Monday, December 22, 2014

REVIEW: Kendra Logozar - Peace

Kendra Logozar
Self-released (2014)

Kendra Logozar (wife of fellow pianist Michael Logozar) treats thirteen carols to a soft-as-the-falling-snow treatment on Peace, an impressive solo piano effort for this promising performer. My esteemed colleague, Kathy Parsons, stated of the album "Kendra Logozar has created a true work of art with Peace - one that will be a favorite Christmas album for many years to come." and I completely agree with her. Holidays are stressful enough and we can never have enough "peaceful" music to help us unwind and that is what Logozar delivers throughout this heartfelt and gentle recording. Even on normally rambunctious tunes, such as "Deck the Halls" or "Jingle Bells" or the spiritual "Go Tell it on the Mountain," Logozar manages to dial back the "oomph" and emphasize the soul of the composition. I imagine the notion of a "quiet" take on "Jingle Bells" might surprise you and even make you think "Yuck." But trust me, under the artist's carefully controlled nuanced playing, the carol is recognizable yet somehow soothes the listener instead of making her or him get up and dance. The same thing with "Deck the Halls" on which Logozar touches the keys with an almost inhuman grace and gentility.

Now, obviously, Peace is meant to be a late-at-night listen, when the kids are asleep with the anticipation of Christmas morning coloring their dreams. Playing this at a dinner party with all the hubbub and noise would be counter-intuitive to its purpose, which is to help the listener(s) relax and indulge in the beauty inherent in these time-tested seasonal classics. While Peace is not as minimal as George Winston's December, it is equally conducive to quiet times curled up in front of a fire, hopefully with a loved one, and pausing to reflect on the season (something we could probably all do with more of), allowing the patient playing of Logozar to carry away at least part of your trials and tribulations.

Kendra Logozar does right by all thirteen carols on the album, including a duet with husband Michael on a particularly haunting and evocative "Carol of the Bells" (the one time on the album when some fireworks truly fly - these two really get into it as the piece progresses). The last two tracks, "There's a Song in the Air" and "The First Noel," close out Peace with a sedate sensation of calm. Peace is a wondrous assortment of carols performed with heart by a talented pianist who understand that there is enough bluster in winter winds - let the music comfort you like a cozy blanket when the cold winds blow.
Peace is available directly from the artist, CDBaby, Amazon, and iTunes.

REVIEW: Aidia - ...all is bright

…all is bright
Aidia Music (2014)

I always maintain that the success of an EP recording is how it leaves the listener wanting more. That's how I felt after the first playing of Aidia's delightful holiday music EP, …all is bright. At 15 minutes, this gem of a recording is over much too soon for my taste. Aidia has a fantastic voice as she shows on the two vocal tracks, a simply beautiful take on "O Holy Night" (with only piano accompaniment), and a stunningly joyous version of the classic song from the now-legendary TV Christmas special, Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the touching ballad "There's Always Tomorrow." The latter features the vocalist backed by orchestral strings and keyboards as well as a wind instrument in the bridge. This song stopped in my tracks, so perfectly does Aidia's voice get inside the lyrics. Seldom do I admit to being this moved by a singer's voice but the best way to state it is that she just nails it! Besides the two vocal tracks, the recording also features an original composition by Kevin Keller, who also arranged, recorded and mixed the EP. The song is "The Snowbird's Waltz" and it features a lovely flowing piano melody in the lead accented by orchestral strings. It is true to the waltz motif and one can just about picture lovers ice-dancing on a pond with snow falling around them. "What Child Is This" features guitar in the opening prelude with orchestral strings for texture and what I believe is either an oboe or an English horn takes the lead melody, turning things over to a flute for some improvisation on the theme in the bridge. It's a delicate arrangement and a beautiful one at that. Closing out the album is an unexpected version of "Carol of the Bells." While completely recognizable in its uptempo liveliness, the addition of subtle - but certainly noticeable - electronic music elements (you could conceivably hear them as quasi-Berlin, even). No matter how I try to describe it, you have to hear it - it works completely, so kudos to Aidia and Keller for going out on a Christmas tree limb on this one. Let's hope that the next release from Aidia is longer as her talents shine brightly all through this short but oh-so-sweet recording.
...all is bright as a download can be purchased from iTunes and Amazon.



REVIEW: Ryan Marvel - Winter

Ryan Marvel
Ryan Marvel Music (2013)

Pianist Ryan Marvel lends his touch to some "marvelous" arrangements of traditional holiday carols, both secular and spiritual, on the aptly titled Winter. Marvel is a gifted artist and an imaginative arranger, something immediately apparent on the opening track, "Three Good Kings" on which "We Three Kings" is lightly brushed with subtle (and occasionally, not so subtle) jazz influences - not enough to make the tune unrecognizable, but with new wrinkles nonetheless. While not every carol/song is treated to this amount of improvisational embellishment, Marvel's goal seems to be painting each selection with just enough extra flourish to distinguish his music from cookie-cutter carols. In every case, the arrangement never detracts from the beauty of the original and, actually, it sometimes enhances it, such as on his lovely rendition of "O, Holy Night." One carol that stands out for brazen originality and features the most imaginative arrangement is "Little Didge Boy" which, of course, is "Little Drummer Boy" and yes, it features didgeridoo (played by Doug Powell). Now, I admit hearing the growling and barking of a didge set against the melody of "Little Drummer Boy" can take some getting used to, but it's more than a "novelty" take on this classic, as Marvel also jazzes up the heart of the song as well on piano.

