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.