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!


  1. A beautiful description. Thanks.

  2. Thanks so much for posting about this, Kirk. I'm one of Jeff Johnson's fans, but I've always like Keaggy too.

    I wish you could have been at the retreat with both of them playing together!

  3. Very nice writing. I've got everything Phil has done, so time to order this one too!

  4. Really good review.
    You've done justice to this project. It's never easy getting the vibe of an album like this across with words. Well done!