Monday, September 28, 2009

Frio Suite: Phil Keaggy - Jeff Johnson

The Grand Canyon Suite: Ferde Grofé (1931)
The Frio Suite: Phil Keaggy and Jeff Johnson (2009) :)

Frio Suite: A new instrumental album (release 0ctober 6, 2009) showcasing the artistry of Phil Keaggy and Jeff Johnson, together with Kathy Hastings (visual artist) and Luci Shaw (poet). This album builds an audio poem built around the sights, sounds, and emotions of the Frio River, as it flows through the grounds of the Laity Lodge. In Leaky, Texas.

As a dedicated fan of guitarist Phil Keaggy and pianist/Keyboard/ambience man Jeff Johnson, (who collectively have put out near 80 albums spanning thirty years), I was ready to “sleep on the sidewalk and camp” when I heard these two were working on a collaborative effort.

For the uninitiated, Phil Keaggy is a world class guitarist who simply knows no genre borders. His instrumental works span the worlds of the chamber orchestra to blow-out-your-speakers psychedelic Rock. He dictates much of the audio track playing in my head! As a singer, Phil favors vocalist Paul McCartney, and many of his pop compositions carry Beatlesque overtones.

Keyboard/Ambience man Jeff Johnson may pull a smaller (but highly dedicated following) and has built a reputation around deeply layered instrumental works and “experimental” vocal albums with lyrics like poetry. Like Phil, he alternates between instrumental and vocal offerings (though in once sense every album either man makes is an instrumental.) Jeff’s music spans genres, but he has cut a deep river of works with an ambient-Celtic hue, or steeped in liturgical worship. Think of the music that should have been used for the Lord of the Rings series. Think of yourself exploring new worlds with singing sirens in the background. As is, Jeff has a special knack for teaming up with other talented singers and musicians (and authors) creating music anchored in another age.

This is a union that makes perfect sense; Both men are creating some of the best music on the planet, even as they delight in God and work to flesh out the meaning of Christ honoring artistry -- Even as they (happily) work outside the parameters of the Christian music industry. Both men fluctuate between instrumental and vocal releases. Both men have produced a rich and sometimes disparate body of music, but find common voice in experimental jazz and Celtic themes. Both men sport goatees. :)

On the critical side, both Phil and Jeff have thinner tenor voices that some (like my kids) aren’t keen on. I thoroughly enjoy both, and find their vocal treatments delightful, endearing and very human. (At one point in Frio there was a soaring wordless vocal. The linear notes say “Jeff” but I sure couldn’t tell. Could have easily been either.)

Anyway, back to the Suite.This union has produced everything I would hope for -- an utterly beautiful concept album full of hidden melodies and textures. It may be that some fans of Phil’s rock’n side won’t ride with this one. The guitar is sometimes restrained, in the best kind of way.

Truth is, this should be called a trio (or even quartet) production. The art of Kathy Hastings -- album cover and overall inspiration, and a particular poem by Luci Shaw are key to understanding the work.

I will confess a bias. You say Texas and I think tall-grass and steers or the Dallas/Houston sky line. But from what I see from the Frio Suites video this river so unlike what I think of when I hear of Texas. And seeing that river really set the stage for hearing the album and understating the Kathy Hastings’ illustration. I was most familiar with Hastings’ work showcased on many of Jeff’s albums -- exquisite, “crisp” illustrative work, but I had not seen the kind of raw globby and expressive approach to painting that I see evidenced on the Frio Suite Cover. I liked the painting, but assumed it to be something of an “emotion” explosion. Then I saw the video and realized that Kathy’s cover painting is almost photographic in detail (or may be an altered photo) as she illustrates the curved, worn, multicolored rock of a canyon wall. And that canyon and the water that flow through it set the parameters of the album. Add to that, Luci’s poem, and the meaning of place takes on form.

