Monday, August 30, 2010

TV – Congratulations to Eric Stonestreet and Modern Family on Their Emmy Wins

I’m very happy that Eric Stonestreet won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series for his role on ABC’s Modern Family, which also won Emmy Awards for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series and Outstanding Comedy Series, which I am equally very happy about.

Everyone from that show deserves an Emmy, because they are all fantastic. They are one of the funniest ensembles on television right now.

Before the show premiered, I had set my mind on watching it solely because of the participation of Ed O’Neill, whom I’m a fan of from his iconic, outrageously over-the-top turn as Al Bundy on the 1987-1997 smash hit FOX sitcom Married with Children. I wasn’t expecting much, though, because O’Neill hadn’t made much of an impression since the monster success of Married with Children. Sure enough, when Modern Family started, I wasn’t keen on O’Neill’s new role. Not because he wasn’t funny, but because, compared to the live-action cartoonish buffoonery of Al Bundy, O’Neill’s quieter, subtle humor on Modern Family was more like Agnes of God.

From the get-go, however, the situations and characters have been hilarious, and O’Neill has grown nicely into his role as the grandfather patriarch of his extended family.

So kudos to Stonestreet, O’Neill, and the cast and crew of Modern Family for producing an Emmy-winning comedy that is actually worthy of our time, our involvement, and most importantly, our laughter.

--Raj Manoharan

Sunday, August 29, 2010

CD Review – Simple Beauty, by Bill Leslie

Simple Beauty

Picking a title for a film, book, CD, or any work of art can be a tricky thing because it can come back to bite the artist, especially in the form of critics who are chomping at the bit to turn pun-ready titles into dreadful displays of derision. Composer and musician Bill Leslie has picked one such title for his new CD, Simple Beauty, but thankfully, it can do no wrong because, although Leslie may not have intended it, it perfectly describes the quality of his latest recording.

Leslie was probably inspired by the beauty from the vantage point of his mountain retreat near the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina’s Glade Valley, which gets its own musical tribute here. Still, the album title is an apt appraisal of the musical aesthetic sculpted by Leslie and his studio cohorts.

The CD is perfect from beginning to end. The music will wash over you and enrapture you with its lyrical and melodic beauty. Compositionally, many of the songs were inspired by some of Leslie’s favorite Celtic artists, including Nightnoise and Clannad. Even with the Celtic influence, though, the music has a very distinctive Americana feel to it.

Leslie is not only a brilliant composer, but an excellent musician as well. He plays Celtic whistles, acoustic guitar, bass, piano, and keyboards. Not surprisingly, the acoustic guitar dominates, especially since, judging by the artwork of the CD packaging, the acoustic guitar appears to be Leslie’s favorite instrument. Leslie is also joined by Bill Covington on grand piano, Brent Cotten on acoustic guitar, Leslie’s son Will on percussion, Jennifer Curtis on violin, Nancy Green on cello, and Linda Metz on flute. The result is music that is so hypnotically absorbing in its lush richness that it is easy to forget the technical prowess of the players.

This is a CD that most people should enjoy. It will touch their hearts just as it was touched by Bill Leslie’s heart, especially considering the musical expressions of personal aspects of his life, including his daughter and his new canine companion. It is warm, pleasant, and inviting. It is also enriching, inspiring, and uplifting. This is musical nourishment for the soul.

--Raj Manoharan

Music – New Andy Summers Album Due Shortly

Centerpeace (feat. Andy Summers)

I’m very excited to report that Andy Summers’ newest album is almost here. Called Spirit Garden, the CD is a collection of guitar duets featuring Summers and classical guitarist Andrew York. In addition to acoustic and electric guitars, Summers and York also play other instruments. The duo’s collaboration began on the title track of York’s latest album, Centerpeace, which is available now. More information on Centerpeace and Spirit Garden can be found at

Summers was the guitarist for the mega-popular rock band The Police, who were active in the late 1970s and early 1980s and reunited for a 30th anniversary tour in 2007 and 2008. Being a good decade older than his bandmates Sting and Stewart Copeland, Summers began his professional recording career in the early 1960s, playing for Zoot Money’s Big Roll Band (which later became the psychedelic but short-lived Dantalian’s Chariot), Eric Burdon’s New Animals, and Soft Machine. After formally studying guitar at Northridge University in California from the late 1960s to the early 1970s, Summers returned to England and plied his trade as a session guitarist for Joan Armatrading, Neil Sedaka, Kevin Coyne, and Deep Purple’s Jon Lord before achieving monumental success and international stardom with The Police.