Marvel shines brightest when he takes a quiet approach to an interpretation which allows his nuanced style of soft playing to come to the forefront. "Walking in the Air" carries a hint of melancholy. In the middle of the song, Marvel (per the liner notes) pays homage to George Winston's ostinato motif. The haunting melody perfectly captures the image of a twilight walk through falling snow - at least for me it does. Marvel's sole original composition is "Winter," a somber piece that clocks in at 8+ minutes that sheds its minimalism part way through and turns to a more classical-oriented style.

Besides Powell's didgeridoo, Heidi Mausbach plays cello on an evocative version of "Coventry Carol" while flutist Leslie Anne Harrison's lilting flute transports the listener to Ireland on the medley track "Aran Boat Song/Holly and the Ivy." The transition from the sorrowful "Aran Boat Song" to the lively "Holly and the Ivy" is seamless - much to my surprise.

Marvel's last three selections are a wonderful trio of classics. First is a superb rendition of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" that captures both the magic of the carol as well as its sadness. "Silent Night" receives an appropriately respectful treatment and is quite minimal at times and always sincerely reverent. Appropriately, the last song, "Auld LangSy ne" sends us into the New Year. Once again, Marvel plugs into the heart of the song, playing the tune in a particularly plaintive yet also optimistic fashion.

Winter is a winner, pure and simple. It's an album meant to be enjoyed with loved ones during the quiet times of the holiday. Bravo, Ryan Marvel, bravo.
Winter is available directly from the artist or at CDBaby.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

REVIEW: Cornell Kinderknecht and Martin McCall - Dreamtime

Little Greyhound Music

Dreamtime (from wind instrumentalist and keyboard player Cornell Kinderknecht and drummer/percussionist Martin McCall is pleasingly paradoxical. I can’t remember the last time (if ever) that I heard an album that has so much percussion and rhythms (some of them frenetic in tempo) that still managed to be so calming and so soothing to jangled nerves, without revving up the listener and inducing him or her to get up and dance. I've listened to this superb recording at least ten times and I still don’t understand how these two masterful musicians did it. I suppose at this point I should just relax and enjoy the beautiful, serene, ride. And it is a wonderfully relaxing journey into a land of assorted world influences and lovely flowing melodies (the latter quality which Kinderknecht exhibited on his last solo release, Nightfall).

It's important for me to list the array of instruments that each artist plays so you can appreciate each of these performers' virtuosity. Kinderknecht's primary instruments are of the wind variety, and on Dreamtime he plays Native flutes, soprano sax, bansuri flute, English horn, Anasazi flute, and keyboards (and he utilizes his keyboards masterfully!). McCall's list is even longer and includes djembe, shakers, taiko drum, tom-toms, electronic timpani, cymbals, gong, bells, tambourine, methal, drum head, udu, bass drums, and doumbek. Phew! I wonder what his studio looks like!

Eight of the twelve tracks feature Kinderknecht playing Native flute, so it's obvious that many of the album's songs have a Native influence present, but there is no way I would describe this as strictly a Native flute fusion release. It’s not just because Kinderknecht doesn't fall back solely on Native elements in these songs, but it's also about how McCall uses non-Native instruments in laying down his rhythms and beats. One could (and perhaps should) label this music as cross-cultural, since the wind instruments and the percussion/drums are not always geographically aligned.

Two things struck me as I delved into the music on Dreamtime. One was how adeptly Kinderknecht incorporates his keyboard textures and embellishments. It's textbook in how he fleshes out the overall sound of the songs (all but one track features some keyboards). The artist knows just how to balance these soundscape colorings into the mix so that they are heard but never dominate. That's a true artisan skill. The other, and stronger, sonic element is the ultra-deft approach to mixing so that McCall's vast assortment of percussion and drums never overpower the overall meditative/serene mood of the music. It's almost uncanny and I don’t know if I have ever heard anything like it in all my years of reviewing.