If Jeff and Phil were working the Hudson, or the Mississippi, or the crashing cascades of Colorado River as it cuts through the Grand Canyon, this would be a different album. It appears however, that the Frio is gentle and ancient, sometimes deep and sometimes trickley … The kind of place where light bounces all around. All of which goes to feeding the sound of Frio. The cliff walls are chiseled, the river small but fluid. We are treated to melody followed by impression and free flowing improvisations. The music swells, fades, and allows for moments of silence. There is a sense of wind of warbling under the water. There are hypnotic patterns in keeping with an undulating, reflecting channel. There are cloud days and subdued tones… a touch of melancholy. There is dissonance - and drama – but contained drama, in keeping with an intimate place. There is the sun rising and echoing thought the canyon. Beyond that the music is full of intricate inner layering, and quirky percussion and stunning guitar.

To be honest, I have been trying to decide where to store the CD. Should I place it with my Keaggy collection, or growing Jeff Johnson collection. I’ve decided with Jeff. From the opening piano riffs, to the “darker” final cut, Frio makes strong on a Jeff Johnson recipe: Minor modes, spare piano, multidimensional rhythm, and a sense of space… or journey.  On the other hand, this disk closely follows the recipe used by Keaggy in his last major instrumental release – Phantasmagorical: shifting melodic line, and guitar that builds, dips, and soars through a larger instrumental fabric. (So store it where you want.)

Fans of both Phil and Jeff will hear sonic signatures from past albums, but I don’t think I have ever heard Phil this “impressionistic.” The supporting structure allows Phil to play… or not, and then with great flourish ---or, at the level of subterranean texture. Some of his guitar riffs sound like running water, both soft and rapid. Fluid indeed! The overall music, while highly electric, doesn't sound “electric.”  Jeff has a knack for creating tones that sound transparent or hollow or like multiple notes (with no spaces between) all at once, like nothing you could ever chart. And the music of Phil and Jeff flows together -- sometimes in duet, sometimes in counterpoint--so well that your ear gets to chase multiple parts in and out like tapestry. And the background ambiance often fits so well, that you really have to think about hearing it.

All in all, this is a very mature work. Both men have produced bolder, more dynamic works. Both men have produced leaner…and certainly lower budget works. (Side note: Phil should scrap his drum machine forever; The quality of the percussion throughout this album would have lifted some of his past solo guitar albums from “incredible-minus” to “astonishing-plus”). And certainly both have produced works that may be more accessible for more people. But this work, with it sophistication, shared enterprise and delight in deep things will make it one of my favorites for decades to come. And now I’m waiting for the next collaboration!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Phantasmagorical, Master and Musicain II - Phil Keaggy

Phantasmagorical: Master and Musician volume II, by Phil Keaggy

A deep disappointment, a raging delight (! - ?)

One may wonder how I could ever be disappointed in a Phil Keaggy album, but my disappointment has nothing to do with the music, but rather with part of the title.

Title part One: Phantasmagorical.
Linear notes read: Phantasmagorical: 1) a shifting series of phantasm, illusion, or appearances, is in dream or as created by the imagination. 2) A changing scene made up of many elements 3) an optical illusion in which figures increase or diminish in size, pass into each other dissolve, etc. This note perfectly describes the album and everything that makes it work. I fully applaud the title part of the title.

Master and Musician II.
Nope. Sorry. This subtitle set me up. I expected something with greater musical and spiritual connection to Master and the Musician, one of the great albums in the history of the world. I have long wanted just such a followup and was thrilled to see that someone else held my vision. But this is not that album.

Not that Phantasmagorical isn’t top of craft. It’s a very mature work showcasing lessons learned in the thirty years since M and M’s release. But this album misses so many elements that made Master I a distinctive work that there is no good reason to ride off of its coattails. And the compassion disappoints.