After the dissolution of The Police in the early 1980s, Summers scored some Hollywood films (Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Weekend at Bernie’s) and recorded one rock vocal album before establishing himself as an acclaimed and accomplished contemporary instrumental guitarist across a variety of styles, including jazz, fusion, New Age, and world music.

For a good overview of Summers’ solo work, I highly recommend the following albums: Mysterious Barricades, A Windham Hill Retrospective, Synaesthesia, and The X Tracks. My personal favorite Summers albums are Mysterious Barricades, The Golden Wire, Charming Snakes, World Gone Strange, Synaesthesia, Earth and Sky, and First You Build a Cloud.

--Raj Manoharan

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Movies – Rush Hour 3

I just saw Rush Hour 3 for the first time on TBS, and as a fan of the far more superior first two installments, I rather enjoyed this latest outing.

Sure, it got hammered by critics upon its theatrical release in 2007, and its box office returns, while robust, failed to live up to the expectations set by its predecessors. Granted, the plot is quite thin, and the series no longer has the new car smell of the first film.

But for me, it was fun to see Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker back in action. Chan as Hong Kong Inspector Lee and Tucker as LAPD Detective Carter make a great action-comedy buddy-cop duo. In fact, they are my favorite such pair. They still have great chemistry and play off each other very well. They are as hilarious in this movie as they are in the first two, especially as always in the outtakes.

Series director Brett Ratner is no slouch behind the camera, either. He has crafted yet another glossy, globetrotting affair, with Carter and Lee tracking the lethal Chinese Triad gang from Los Angeles to Paris. There, our heroes run afoul of a wacky French cop played by Roman Polanski, get driven around town in wild car chases by a local taxicab driver who fulfills his lifelong fantasy of being an American superspy, and face off with the bad guys in a spectacular climactic showdown at the Eiffel Tower. My appetite is whetted for Rush Hour 4.

If you own the first two films, this is well worth adding to your collection.

--Raj Manoharan

Sunday, August 22, 2010

CD Review – Doorway to a Dream, by Ann Licater

Close your eyes and drift away as the entrancing tones of Ann Licater’s flutes whisk you away to another dimension of being. Unless you’re driving, of course – which is an equally valid way to experience the dreamy soundscapes of this composer-performer’s second CD. No matter where and how you listen to the album, you will find yourself embarking on a healing, meditative journey of self-discovery and enlightenment.

Licater plays a variety of Native American and other flutes from around the world, both in single lead lines and multi-tracked duets. Other musicians add additional layers of texture with keyboards, synthesizers, guitars, and percussion to create a full, rich sound that is soothing and relaxing while at the same time expansive and penetrating. The result is a CD with a variety of styles that never bores, even as it gently lulls listeners into a transcendental state.

The proceedings begin with the enchanting mystery of the title track, which serves not only as the gateway to the album but also as a portal to the sonic dreams that Licater weaves. The eerie cadence of the keyboard backing on “Wind and Butterfly II” evokes the melancholic musings of some of Jan Hammer’s Miami Vice themes. “Angel Bird” is at once folksy and lofty. The soft, inviting, yet edgy “Radiance” is the perfect meeting of jazz cool and New Age chill.

Doorway to a Dream is a great showcase for Licater’s talents, both as a skilled flutist and as a brilliant, wide-ranging composer. Her compositions and arrangements elevate this work from being a mere display of flute-playing ability to something more deep, riveting, and profound. This is highly recommended not only for fans of flute music, but also for fans of instrumental and New Age music in general.

--Raj Manoharan

Sunday, August 15, 2010

CD Review – Paradise Lost, by Michael Stribling

For his sixth album, the always reliable keyboard master Michael Stribling delivers a sonic magnum opus that solemnly commemorates the legacy of the American continent’s first residents and their fateful encounter with newcomers from across the sea.

As befitting the artist’s inspiration for this set, the material is epic, grandiose, vibrant, and, most important, reverential. The music beautifully expresses Stribling’s affinity for the original Native Americans. The CD has the feel of a soundtrack, providing accompaniment to the storied events in this land’s history that became the focus of Stribling’s muse for this project.

