Raphael Groten – Self-released
Guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Groten has released a tour de force two-disc set that displays not just his composing and performing talent, but his imaginative ability to “reconstruct” the songs from solo acoustic guitar (disc one) to ensemble-based, with more fleshed out arrangements of the same songs (disc two). Besides the inclusion of guests performers (e.g. Michael Manring on bass, Eugene Friesen on cello, and Ron Korb on flute), Groten himself increases his instrumental contribution to include ukulele, percussion, clay whistle, and more. Star Lullaby is a singular achievement from a visionary artist, brimming with artistry in both composing and performing.
Memoirs – Solo Piano Singles
Michele McLaughlin – Self-released
The concept of artists releasing singles of their instrumental works has become more prevalent over the last few years, especially as more and more people either stream or download music. However, what about those who still purchase and play CDs? Well, pianist Michele McLaughlin has them covered with this collection of 12 “single” songs which demonstrate why she is among the most successful artists in her genre (solo piano) currently releasing music. McLaughlin effortlessly crisscrosses assorted moods, styles, and tempos always infusing her music with both abundant technical artistry and deep-rooted passion. Personal liner notes are the icing on this delicious musical cake.
Solace of Mountains and Clouds
Kathryn Kaye – Overland Mountains Music
Pianist Kathryn Kaye lives in the Rocky Mountains (she refers to them as “majestic yet soul-soothing”) and it’s these surroundings which heavily influenced this, her eighth release. As on her previous albums, Kaye emphasizes a light touch on the piano keys, favoring melodies which are stripped of unnecessary artifice, instead imbuing each of the 10 tracks with a depth of feeling and a rich sense of intimacy. Once more, she recorded the album at Imaginary Road Studios, under the guidance of Will Ackerman and Tom Eaton, so the guest stars who appear should be well-known to fans of other releases from the rural Vermont haven for instrumental music artists.
A Journey for Mankind
Tom Moore & Sherry Finzer – Heart Dance Records
Tom Moore (keyboards/synthesizers, guitar, bass, and percussion) and Sherry Finzer (assorted flutes) have become a force to be reckoned with in instrumental music (this is, I believe, their fourth collaboration). The impetus behind A Journey for Mankind is a sonic celebration of/homage to the Apollo 11 moon landing, 50 years ago. Drawing on influences from the spacemusic, ambient, and New Age genres (and some subtle nods to the Berlin school of electronic music), these two ply their craft across a wide field of moods and styles, from the ethereal to the dramatic and much more. Some songs appropriately evoke a sense of wonder and awe, just as Armstrong and Aldrin must have felt on that historic walk.
Dance of Two Souls
Perpetual Motion – Swallowtail Music
Perpetual Motion (guitarist Tom Carleno and violinist Josie Quick, aided by bassist Blake Eberhard and drummer/percussionist Christian Teele), take their acoustic instrumental music in a decidedly “south of the border” direction with easily discerned musical influences from Central and South America and the Caribbean. Dance of Two Souls is sultry, passionate, and sensual music played with utmost virtuosity and supercharged with soulfulness, fun, and the sheer joy of making music designed to celebrate life. Besides the 11 fantastic songs penned by the duo (nine by Quick and two by Carleno), check out their takes on the classic “Summertime,” as well the Django Reinhardt/Jacques Larue-penned “Troublant Boléro.”
Louis Anthony deLise – Bocage Records
Louis Anthony deLise describes his music as “Contemporary New Age and Neo-Classical,” but I think this sells his album short. Yes, those elements are present, but there’s so much more as well, e.g. traditional pop, ambient, jazz. The level of imagination, creativity, musicianship, and composition talent impressed me before the end of the first track, “Mosaic.” deLise plays piano, marimba, trap drums, tabla, glockenspiel, percussion, and amazing keyboard samples, including fantastic orchestral string. The album also features Nancy Rumbel (oboe/English horn), Jeff Oster (trumpet), Christine Hansen (flutes), and Marjam Ingolffsson (cello). The overarching mood is somber and melancholic, but the variety of ways that deLise takes you there is astounding and supremely enjoyable.
Masako – Masako Music
Masako plays piano with an elegant simplicity that I find captivating and beguiling. Rather than show off via pyrotechnical fireworks, she allows her warm, evocative melodies to unfurl slowly and with an uncomplicated sincerity. I don’t meant to criticize those pianists whose style is more complex. However, as the saying goes, “the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.” Masako draws these musical lines “direct to the listener’s heart” throughout Underwater Whisperer. Four of the 11 tracks are solo, while others feature guests from the Imaginary Road “stable.” Produced by the ultra-prolific team of Ackerman and Eaton (along with Masako herself), the album sounds fantastic as well (Eaton mixed and mastered it).
Michael Whalen – Real Music
Michael Whalen’s versatility seemingly has no bounds whatsoever, so easily he moves from one musical style to another across his many albums. On Cupid Blindfolded, he pares down to the bare necessity of solo piano and the results are pure magic, one of his best releases of the last few years (which is saying a lot). The overall mood here is restrained, with hints of melancholy scattered here and there, as well as romanticism at times, such as the title track. At times minimalist in tempo, and other times featuring delightful refrains, Whalen’s playing is a marvel, aided by Tom Eaton’s masterful mixing and mastering.
Brooks & Day – Daybrook Records
Ben Brooks (flutes and keyboards) and Peter Day (guitar and keyboards) make some mighty engaging music on Mystic Messages, an album that may defy easy categorization, but is so darn easy to enjoy. From the opening jauntiness of “Sacred City” with its percolating rhythm, lilting flute and superb use of keyboard accents to the closing “No Regrets” and its plaintive air of contentment via strummed guitar, wafting flute, and orchestral strings, each of the nine songs display not just superb musicianship, but also imagination and style that elevates the music of Mystic Messages to something truly special. I could spend the whole review listing the assorted influence, but you’ll enjoy it more as a surprise I’d imagine!
Rick Sparks – Self-released
On the cover, keyboardist/pianist Sparks’ latest release is subtitled “Sail away to dreamland,” and he’s not kidding. These 11 tracks, centered round serene, minimalist piano melodies, framed by orchestral strings and angelic choirs, will almost certainly guide the most irrepressible and rambunctious young ‘uns to the land of Wynken, Blynken and Nod. Soothing in the extreme, with nary a moment of drama to distract from the flowing sensation of peace and contentment, these melodies could also serve well as massage music for us “old-timers” or as a way to help the parents of the aforementioned children to relax and de-stress after a busy day. Low volume playback is advisable, of course.