Master and Musician one was what we used to call a concept album. The total functioned as a unit, built around a theme... In this case the theme came in the form of a real story, reminiscent of little mini tale by George McDonald (or Lewis or Tolkien) spilling across front and back of the album sleeve. The story itself set a stage for hearing the music, so that even though Master and Musician featured VERY diverse musical components (an M and M highlight), the story wove them together. Linear Notes from the 30 year Anniversary reissue, note that the story was created after the music was created, in part as a way to present (and justify) the ground- breaking instrumental to a largely Christian audience. Even so, the story helped us hear the music as part of sacred narrative, complete with castles, golden halls, a wedding feast and the calling of distant land. I heard Christ wooing his bride. I head Aslan padding in the Hall. Indeed, I remember a review from the time. It asked what in fact might make a Christian instrumental album different from any other… (if not lack of skill;) -- But the reviewer said something that made sense to me. M and M, sounded “anointed.” That is, in disposition, skill and beauty it carried audio blessing beyond the mere music.

Beyond that Master and the Musician featured something that was a hall mark of several early PK recordings… The artful weaving (or sometimes immediate shifting) from acoustic to bold rock and back to acoustic. Master did this in a way I had never heard before. Was it jazz (or classical) or rock? (It was all and more)Master 2 simply doesn’t invite immediate comparison.

Phantasmagorical does feature several “madrigal” tunes that could have been placed in Master and Musician and fit very well. The album also masters the art of shift and weave, but it more from ambient acoustic to jazz acoustic. Gone are the blazing rock anthems. The biggest difference however is in the narrative. Phantasmagorical functions as a conceptual unit, but there is no story line or jacket notes to prime our imaginations. No knights or brides or castles. No Christ wooing his beloved. No throne with seraphim. No Aslan padding through the forest.

Lest I be misunderstood, I would not begin to suggest that M and M is "Christian", in a way that Phantasmagorical is not. Within the calendar week both Friday and Sunday belong to God. An album need not be baptized in Christian language or themes to bring pleasure to God or his people. It’s simply that Master and Musician fed my sacred imagination directly whereas as Phantasmagorical functions at the level of a sonic treat. Phantasmagorical needs no reference to M and M to justify its existence (or sell more records.)

So…. What does Phantasmagorical do right? Most everything …. (Except the subtitle!)

This is a mature album that incorporates elements of all that has gone before it. Here are the strong acoustic rifts of Acoustic Sketches and Freehand, Here are the melodic elements of the Quiet Hours or Cinemascapes. Here are stellar musicians playing a host of instruments, working with PK in the spirit of Beyond Nature (though less dense), and here are some of the weird and slightly hypnotic experiments of the highly looped album: Roundabouts.In two months I have listened to Phantasmagorical near one hundred times... This is an album with that real lasting power. It may be that real musicians, playing real instruments, give this album depth not heard n PK's lower-budget solo albums. And the song “Caffeinated Dessert” may be one of the loveliest most satisfying melodies ever created. Ever.

Beyond that, there are musical textures in this album that I have seldom -- if ever heard. When is the last time you heard and electric guitar and a clarinet (or oboe?) in tight harmony?

In short, Phantasmagorical reaches a level of musical complexity that may eclipse his earlier works. It’s beautiful. I highly recommend it. It’s just not M and M.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Phil Keaggy: Acoustic Sketches

Genre: Solo or small ensamble, acoustic guitar

As the name implies, this disk features acoustic guitar sketches, at various stages of polish. Funny thing. Upon first listen, several pieces sounded so “sketchy” (imagine that) as to sound like just fooling around. Indeed, A few tacks do end with a fade, as opposed to a more satisfying “finished” ending. Now, however I listed to the work and everything sounds quite musical, very purposed, and mostly complete.

Acoustic Sketches stands out for its pure simplicity. There is probably far more to a recording like this than meets my ear. But mostly what we get is stunning “living-room” guitar. I did hear a touch of two of looping, and even a romping track with a Tuba, but on the whole this album stands out for what isn’t there. No orchestras, no drum machine, just Phil with Phil, either solo or in duet.