The drama unfolds with the sweeping opening themes of “Prairie Dawn” and “Guardian of the Plains,” which convey the expansive majesty of the New World as it must have been under the watchful and respectful care of its indigenous gatekeepers. The sentimental melodies and lyrical textures of “Forest Heart” and “Eagle Above, River Below” further elaborate on the beauty and tranquility of the thriving ecosystem. The propulsive rhythms of “Hunting Party” express the vibrancy of Native American life.

The plot thickens as the Native Americans sense the dark, ominous clouds of an “Approaching Storm” that finally arrives as the white European settlers embark on their proud and determined “March of Destiny,” which features elements of the mighty “Procession of the Avatars” from Stribling’s third album, Another Day in Paradise.

The action culminates in the dynamism of “Vision Quest” and “Paradise Lost,” after which Stribling reflects on all that has transpired with the solemn “Lament for the Land” and the reverential “Hymn for the Fallen.” The proceedings end on a positive note of hope with “Return to the Spirit World.”

Although Stribling has created a formidable musical tapestry with a specific context in mind, the music is so strong that it stands on its own. In fact, the compositions come across as love songs to nature. The album would be a perfect soundtrack for a trip to Yellowstone or Yosemite, or any national park or local nature preserve. This in itself is a fitting tribute to the legacy of the Native Americans, who so revered nature.

All discussions of history, context, and themes aside, the album is a strong reminder of Stribling’s compositional brilliance and musical prowess. Stribling is equally adept at creating bold themes (“Prairie Dawn,” “Guardian of the Plains”), pastoral reflections (“Lament for the Land,” “Hymn for the Fallen,” “Return to the Spirit World”), and groove-laden jazz-rock fusion complete with thumping bass lines and propulsive backbeats (“Hunting Party,” “Vision Quest,” “Paradise Lost”) – all anchored by Stribling’s unmistakable signature sound and conceived in Stribling’s mind and channeled through his fingers on keyboards and synthesizers. Paradise Lost, like its exceptional artist, is an absolute winner.

--Raj Manoharan

Sunday, August 8, 2010

CD Review -- Longing for Home: Songs from War, by Peter Jennison

If you’re looking for a unique perspective of life on the battlefield, look no further than the new CD release, Longing for Home: Songs from War, by Peter Jennison. Written by the Army captain and MEDEVAC pilot during his tour of duty in Iraq, the album provides an unusual and moving look into the mind of a young man serving his country far from home, fighting every second to stay alive and yearning to return to his loved ones.

People may not feel the exact same things listening to the album that Jennison did writing it, nor can they, but the tracks do convey some sense of what it must be like to live and work and fight and hope in that situation. The opening tune, “War,” alternates between moments of tranquility and moments of urgency. “Desert Storms” suggests the brief moments of cool relief from the oppressive heat of the arid climate. The album’s closer, “Anthem (When We All Come Home),” is exactly that, a stirring anthem in anticipation of final, ultimate peace.

The album also features beautiful musical tributes to those people whom Jennison was determined to return to: his mother (“High Mountain Dreams”), his son (“Hold Me in Your Heart”), and his wife (“The One [Love Song Across the Horizon]”). On a non-familial note, the quiet reverie of “Solitary Peace” was inspired by one of Jennison’s musical influences, guitarist and Windham Hill Records/Private Music founder Will Ackerman, who produced the album.

Speaking of production, Jennison is backed by an impressive lineup of musicians, including the late bassist T-Bone Wolk (Hall & Oates, Saturday Night Live), percussionist Jeff Haynes (Pat Metheny Group), and Ackerman, among others. This ensemble creates beautiful arrangements that add wonderful nuances to Jennison’s graceful melodies.

Although the central instrument here is Jennison’s piano, the focus is the music, which is broadly appealing and thus should be accessible to most tastes. People who buy the album will not only be supporting a worthy artist and good music, but a good cause as well, as portions of the proceeds will go to support veterans and their families.

--Raj Manoharan

Saturday, August 7, 2010

CD Review -- Reflections on Still Water, by Acoustic Ocean

On their second CD as Acoustic Ocean, the former folk duo of Peggy Morgan and Bette Phelan provide lyrical, instrumental musings that sound like what the title of their new album suggests – “reflections on still water.” Acoustic Ocean is an apt name for the duo as well, as their music feels like an ocean of acoustic beauty that washes over you.

