Sunday, July 13, 2014

CD Review – Call of the Mountains, by Masako

While Masako's self-titled debut album showed the intriguing promise of a brilliant new keyboard artist, her sophomore release displays the confident mastery and tempered virtuosity of a venerable veteran musician.

In contrast to the cross-cultural East meets West interplay and atmospheric textures of the first CD, the new album lands solidly in the genre of jazz/new age piano, with the acoustic ivories taking center stage. And with this offering, Masako proves herself worthy of the echelon of preeminent pianists such as David Lanz, Jim Brickman, and Liz Story. I even hear a little bit of Bruce Hornsby in her compositional and playing style.

This is a flawless disc from beginning to end, with one beautiful and mesmerizing piece after another. As they say, the hits just keep on coming.

The majority of the album is just Masako on the piano, and hearing just her on the keyboard is pure bliss. She also receives standout support on four tracks from producer William Ackerman on guitar, Tony Levin on bass, Jeff Haynes on percussion, Premik Russell Tubbs on wind synthesizer, Eugene Friesen on cello, Jeff Oster on trumpet, and Noah Wilding on vocals.

This is without a doubt one of the best piano-based albums out there.

--Raj Manoharan

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Music – New Live Album in Time for Eric Johnson's 60th Birthday

Eric Johnson's latest album, Europe Live, is out now.

As the title indicates, the CD documents the legendary veteran Texas guitarist's recent European tour in support of his 2010 studio album Up Close.

While the new album includes cuts from that CD, the live disc also features classics from Johnson's nearly three-decade-long career as a solo recording artist, as well as two new songs.

A 14-minute YouTube preview sampler is available at, and based on the audio clips of each of the 14 songs, Europe sounds like Johnson's best live album to date. Not only does it have the advantage of providing the broadest live retrospective of Johnson's solo career, but it also has the benefit of showing how some of his old tunes have evolved in the hands of a wiser and more refined – but still very dynamic and energetic – Johnson, who just seems to keep getting better and better as time goes on.

The CD couldn't have come at a more appropriate time, as Johnson celebrates the big Six Zero this summer (August 17, to be exact). What better way to mark the momentous occasion than to listen to Up Close and Europe Live?

In that spirit, I have included my review of Up Close below.

--Raj Manoharan

CD Retro (Fan) Review – Up Close, by Eric Johnson

The seventh studio album from Grammy Award-winning Texas guitar hero Eric Johnson is quite the trip. Like his other CDs a mix of instrumentals and vocal songs mostly penned by him and showcasing his unique virtuosity on the electric guitar, Up Close includes some of the best work that Johnson has ever written and recorded.

The album is dripping with crackling guitars. If a guitar died and went to heaven, this is what heaven would sound like. Johnson is on fire, effortlessly weaving incredible, sparkling solos in and out of both the instrumental and vocal tracks. The vocal songs range from energetic blues and rock numbers to gorgeous, heartfelt ballads. Inspired like never before, Johnson plays and sings with a fervor not present in his previous work. Perhaps Johnson is like a fine vintage wine, improving with age.

I was first introduced to the music of Johnson in 1990 by an employee at a local cable television station I was interning at during my senior year of high school. That was the year Johnson, then 35/36 years old, released his breakthrough second album, Ah Via Musicom, which achieved the distinction of having three instrumental songs reach the American Top Ten.

As accomplished and groundbreaking as Ah Via Musicom and its edgier and sonically more expansive 1996 follow-up, Venus Isle, are, Johnson has really poured his living, breathing essence into Up Close. The result is the best guitar-based album of the last several years, and one of the best guitar-based and general music albums of all time.

With Up Close, Johnson is at the top of his game as a guitarist, composer, and singer. He has created a masterwork of soulful jazz/pop/rock fusion that exudes passion, especially through his trademark virtuosic guitar sound. Even with guest vocals by Malford Milligan, Steve Miller, and Johnny Lang, and guitar performances by Jimmie Vaughan, Steve Hennig, and Sonny Landreth, the album is clearly all Eric Johnson up close front and center.

--Raj Manoharan

Friday, July 4, 2014

Music – Paul Speer, Guitar Hero

Having recently become a fan and listened to all of his "grown-up" albums (I have yet to listen to the eponymously titled Stone Garden by his teenage rock band with his brothers from the late 1960s), I can say that as a guitarist, Paul Speer is without peer. His guitar artistry is always on point. Regardless of the genre he's working in, he continually nails it with unique, razor-sharp phrasing and clean, crunchy tones. In terms of his overall body of work, he is the most consistent, focused, and precise guitarist of his time working in new age jazz/rock fusion. His albums are available at and at, where he has some good deals, including a couple of CDs and DVDs for one cent!

--Raj Manoharan

Sunday, June 29, 2014

CD Review – Novella: Ukulele Mosaique, by Andre Feriante

For those whose idea of ukulele music consists of Hawaiian hula chord playing, Andre Feriante casts those aspersions aside with his new genre-defying musical statement.

Trained by the master himself, Andre Segovia, Feriante is an accomplished and versatile classical, flamenco, and Spanish-style guitarist, and he brings those virtuosic sensibilities to the ukulele.

If I didn't know this was a ukulele album, I would have thought Feriante was playing traditional fingerstyle acoustic guitar. This is how unexpected, surprising, and original this album is, sounding nothing like typical ukulele music.

Feriante also ups the ante by performing each track with a different ukulele featuring anywhere from three to six strings.

If you think you're not into ukulele music, Andre Feriante just might change your tune.

--Raj Manoharan

Sunday, June 22, 2014

CD Review – Dreaming Time, by Forrest Smithson

If ever there was a CD for putting your cares aside and letting your subconscious drift into a blissful, dreamlike state, this is it.

This lush, ethereal synthesizer opus is one major musical suite divided into four title tracks distinguished by sequential number. The result is flexibility for the listener who may only be able to benefit from one musical therapy session at a time or can maximize use of the entire program.

The tunes and tones are entrancing and hypnotic and can be utilized as catharsis, non-intrusive background music, or just simply pleasant listening.

If your nerves need soothing or you just want to chill out, Forrest Smithson is your go-to guy.

--Raj Manoharan

Sunday, June 8, 2014

CD Review – Invitation From Within, by Ann Licater

The title says it all, as the music on this CD is so soft and penetrating it seems to emanate from your subconscious.

As quiet as the compositions are, they are yet dynamic in their structure and complex in their layers, resulting not only in an uplifting but also a thoroughly whole sound experience.

Ann Licater's wood and silver flutes are the primary ingredients that make up the sonic magic evident on this CD. Licater's musical vision is fully realized through a host of other key elements, including vocals by Licater and Liz Addison, electric bass by Peter Phippen, steel tongue drum by Phippen and Jason Introwitz, trumpet by Jeff Oster, piano by Ivar Lunde, hand-held quartz crystal bowls by Kathleen Farrell, Afro-Peruvian cajon percussion by David DiLullo, and conga by Introwitz.

This is a lush, luxurious album that provides soothing refreshment for the soul.

--Raj Manoharan