Stand outs:Iconic sounding entry and exit tracks, and track 3.Several instrumentals of hallmark sung-songs (Let Everything Else Go, and The 50th Family reunion) which probably mean more if you already know and love the sung version.

Staccato Blast:Those who are familiar with guitarist Michael Hedges, will hear several nods to his “violent acoustic” approach. (Phil directly referenced his on his album “Wind and the Wheat” and does well with an artful “borrow.” (As is, I heard Michael Hedges years ago on his album Aerial Boundaries (Windham Hill) and assumed the album featured Hedges in multi tracking. Then I saw the guy in concert and found he played a double necked dulcimer/guitar… all at once.) I do not know if Phil is using multi-tracking or some variation on picking while strumming, but Keaggy’s rapid staccato approach is just as startling. Can you really do that with a guitar?

I would give this album the highest rating, except that I think Phil may have eclipsed it with Free Hand, an album of similar conviction but with just a tad more power, variety, and instrumental depth.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Charlie Peacock: Love, Press Ex-Curio

Genre: Experimental Jazz

"Love Expresses itself in Curiosity"

Wow, Mano, Mano do I like this recording. I guess you call “Love, Press Ex-curio” jazz fusion (You couldn’t call it anything else) but it dishes some really hip fusing. Upfront, this isn’t something that a “ jazz combo could play, unless you included all kinds of digital gizmos. Call it jazz-fusion electronica. But don’t let the electronic part fool you, this album showcases sock-melting “acoustic” instrumentals expertly twined with ambient elements and dancing keyboards. The only album I know to compare it to is an album by “movie-scape artist Mark Isham and his interpretations of Miles Davis numbers.

As for this work, the only supporting musician's name I am familiar with (by association) is Ravi Coltrane, son of Jazz legend John Coltrane. (However that doesn’t mean anything since I can only name a handful of jazz artists) ((Turns out after reading a far better review than this, that I simply am ignorant. Charlie was able to marshal the talents of several world class jazz musicians whose names those in the know, know.))

As for Charlie, most folks know him as a recording artist and veteran producer in the Christian Pop/rock arena. Even so, much of his “regular” music stands outside the bounds of the Christian Radio industry. He has a strong ear for quirky instrumentals, R&B and jazz dallies. This album slightly references his experimental pop album “Strange Language” (and a sampler album with artists he produced) but pushes in a whole new direction. (I bet Charlie has wanted to do this for years as he has referenced John Coltrane in several songs. All in all, and with a limited musical palette I hear Coltrane, Davis, Mark Isham, Chuck Mangione, Marcus Roberts, Glass Harp, Stravinsky!... and Peacock! Great album for those who hear outside the lines.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Terry Scott Taylor: Knowledge and Innocence

Terry Scott Taylor: Knowledge and Innocence:

It probably doesn't make a lot of sense to review a CD that was first released as an album some twenty(?!) years ago, and that you will never see or hear of ---but I found a copy for far less than the 78 dollars someone wants for it on Ebay.

It’s been so many years since I rubbed all the particles off my old cassette, that I forgot how simply amazing this recording is. Count this as one of the ten recordings I should take to restart civilization. (Others include Mark Heard’s Satellite Sky, Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, Handel’s Messiah.) There are times the recording sounds a little demo… like a synthesizer was making up for what should have been a full band. And it is, this is something of a homemade drum maching album. But budget aside, Terry pulls out more odd textures, melodies, and moods than could be thought possible. Borrowing a title employed by English poet William Blake, TS Taylor blends themes of childhood, discovery, blue collar life, and grandfather’s camp-meeting, and a longing for heaven. Quick adjectives describing all or part of the album: Cheesy, hypnotic, grand, mystic, human, Exquisite, silly, profound,. Simply... an astonishing album with one foot firmly anchored in the next world.