught piano and voice for over 30 years. She released her first CD, Like a Song, in 2012, yet in the brief span of time since then, she has been prolific, and her new release, To See You Again, is now her third album. One would hope that as an artist progresses along their creative path, that there is an evolution, a deepening of their work. And this certainly holds true for Cathy Oakes. She makes a good point with regard to her music and relationships in general when she says: “When I meet a person for the first time, I don’t reveal my true, deep-down self. I don’t think any of us does that. We present our “outward” self. Only through getting to know that person, spending time with them, testing the waters, so to speak, do we begin to reveal the “inner” person that we are. We become more comfortable, feel more accepted, feel safer with that person and begin to reveal the deeper parts of our personality. It is the same with my CDs.”

Cathy’s first album was her “introduction” as a recording artist, both to the music community and to the world at large. Her main goal with that release was to be accepted as an artist on “Whisperings: Solo Piano Radio” program, created by well-known pianist, David Nevue. When Cathy was writing songs for her debut recording, she intentionally wrote with that in mind and created compositions, which she thought, would fit that mold. While she did become selected as a feature artist on the program, Cathy was surprised when particular songs were accepted or rejected in complete opposition to her expectations. Since her second album was a Christmas album, this third one is actually the sequel to the original music of her debut. But now, she chose to write from a different perspective than her introductory effort. In her words: “This time, I wrote using my own voice. It reveals more of the true me. I am a person of many moods and many emotions. I feel deeply. I am a woman, a wife, a mother, a daughter, a sister, a cousin, a pastor, and friend. Those feelings are shared on this CD. There is anger, frustration, sorrow, joy, wistfulness, homesickness, longing, love and worship expressed through the instrumental music on this CD. As I said, it’s much more ‘honest.’ It expresses who I am and what I feel.”

Some of that emotional range is portrayed in the first track, entitled “When I Am Afraid.” This composition was images written when Cathy was going through a difficult time with one of her children and some of what she was feeling is channeled into it, as well as a sense of hopefulness, no doubt inspired by her deep spirituality. There is a nice sense of dynamics in the piece as it drops down into quieter, more introspective sections. Poignant feelings of loss are reflected in a number of songs such as “Cheryl’s Legacy,” “Farewell My Bonnie Lass,” and the title track, which pay tribute to dear friends and family who have passed on. The gently wistful strains of the title track are quite moving in their own quiet way. While Cathy’s playing style is not flashy or overly dramatic, I was impressed with how much feeling she was able to imbue her sweet melodies with.

Some of the personal challenges mentioned above in the first track are mirrored again in a composition called “The Tempest.” This one has a bit more of a minor feel to it and includes some intriguing chord changes and progressions. Its interesting how one person’s emotional experience can evoke resonant memories in another. A track called “Bittersweet,” was created to express the feeling Cathy had as she watched her adult children from the front window as they drove away after spending time together. That brought up a very old memory for me as I remember my own mother telling me the feelings she had watching me drive off to begin a new existence 2000 miles away in Denver, when I was a young man starting out in life. Listening to the emotion in Cathy’s song resonated in me and I truly felt her intent in this piece. While there are themes of loss and longing on this album, a track, which Cathy feels expresses her playful side and quirky sense of humor is “In The Key of Lost.” Its’ more bouncy and upbeat air do reflect another facet of her musical personality.

Cathy Oakes - promo picAs a pastor and person of great faith, Cathy relies on her spirituality, not only in her daily life, but to help her get through the tough times. This particularly shines through on songs like “Under the Shadow,” “What a Friend,” and “A Prayer.” Cathy emphasizes that she has been honest with her feelings in the creation of this music and in her words: “This CD is much more emotional, darker in some ways and is not as “easy” to listen to. I think it requires the listener to engage. Good thing or bad thing? Only time will tell, I suppose. But it’s written from the heart and is expressed through my own musical voice.” I certainly didn’t find this music not “easy” to listen to. In fact, I thought it was quite lovely and I enjoyed it all. I appreciate that Cathy has followed her creative muse and produced a solo piano album of reflective compositions that I’m sure will find resonance in those who listen with the ears of the heart and soul.

Unlike the Stars by Vin Downes

Unlike the StarsI’m trying to imagine the experience of having an album produced by one of your musical idols. I know that if Carlos Santana produced my next release, I would certainly have that dream-come-true experience. But for guitarist Vin Downes, that dream became a reality when he had the opportunity to work with Grammy winning producer and Windham Hill Records founder, Will Ackerman. Although Vin’s early musical interests were in electric guitar, a paradigm shift occurred when he heard the opening notes of David Cullen’s “Along the Way” on a Windham Hill guitar sampler. From that moment, everything changed and Vin immersed himself in the fingerstyle guitar music of artists like Will Ackerman, Michael Hedges, Alex de Grassi, Leo Kottke, and David Cullen in the late 1980’s – a golden age for these acoustic excursions, thanks in great measure to the efforts of the maestro Ackerman and his genre-defining record label. However, in addition to learning by ear from listening to these seminal recordings, Vin went on to earn a degree in classical guitar performance and music education from William Paterson University. Beyond this, he has also studied Celtic music at the Irish Arts Center of Manhattan, as well as learning and performing Indian tabla with Ustad Kadar Kahn. This certainly represents a well-rounded education, which later extended to American roots music, jazz, and improvised music.