Morgan’s Celtic harp and Phelan’s acoustic guitar come together to create some of the most beautiful, exquisite music ever recorded. The harp and acoustic guitar are embellished by Morgan and Phelan’s harmonious vocal accents, as well as fretless bass, keyboards, electric guitar, mandolin, hammered dulcimer, mountain dulcimer, pennywhistle, and Uillean pipes played by Phelan. The duo are also joined on various tracks by Kay Aldrich on cello and Anne Berliner on flute.

The compositions are very melodic, owing to Morgan and Phelan’s twenty years of experience as recording and touring folk singer-songwriters. The songs also have a very dreamy, fairytale-like feel to them, perhaps inspired by the composer-performers’ Hawaiian environs. While listening to the music, I couldn’t help thinking of elves and dwarves and Hobbits and the like. The music has that transcendent and transformative power to transport you to Middle Earth and other mystical dimensions that conjure the beauty and majesty of the air, land, and sea.

As someone who is not a harp aficionado or enthusiast, I was impressed with Morgan’s harp playing. Hers is not the typical plucking of rapturous, angelic harp chords typically associated with the instrument. Rather, she plays with such note-specific lead virtuosity that I could not think of any musical genre which the harp could not be applied to. Morgan’s unique harp style is well complemented by the fluidity of Phelan’s fine, solid six-string dexterity. In fact, Morgan’s harp and Phelan’s guitar blend together so seamlessly on several tracks that it almost became impossible for me to discern one from the other, until I realized that this is not the point of the music. This is evidence of the duo’s strong and inseparable musical bond. They truly are a tight unit with genuine musical chemistry.

Reflections on Still Water by Acoustic Ocean is one of the best New Age CDs available and one of the best albums regardless of genre. This is highly recommended not just for fans of New Age and harp and guitar, but also for anyone who likes brilliant, beautiful music.

--Raj Manoharan

CD Review -- Ground Swell, by David Mauk

The second album from Las Vegas-based musician David Mauk is quite simply one of the best albums I have ever heard. Every piece of music on this collection of ambient electronica is stunning, exotic, exquisite, and stirring. This is one of those CDs that are perfect from beginning to end. In fact, I was hard pressed to discern any real favorites (although I do have a few). But even if I want to hear certain tracks, I just let the CD play continuously. It’s just that good. If you listen to this in the car, you won’t want your commute to end before the album does.

The music has a cinematic feel to it, which is not surprising considering both that Mauk composes the music for National Geographic’s international museum tours and that each of the fourteen tracks on the CD is inspired by the work of twentieth-century American artist Edward Hopper. The latter is underscored by the accompanying DVD, which features five music videos that comprise public domain film footage from Hopper’s era. However, you don’t need to see the videos to appreciate the visual sweep of the music, which at times recalls the film music of composers James Horner and Michael Kamen, among others. In fact, the CD stands on its own as a soundtrack to a movie that exists in the listener’s imagination. The whole time I was listening to this album, I kept thinking, “This guy should be scoring major Hollywood movies.”

When I say Mauk’s music sounds like a movie score, I don’t necessarily mean a purely orchestral score in the traditional sense. Yes, there are elements of traditional orchestral sounds in his music, but there are also elements of Vangelis, Tangerine Dream, and Jan Hammer, all of whom are well known for their film and television soundtracks as well. Mauk also compares favorably to fellow independent musicians Michael Stribling and David Wahler. I would even go so far as to say I hear a hint of jazz giants Miles Davis and Herb Alpert in one of the tracks.

While the CD is brimming with the ethereal and otherworldly synthesizer textures that are characteristic of New Age, what makes the music here really memorable is Mauk’s keen sense of melody, especially when he plays piano tones. Mauk is a tight, concise composer whose mastery of hooks is impeccable. He also has an ear for dynamic percussive grooves.

When the first waves of sound reached my ears, I was instantly “swell-bound.” With Ground Swell, Mauk casts a spell that lasts long after the final note fades away. This is truly must-hear listening.

--Raj Manoharan

CD Review -- Satyagraha - Songs of the Earth, by Jeffrey Fisher

As Jeffrey Fisher explains in the liner notes of his latest CD, Satyagraha – Songs of the Earth, the term Satyagraha means “the power of truth,” a term which Mahatma Gandhi used to represent his philosophy of nonviolent opposition and resistance. It is a term which best describes Fisher’s latest musical meditation, which evokes the power of the truth of nature and is in a sense “nonviolent” toward nature in its very process.

