Saturday, October 12, 2013

Winterfold by Jeff Johnson (Album Review)

Artist: Jeff Johnson and friends.
not to be confused with the several other Jeff Johnsons who are musicians.
Ensemble:  Jeff Johnson (keys, percussion, voice) together with his very talented friends, flautist Brian Dunning and Violinist Wendy Goodwin.  (Sound fleshed out with contributions from Tim Ellis on Guitar, Phil Baker on the bass, and Mike Snyder with additional percussion.)

Album: Winterfold (Released 10/8/2013)

Genre: Instrumental (Chamber-coustic)

Quick Spin:  Think of music that might readily have been used for the more pastoral parts of the Lord of the Rings soundtrack.  Winterfold is community project in which Jeff’s uber-talented friends gather with him to make living, full bodied music….fit for the best of ordinary life. Soundwise, Winterfold lives at the intersection of a chamber music and New-Age; It is largely organic (ie, acoustic, but the synthesized elements blend in seamlessly into a perfect whole.  This is not so much a music to listen to  -- like something external which we study with our ears -- but more like a music to live in.  Richly.

I have lived in the music of Jeff Johnson for over thirty years.   His various creations -- and collaborations with friends -- form something of a vital soundtrack for my life.  I figure if you were to map Jeff’s brain and mine you would find this strange body of overlapping themes, and concrete tunes.

Broadly speaking, I might divide the instrumental works of Jeff Johnson into three -- make that four categories.

There are the earliest works, characterized by extravagant dallies with percussion, and lived at the intersection of techno rock, jazz and Styx.   This is Jeff totally un-tethered, exploring every sonic landscape and mixing it up in ways that simply startle the ears.  I remember, when in art class, the instructor invited us to bring in our music and play it.  I slipped in something from Fallen Splendor, that led one kid to look up and say… “What the Hell is that….… is he playing in tongues!”

Then there are his epic “Movie-scape” works, anchored in Medieval lore or the works of the Steven Lawhead.   These are the works that should have been used to score the movie adaptations of Tolkien or Lewis… These are the tunes to conquer the new world, or set into uncharted waters.  I have driven many a back road with the likes of Byzantium guiding me through the turns in lush tapestry of sound.

Then there are those lean, stripped down, minor chord works, fit for devotion and all the pleasure that perhaps only a melancholy soul can find in deep overcast and naked branches. I remember once while playing Ships of Tarshish (From the “No Shadow of Tuning LP) my mother came in and pleaded… “Can you  please turn that off  and put something happy on.”  And while I would  -- out of love  comply, I simply could not understand.  I have found some of my deepest happiness in those most melancholy moments.    A Thin Silence, and even Jeff’s collaborations with Keaggy might fall here.  The focus is on the inner space and dallies with winter light.

Finally there is a body of music… that I call Community Music, that falls  -- as pertains to sound -- somewhere in the middle.  That is,  I hear elements of Jeff’s other works, but tempered, or meek and bathed in reality.  This music is more like the music real people (albeit extremely talented people) make…."live.” It is not so much startling, or epic, or brooding…. As it is living, breathing and round.    This is a music that I would identify with something solid.  Like tables and chairs… but crafted by artisans of the highest order.

Stop onto the stage “Winterfold.

When I first heard the title, I figured the music might be cold or bitter; But no.  This is music of the hearth, a place of protection in the midst of blistering skritchies outside.

The first thing we hear and hear throughout, are the absolutely gorgeous melodic lines, under the breath of flautist Brian Dunning.   Then add the macro-talents of violinist Wendy Goodwin.  These people simply glide tighter like a figure skaters group style.  Instruments twine and rise and fall in a blessed undulation.   As a non-musician, I try to imagine what it must be like to hear this music in its most living sense, directly inside the head of the each player.  There is a synthesis of voice that is uncanny here…. As if they are some kind of joined creation, sensing with and through each other.   As far as recording goes, I hear no sense that the layers of sound were merged in the lab… this is music at the level of a birds in flight in which the group moves together as if one. I hear trust.   Beyond that, I sometimes feel like I am hearing “inside the violin.”  That is I am hearing depth I am not used to hearing inside a recording.

As a sound, Winterfold shares much in common with “Under the Wonder Sky"- an album with deep Advent connections.   Special memory here:  I slipped a CD of Under the Wonder Sky – into my sister-in-laws holiday rotation, somewhere between and Bin Crosby and Diana Krall.  We were eating and chatting and we had good wine in our bellies. It took my sister a while to notice something fresh… Then she asked… “What is this… it is absolutely beautiful.”

In that same vein, I can much imagine slipping this disk into the track at my daughter's wedding reception, as we, fine Hobbits that we are, savor food and the wine of each other’s laughter -- even as we savor (Perhaps unconsciously) the greater of joy of what it means to be in God, in who we live and breath and have our being.  Consider this a soundtrack for being.

Should I boil Winterfold down to simply one world, it would be this.  (Actually, make that three.)

Friendship.  Beauty. 

I have listened, and I am thankful.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Kirk, I could have written this blog - in that I feel the same way about Jeff's music. But you have put it into much better words than I could have. I, like you, have been listening to Jeff's music for over 30 years. The one thing that would be different about us is that I am a musician, and Jeff's sonic explorations have always been an inspiration for my approach to music as well. Thanks for writing this wonderful review... I'm waiting for my CD to arrive - and now after reading your words I look forward to listening that much more.