Since that time, Vin has released three albums, including his brand new one, Unlike the Stars. His first two albums were well received and garnered an award in the Great American Song Contest, as well as placements in film and TV. Vin’s new release, however, takes it to the next level and provided him an opportunity to write and record with Will Ackerman at his famed Imaginary Roads Studio in Vermont – a facility that has seen some of the finest musicians in the world pass through its doors. And speaking of which, a number of them were special guest accompanists on this recording, and will be mentioned in the discussion of individual tracks.

The album opens, most appropriately, with a piece called “Where I Began.” Right from the start, I could tell that Vin Vin Downeshas a well-crafted sense of dynamics, which creates an artful balance between his sometimes-intricate fingerstyle technique and the use of space. I quite liked the chord progressions he used which I found emotionally evocative. The song starts off with solo acoustic guitar, but is joined after about two minutes by bass virtuoso Tony Levin, who is known worldwide for touring with the great Peter Gabriel, as well as with King Crimson and others. Although Tony is capable of jaw-dropping bass playing, his approach here is more minimalistic and provides just the right accents where they are needed. This is a lovely piece and makes for a wonderful entrance to the album. Going with the flow, we come to “Riverbend,” a sweet solo guitar track. A more wistful air is felt on “Dark Blue Wind,” another solo piece with a haunting melody. One thing I was aware of in listening to Vin’s fretwork is how, between creating a bass line on the low E string, and complex finger picking patterns on the other strings, it often sounds like more than one guitar playing.

On a track called “Departure,” however, there actually is more than one guitar playing – in this case, Will Ackerman himself. Tony Levin adds his bass as well. It’s a peaceful pastoral tune highlighted by exquisite interplay and echoes the classic Windham Hill sound that so many know and love. Cellist Eugene Friesen, who is best known as a member of The Paul Winter Consort, accompanies Vin on the album’s title track. The composition is quite spacious by comparison, starting off, like most of the tracks, with solo guitar. As the cello comes in the effect is moving and deep, adding a soulful presence to the piece. Eugene is a frequent guest on Will Ackerman-produced projects and his sensitive playing is always a welcome addition. Another frequent guest is Tom Eaton, this time on piano, who joins Vin on a track entitled “Skies and Openings.” Tom is actually the recording engineer at Imaginary Roads Studio, and often provides accompaniment on a wide variety of instruments on many of the albums that Will produces. At the end of this feature article, there is a music video of an earlier solo version of this song. It is interesting to actually see Vin playing the guitar, and I am most impressed by how effortless he makes it look.

Delicate arpeggios trace a dreamy chord progression on “Window Looking Back,” an impressionistic guitar soundscape that is traversed by the flute of David Watson. I was particularly aware of the balance of the woody, earthy tone of the guitar and the light airy flute. David Watson has extensive credentials in the music industry having performed and toured with Alicia Keys, Mariah Carey, The Rolling Stones, and many more. On a track called “Unweaving,” I thought I detected faint traces of Vin’s earlier explorations into Celtic music in particular passages. Perhaps my favorite selection on the album is towards the end and is entitled “Turning Years.” This one features the ensemble of Vin on guitar, bassist Tony Levin, and David Watson on flute. The way that David multi-tracked both flute and alto flute together gave an intriguing, almost horn-like quality to the sound that was quite unique.

Will Ackerman and Vin Downes

Will Ackerman and Vin Downes

While Vin’s guitar playing is impressive and can range from tastefully understated to dazzling, I am equally impressed with his skills as a composer. Vin has a wonderful sense of composition that brims with emotional content. I enjoyed all the many different spaces he explores, not only from one track to the next, but even within the boundaries of a single song. I must reiterate that his use of dynamics is impeccable, and I appreciated how he uses space to allow a composition to breathe. Obviously, I’m not Vin’s only fan, and I’ll leave the last words to Will Ackerman to share his perceptions: “Vin Downes is such a brilliant guitarist and such a heart-felt composer that it leaves little room for the producer to do much except try to convince himself that he was indispensible. I wasn’t. Vin is a consummate player who draws upon a wide variety of styles. The marvelous thing is that his musical voice is unique enough and powerful enough to hold these different threads together seamlessly. This is as impressive a recording as one could hope for.”