Satyagraha is also the name of Fisher’s home and recording studio in the San Jacinto Mountains of California, where he powered his recording purely with solar energy. So the music is not only inspired by and evocative of nature, but is directly connected to and in communal harmony with nature, as are Fisher’s rustic watercolors that constitute the artwork of the CD’s digipak. This is a refreshingly rare example of a musical artist practicing what he preaches.

The CD’s cover calls attention to the fact that this is ambient, meditative, instrumental music that features the bass violin. However, this is no mere showcase for solo bass violin. Much of Fisher’s musical prowess is brought to bear on this project. In addition to bass violin, Fisher also plays Navaho flutes and keyboards and synthesizers, and together, all the instruments conjure an earthen orchestra of the mystery and mysticism of nature.

The titles of the tracks – “Moonrise,” “Babbling Spring,” “Coyote Dreams,” “Home on the Range,” “Tai Chi,” “Windhorse,” “Bird Dance,” and “Evening’s Prayer” – provide an indication of the feel and intent of the compositions.

If you’re looking for a CD to help you become one with nature and tap into its transcendental energy, Jeffrey Fisher’s musical musing on Satyagraha – Songs of the Earth is the perfect conduit.

--Raj Manoharan

CD Review -- Two Hands, by Gunnar Madsen

Gunnar Madsen is quite the performing arts renaissance man, if ever there was one. Actor, singer, filmmaker, children’s songwriter, Grammy-nominated musician, author, playwright, and soundtrack composer, to name just a few.

At the moment, he returns to one of his first and most basic muses – the piano. And it is on this recording that we hear Madsen at his most pure – just him, the keyboard, and his Two Hands.

The selections on this CD comprise a range of musical thoughts and emotions that stem from the deep recesses of Madsen’s psyche – everything from penetrating illness and personal loss to fond childhood memories and beloved artistic influences.

Musically, the album represents a variety of styles, including jazz, new age, classical, and easy listening. And yet the CD is unified in its overall sense of quietude and tranquility. As a result, the album satisfies on several levels – as an artistically fulfilling collection of beautiful arrangements and melodies, as a fitting soundtrack for perfect relaxation and reflection, and as sonic therapy for personal healing.

Two Hands is a very personal album for Gunnar Madsen, and it is a very personal album for the listener as well. This is perhaps the CD’s greatest strength and value – the personal connection between the artist and the audience.

--Raj Manoharan

CD Review -- Hybrid, by Bruce Kaphan

Bruce Kaphan kicks it up a notch on his second album by augmenting his already unique pedal steel guitar stylings with a full band. In addition to accompanying himself on keyboards and acoustic guitar, Kaphan is joined by other musicians on ukulele, electric guitar, bass, and drums. A string quartet also joins the proceedings.

Most listeners identify the twang of the pedal steel guitar with country and western music. Thanks to Kaphan’s creativity and originality, that perception is a thing of the past. The sound of the pedal steel guitar is still unmistakable, although Kaphan uses it in completely different contexts. For example, he plays leads and rhythms on pedal steel that are traditionally played by electric guitar.

On the standout track “Gleaming Towers,” the pedal steel sounds almost like a slow-burn electric guitar solo. However, at the same time, it also sounds like a sitar, especially with the accompaniment of tablas. While the song features elements of both Western and Indian music, it does not belong fully in either camp. Rather, it is cosmological, like much of the album.

Other memorable tunes include the rockabilly rhythms of “Loops for Larry,” the nostalgic and idyllic tones of “Legacy,” and the bright, feel-good optimism of “There But 4.”

The album has the cumulative effect of Patsy Cline wandering into the Twilight Zone, and the resulting Hybrid is exhilarating.

--Raj Manoharan

CD Review -- A Star Danced, by David Wahler

Sometimes you can tell by the packaging of a CD – and its title – what kind of music you might expect to hear. This is very true of David Wahler’s second album, A Star Danced. The elaborate and elegant digipak design casts a charming-looking bear dancing under the stars, and the music conveys the same celestial, wondrous feel.

Composed and performed entirely by Wahler on keyboards and synthesizers, with a guest appearance by guitarist Brent Gunter on “The Seeds of Time,” the music is a magical mix of sampled guitars, basses, drums, percussion, horns, and strings, resulting in a kaleidoscope of sound that exudes ethereal ambiance and cosmic sweep anchored by strong themes and melodic hooks. This is the perfect soundtrack for a long night drive under a starry sky.

