Saturday, August 22, 2015

REVIEW: Elise Lebec - Heart Song

Heart Song


By the end of my first playing of Elise Lebec's Heart Song, I went to the computer to verify that this was, in fact, her second release. Yes, it is. After clearing that up, I listened to the album a second time and my evaluation of this superb album intensified even more. How can an artist release a second album that is so accomplished, self-assured, confident, and, at times, even quite daring? Where does that come from? The composing talent, the ease with which she plays with others, the delicate control of shading, nuance, tone, and the sheer beauty of each piece, all combine into a statement of soulful maturity, emotional depth, and artistic integrity that many performers would be lucky to achieve in their tenth release. It is difficult to overstate how good an album Heart Song is. It bespeaks an artist who knows exactly where she is going with her music and how to get there. 

Before getting to the music itself, props must be given to the artist and her co-producer, Michael Rosen, who also mixed and engineered the album and also whoever mastered the final product at Ken Lee Mastering in Oakland California. This is one fantastic sounding album and putting it on while doing something that will distract from absorbing all that this recording offers will be cutting yourself short—trust me on this.

Most of the music on Heart Song is softer in nature, and much of it is pensive and reflective, but not all of it, which I will get to later. Accompanying Lebec on selected tracks are cellists Elizabeth Vandervennet, David Darling, and George Chavez, flugelhorn artist Jeff Oster, and drummer Michael Urbano. As stated above, each of them is integrated perfectly with the pianist's lead melodies, displaying their estimable respective musical gifts.

The album begins with "Silence," a beautiful, plaintive solo piano piece that puts Lebec's expert control of nuance on prominent display, as her hands maneuver deftly, traipsing lightly over the keys on this semi-melancholic song. "Lullaby," the first of Lebec's duets with cellist Vandervennet, is lovely, flowing with melodic warmth. The two artists play as one, complementing each other seamlessly. Real magic starts to happen on the title track, a delicate, somewhat sad, but achingly beautiful romantic tune with a fantastic  main refrain (later in the album, this piece is reprised as a duet with cellist David Darling, and both versions are excellent but have different emotional impact – at least for me).

As mentioned earlier, Lebec takes some chances on this album and "Pirates and Poets" is one of those. Opening with an eruption of eerie tape loops, the song begins as a mournful affair with Lebec accompanied by Vandervennet. Most of the mood is established by the emphasis on minor key notes, including a passage in the middle that teeters on the edge of very mild dissonance (but, to Lebec's credit, it works flawlessly). Just after that, Oster's flugelhorn enters the song, belting out sultry blues riffs that speak of late night affairs gone wrong. Lebec takes her piano into even darker territory as does cellist Vandervennet. The track is flat out killer! "It Was Always You" features the cello duties switching over to George Chavez, and admittedly he does have a different style of playing, albeit every bit as good as Vandervennet. The tempo is somewhat faster than some previous tracks, but yet the mood stays at least somewhat downcast, and I imagine the title may refer to ex-lovers meeting years after the break-up and one of them admits "it was always you that I loved." You may be able to tell by now how deeply Heart Song resonated with me on an emotional level due to the evocations I am describing in this review and yes, Heart Song is an emotional powerhouse for me.

Not everything here is dour, of course. "Afternoon Kisses" (which features Oster and drummer Michael Urbano) skirts with shy playfulness via its low-key jazziness. "A Break In The Clouds" could possibly be described as joyful, albeit in a subdued way, with piano and cello (Vandervennet) chasing each other lightheartedly across a musical landscape. Yet, I found myself most entranced by those tracks where Lebec truly pushes the envelope, such as "Ghost Ships," a haunting soundscape with piano, bells, vocals, and singing bowls, all of which brilliantly capture the image of the titular reference. "Moonlit Waters" features Lebec's singing voice, her breathy vocals weaving a tragic torch song worthy of a late night East Village club where broken-hearted souls have gathered to suffer their solitary pain in a collective setting. Assorted electronic textures and subdued tribal rhythms reverberate underneath piano on "Sacred Land" which also features Erick Gonzalez's bilingual spoken word vocals which seem to be about honoring and treasuring the earth (specifically, the "tree of life") and even life itself.

Three of the final four tracks are solo piano (the other being the aforementioned cello/piano version of the title track, this time titled "Heart Song Avec [with] Cello." Each of these three solo numbers is beautiful, from the pensive "Following The Rain" to "Away Into The Horizon" (the most upbeat piece on the album by far) and ending with "Green Leaves" on which Lebec takes the listener to Ireland for a short (1:42) visit. It's a great closing track, leavening the preceding reflective mood of the majority of the album with a dash of warmth and good cheer as if the artist is waving us goodbye with a smile on her face and the sun in her hair.

