Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Water-Sky album review and Winter-Sky tour announcement featuring Phil Keaggy and Jeff Johnson

Water Sky Album Review (Jeff Johnson and Phil Keaggy)
Winter Sky Tour announcement  

Artists:   Jeff Johnson and Phil Keaggy
Album: Water-Sky
Genre:  New-Coustic  (New Age, experimental jazz, instrumental)
(late summer 2012)

Quick Spin:  a simply extraordinary  sonic treat from two of our planet’s premier instrumentalists (when they are not singing) who, together have crafted an intimate -- somewhat brooding and minor --  sometimes  quiet and colorful, shimmering and bold, audio diary of a “Place.”   

WaterSky is something of a follow-up to the duo’s first collaborative work, Frio Suite, and draws on the same recipe and place.   (You can read my review of that work here.)

Before I get on with my album review I want to interrupt with a commercial

Kirk Jordan’s Bucket list (abridged)

1) Take a tornado/selfie combo picture, presumably with the cone over my shoulder.
2) Eat Thai food in Thailand.
3) Figure out how to map biblical predestination and free-will.
4) Give a grandkid a shoulder ride.   (First things first,  a daughter or two to be wed etc.)
5) Hear Jeff Johnson and Phil Keaggy together in concert.


Of the list, the last item on this list has at least the possibility of being realized.  This Winter (November, December 2014, and January 2015) Two of my favorite artists in the history of the world, Key-man Jeff Johnson and guitarist Phil Keaggy --  along with flautist Brian Dunning and violinist Wendy Goodwin, take to the road in team as part of the Winter-Sky tour.  My hope:  These folks come within at least a 500 miles of Central Arkansas. Or better yet, my home town.

For those without a clue, you can get some sense of these artists from some of my earlier reviews, their websites, or from a review to follow.  In short, Johnson, Keaggy and friends are putting out some of the most  imaginative, intelligent, beautiful, and otherwise soul-nurturing music on the planet.   When Johnson and Keaggy come together (largely instrumental)  both push each other into fresh musical territory. 

The Title “Winter Sky” references at least three different works by Jeff Johnson, or Johnson-Keaggy.

Wonder Sky  (Jeff, Brian, Wendy…  Instrumental,  Winter themed, with deep nods to Advent)
Water Sky   (Jeff and Phil … Experimental chamber music with naturalistic themes)
Winterfold  (Jeff and diverse friends.  Similar to Wondersky, with lush orchestration)

And while they do not bear the words winter or sky, both artists have put out host of Christmas themed albums.

My guess: the WinterSky Tour should be an instrumental extravaganza, with themes anchored in both nature (winter) and the Advent of God.   To find out more, follow Jeff Johnson or Phil Keaggy on Facebook.   Or check back for updates Here.


There is probably little marketing value in reviewing an album almost two years late, but how was I to know that Water Sky would become my most-listened-to instrumental album.  It helps that I played one track a couple hundred times as I worked to create a time lapse video from the same…. (Truth is, I want to redo this.   I have since acquired new software and skills, and believe I could produce a smoother project.)

That said, I find that WaterSky is the perfect track for my 45 minute commute to work.  I arrive, refreshed, gladdened, and smarter.   Certain tracks ignite  pyrotechnics in my brain.   When I listen to Water Sky… I see water. I see sky (surprise)  --  I see the surface of Mayflower Lake -- real time, glistening with the muted colors of a February sunrise….

WaterSky is rightly regarded as a follow up album to Frio Suite, and draws from the same inspirational source: The Frio River as it flows through the Texas wilderness and the Laity Lodge Retreat Center.      That said, WaterSky does pull a different sound.  The balance tilts slightly toward the piano, as Jeff introduced the tunes.  Beyond that, the cast is Johnson-minor.

My sense:   The original Frio suite album feels more like spring/summer (it’s kind of swampy, warm and golden green) while  WaterSky feels more like autumn/winter.    Not consistently, but on the whole.   At least one track defies my analysis, as cicadas are not usually associated with the cold, but on the whole,  WaterSky leads with a crisper edge. 

The tones are darker, starker, and brighter.   If that last descriptor sounds like a contradiction, let me reference winter light.   The brightest light we ever see in the Northern Hemisphere happens near the winter solstice when our planet hugs the sun on the short side of an elliptical orbit.  I really see this as a photographer… the light IS bolder and colder all at once.

You can hear those chillier notes in the opening track.   Water Sky opens with Jonson’s lean, plaintive piano.   The colors are grey, like before the dawn.  It takes a while to hear the guitar.  In fact (and other folks have noted) Phil’s guitar work throughout Water Sky seems decidedly understated.  Then you listen again and find that the guitar – in various forms -- is all over the place, both above and below the surface.   

Because I associate Keaggy with loud electric guitar and staccato acoustic, my ear is listening at that level.  But in Water Sky, Keaggy gives a large part of his attention to a fretless bass and other forms of edgeless sound.  Think more of warbles and woops, swellings and sighs.  Once you hear it, you find the guitar wells up from everywhere…. right in plain earshot.

Of course there is plenty of “regular” break away, staccato dallies (And one gigantic riff right in the middle of one song that can melt you speakers) but on the whole, when you think guitar, think translucent… light… and water.

Oh.  Did I mention Keaggy plays with some novel  instruments?  Not sure of the name, but those same fingers that ride a Gibson do stunning work with a Japanese (----?)

OH and Oh.  My favorite moment in the whole album:  Three brash gong strikes that shake my entire car and serve like a crack in the world where the Orient, or a host of Cicadas break through.

Ps.   Jeff…. With due respect.  I really like the sound, but suspect you are listening to Puget Sound Cicadas, not the screaming banshee- bugs of Central Arkansas.)

There are several things that amaze me about Water Sky.

The restraint.   The colors.  The interior textures.  (There are some sounds that you will only hear if you listen to the music loud, then listen in between the notes.

But What amazes me most about WaterSky is not so much the technical artistry but the very imagination it took to hear this music.  I often wonder about the sounds these men must hear in their brains that are beyond getting out.

Add to that,  the friendship … and Humility.

I have said this in other places, but both Johnson and Keaggy can do astonishing things with their respective instruments, but here they temper their abilities, both in service of the music and to each other.   Both men are confident enough to let the music go lean.  Both men have room for inflated egos; both men, by the transforming power of Christ, appear to have let those egos down.
This is a music of a Jonathan and David … the brother hood of a shared ear.  

This is the music of water, reaching into sky because the sky holds the water and the water drives the sky  Or something like that..

This is like drinking from a chilly mountain brook.


Final Note: Not only am I pulling for the WinterSky tour to come to ARkansas, I also hope  Jeff and Phil find it in their hearts to create a third album inspired by the Frio River.   My call:  Break a speaker, Go for the flash flood, in the tradition of the Grand Canyon Suite.

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