I'm not sure trying to describe individual tracks would adequately convey how special Dreamtime is, but I can at least attempt to paint a written picture. "Big Sky" features a pensive Native flute line buoyed by swirling synthesizer shadings and propelled by a rapid tempo drum beat on dejembe. "One Summer" has the drum beats played on doumbek in a sedate, almost mournful tempo, while the lead flute is held by an Indian bansuri, which lends the song an overall air of mystery and the exotic. On "Marble Falls," McCall flexes his musical muscles and incorporates an assemblage of taiko drums, tom-toms, electronic timpani, cymbals and gongs, while Kinderknecht returns to the Native flute and layers in even more pronouncedly swirling ambient-ish keyboards.  At this point in the recording, adroit listeners will clue in to how these two artists have meshed their talents to yield a truly symbiotic listening experience in how the melody lines intertwine with the layers of rhythms and beats. The album takes a celestial turn on "Voyager" as Kinderknecht's soprano sax floats above layers of spacy synthesizer soundsculptures and shimmering textures with McCall's subdued taiko drums pounding out a subtle slow-tempo beat. Kinderknecht goes solo on "Solitude" playing both Native flute and English horn with piano accompaniment as well as orchestral string embellishments. "Dragonfly" hints at Indian motifs with bansuri flute and tamboura drones while ethnic rhythms beat out a sensual undertone.

Dreamtime is a special recording - a true original in how it marries assorted ethnic percussion with wind instruments and synthesizers to craft an album that manages to calm the disquiet mind with a unique blend of melody and rhythm. Kinderknecht and McCall exhibit an uncommon symmetry in their shared musical vision and the result is an album that would be ideal for massage, relaxation, yoga, or even just…well, waking dreaming.

The album can be purchased at CDBaby, Amazon, or directly from the artist.

Monday, December 1, 2014

REVIEW: Rick Sparks - Endless


As sometimes happens to me, I find myself amazed at how professional and accomplished some artists' first or second releases can sound these days. It's almost as if these recording musicians come out of the gate as seasoned pros! Such is the case with Rick Sparks on his second release, Endless. The cover states "Quiet piano to replenish your spirit" and that statement sells this album short by a landslide. Sparks' use of keyboard textures and embellishments, to accent his mellow and warm piano lead melodies, is way ahead of many of his contemporaries, to the point that I was shocked to learn that this was a homegrown effort (all the arrangements are his, and he composed two of the album's ten tracks as well as handling all the production). Even the cover artwork (a gorgeous starscape from photographer Ben Canales - I want it on my office wall!) is excellent as are the choice in fonts (and boy, that is rare).

Sparks has chosen an interesting and varied collection of tunes for the album. There are covers of songs from Gordon Lightfoot and fellow pianist Bill Leslie, as well some traditional covers, and some religious hymns. This diversity points to Sparks' formidable versatility as well as his cohesive music persona which manages to pull all of these considerably disparate sources together into an ear-pleasing musical whole. Well done! According to the liner notes, four of these songs are Scottish in origin and one is Irish, and while echoes of those two countries can be heard, I would not classify any of this as "world music" due to how expertly Sparks' integrates that element into his arrangements. This speaks loudly of Sparks' unique music and artistic vision - the tracks always instill a sense of peace and quiet in the listener.

Star-shimmering synths kick off the first track, a cover of Gordon Lightfoot's "Beautiful" alongside a mellow piano lead which soon leads into a nicely sampled guitar accompanying the piano and accented by sparse echoed synth textures. This is as close as you can get to classic (and I do mean CLASSIC) new age music from the golden era of the late 80s and early 90s. What a fantastic opening track - it had me hooked on the first playing! Next, the traditional "Dream Angus" (which does carry a hint of either Scotland or Ireland in the melody) comes to the listener with a soft, gentle piano melody, later embellished with subtle strings - just gorgeous. The injection (later in the song) of some lovely chorale samples is spot on and elevates the beauty of the tune even higher. Sparks' first original is next, the title track, and it's a subtly somber tune but continues the wonderfully serene piano playing which imbues the entirety of this recording. Once again, strings are applied with utmost discretion and proficiency - Sparks should hold classes on how to layer in synth strings to many other artists. A lilting flute accompanies the artist's piano on "Be Thou My Vision" and, as much as I hate being a broken record, once again Sparks' sound echoes so much of what made new age music so great two decades ago. However, don’t misunderstand me - this is not an homage disc or a throwback. Sparks' has a (now) unique way OF blending his piano leads with synths, but the sound itself is wholly contemporary in that these are fresh melodies.

As the album progressed, I kept waiting for a slip-up on the artist's part (hey, I'm a cynic), but Sparks' kept performing admirably, with a veteran's artistry, track after track, from his cover of Bill Leslie's "Portree" (wonderfully subtle synth pads underneath the piano - and those bell tones!) to another original track, "At Rest" (another nicely layered in flute line as well as discrete chorales), and a truly beautiful version of "Loch Lomond" on which the integration of superb chorales brings to mind no less a comparison than to the artist who exemplifies that kind of music, the estimable Bill Douglas.

Endless is, to me, one of the top albums of 2014, which is saying a lot because there was a lot of great music released this year. However, Rick Sparks just has "it," that indefinable quality attributed to fantastic music, and there's no sense denying it. Endless is one of the more "complete" albums I've received in a while - gorgeous graphics, flawless production, and virtuoso performance. Pick up a copy (or download it, but you'll miss the artwork - trust me) before it sells out!

Endless is available at CDBaby, Amazon and iTunes