By now you can tell how blown away I was by Heart Song. As a jaded 18-years-long music reviewer, I don't impress anywhere near as easily as I once did. Heart Song has me excited to be a critic again, such is its deep, rich, emotional impact. Elise Lebec's talent and vision is staggering. What a future this superb pianist has indeed.

Heart Song is available at CD Baby, Amazon, and iTunes.

REVIEW: Paul Adams - Imaginings

Lake Front Productions

Imaginings, the new album helmed by multi-instrumentalist Paul Adams, is a delicious smorgasbord of tasty musical treats from across the globe, although that doesn't properly describe the unique approach Adams and his guest stars (see below) have applied to the world fusion genre. There is genre-bending, and then there is Imaginings. On the latter, the genre isn't bent, it's intertwined and intermixed and spun out into a glorious multi-hued comforting quilt of musical goodness, embodying an assortment of moods and evocations but all of them aimed at enriching the listener's well-being. In the accompanying one-sheet with the album, Adams states "We need diverse elements working together. We need playfulness, growth, and perhaps a pragmatic sense of mysticism to get us there. Imagination." Amen to that!

Joining Adams on the album are long-time collaborator and close friend, David Hoffman (flugelhorn and conch shell), as well as Elizabeth Geyer (piano) and Pravin Godkhindi (bansuri flute). Adams plays (get ready for it!) flutes, Chinese hulusi (a wind instrument), electric sitar, hang drum (a tuned metal percussion instrument), percussion, guitars, and piano. Without taking anything away from the other three artists, Adams' virtuosity and proficiency on all these instruments winds through the album's twelve tracks like a river coursing through a serene landscape. I have been a huge fan of this talented artist since I reviewed his album The Propertyof Water in 1997 and hopefully he is finally going to garner the praise which has more or less eluded him up to this point.

Moving on to the music itself, Imaginings encompasses a broad range of influences, but the presence of Godkhindi's bansuri and Adams' own sitar playing give the tracks where those instruments are predominant a distinct Indian sound, obviously. There are also moments where Native (wood) flute is emphasized. However, what makes this album so special is how these surface influences are sometimes peacefully overcome by the diversity within many tracks, e.g. the whimsically titled "Panda Bears at Breakfast" starts out with haunting Native flute against minimal piano accented with shakers, and you would think you are in for a serene meditative Native fusion peace—but ever so slowly other elements are introduced. The piano takes on a slightly jazzy undertone and before you know it, a shuffling funky rhythm has emerged and what sounds like a Hammond organ to me is churning away with a jazz refrain underneath the flute, which now and then flits about with unrestrained liveliness. It's a very cool transition. "Giggles and Grooves" opens with birdsong and, yes, a child giggling, and one might muse "hmm, a new age soundscape coming up" but then sitar comes into the picture, albeit played in a distinctly bluesy way, and as the track builds, one realizes that all these musical (and natural) elements are coalescing into something whole that is unlike its parts. Hawaiian-esque guitar and tuned percussion only serve to elevate the tropical spice in the piece. Wordless vocals and flugelhorn join the party and, well, I dare you to not smile. The title track morphs from a brief ambient-like opening to a midtempo chill-out tune, percolating beats under a sprightly flute melody, jazzy sitar, and synthesizer (un-credited, although I would guess it's Adams) shadings that color the song perfectly. "Like Blue and Velvet" once again starts off in a Native flute vein, but the early introduction of sensual blues piano steers the affair into a different direction, followed by dobro guitar. One can almost picture the sun cresting on the horizon as "Upon Early Rising" starts off, with plaintive piano, flute, and keyboard textures combine to evoke the slowly brightening sky at dawn. Unlike some other tracks on Imaginings, this one more or less just builds on the same elements and doesn't twist and turn into something else, but that is only meant as a description and not a criticism, because the song is so good that it could easily be from a Deuter album and you know that is high praise.

I wish I had the space to cover every track on the album in detail, but that would spoil the fun of hearing the other great songs (not mentioned in this review) for the first time with no preconceptions. I strongly recommend/suggest quality headphones or a decent stereo system for your first listen to this recording. Adams obviously spent a lot of time mixing this because every instrument sounds gorgeous and the balance of each one is spot on, along with the environmental sounds when they are present. Paul Adams, Elizabeth Geyer, David Hoffman, and Pravin Godkhindi have created something special on Imaginings. They have tapped into a universal element of music, a cohesive vision that encompasses a global perspective but merges those separate influences into a sum that invites everyone to the party. It may sound cliché but music is the universal language and Paul Adams is one of its great speakers.

Imaginings is currently available at CD Baby and will soon be available at Amazon and iTunes.