The opening and closing tracks set and summate the tone for this sonically mystical album. “Quest” and its concluding reprise literally sound like a synthesis of Miles Davis and Herb Alpert soloing over layered textures by Vangelis and Tangerine Dream. The result is pure aural bliss.

The quality of the compositions, performances, and sounds recalls similar keyboard/synthesizer artists such as Michael Stribling, Pat Metheny collaborator Lyle Mays, Genesis member Tony Banks, and Miami Vice composer Jan Hammer.

If you do listen to this under the night sky, the stars will seem as if they are dancing, and so will your senses.

--Raj Manoharan

CD Review -- Good Sign, by Davol

1980s Billboard-charting New Age phenom Davol returns with a new collection of feel-good, instrumental electronic pop that, like the album’s title, is a Good Sign that synthesizer-based New Age music is alive and well and here to stay in the 2010s.

From beginning to end, the album is anchored down by infectious, rhythmic sampled bass and percussion grooves over which Davol adds multiple layers of keyboard melodies, textures, and flourishes. Accompanying Davol on this sonic journey is Peter Maunu, who adds his luminous guitars to the mix, resulting in pure aural delight.

The most stirring tracks on the CD are the opener “Scarborough Days,” which has a very laidback though propulsive, cinematic, and rich and velvety Pat Metheny Group feel to it (in fact, it sounds like something off of PMG’s storied Secret Story disc), and “Nautikos,” with its sparse but riveting keyboard melody.

The title track “Good Sign,” “Going There,” and “A Place Here” have nice, mellow, light jazz sensibilities to them; “Truth 2010” and “Stay” are more upbeat dance techno; “Goodnight” is a fitting end with Maunu’s acoustic guitar and Davol’s keyboard coming together for gentle balladry.

Through it all, Davol maintains cohesion and solidarity with a singular style that recalls such artists as Vangelis, Tangerine Dream, Jan Hammer, Lyle Mays, Anthony Banks, David Wahler, and Michael Stribling. If you like those musicians, it’s a Good Sign that you’ll love this.

--Raj Manoharan

CD Review -- Within Memory, by Craig Urquhart

Craig Urquhart’s latest recording is a collection of ten solo piano instrumentals that hit the spot musically, emotionally, and psychologically.

Rather than flaunt his virtuosic mastery of the keyboard, Urquhart instead chooses to focus on simple, tranquil compositions that gently penetrate the soul. The result is music that serves perfectly as background or as a soundtrack for deep, quiet introspection.

In fact, the overall tone of the album is probably best described as moody, and in a good way. This is mood music that is perfectly suited for contemplation and pensive rumination.

The softness of the compositions and the performances has a therapeutic, calming effect, as well. So this is equally useful as healing, regenerative music.

The music on this album is adaptable for almost any situation – except for festive, highly energetic occasions, obviously – and regardless of how you use it, the end result is satisfying.

--Raj Manoharan

CD Review -- Revelation, by David Nevue

Lifestyle Music Award-winning and New Age Reporter chart-topping pianist David Nevue’s latest collection of solo piano recordings was deeply inspired by his Christian faith. The good news is that you don’t have to be a Christian to enjoy and appreciate his talents for composition, arrangement, and performance.

Revelation provides a generous sampling of hymnal standards given a unique spin by Nevue, as well as some of his own originals. No familiarity with the covers is needed to enjoy them because, as is the case with any good work of art, regardless of their inspiration, they are simply beautiful pieces of music.

Christian or not, most people, especially baby boomers, might be familiar with the opening track, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” since it was the theme for the 1950s claymation television series Davey and Goliath. Nevue doesn’t play it exactly like the original, but the tune is recognizable enough that it’s a kick to hear Nevue’s own interpretation of it. Nevue also provides a kind of hipster sensibility for “Blessed Assurance,” which is comparable to Vince Gauraldi’s jazzy treatment of “Oh Christmas Tree” on A Charlie Brown Christmas. The most stirring original composition on the album is “The Mystery and the Glory,” the title of which is very indicative of the feel of the track and serves as an appropriate and effective contemplation of anything the listener might find mysterious and glorious.

The only people I can think who could really take issue with these covers are Christian fundamentalists, who might view Nevue’s liberties with the material as sacrilegious. That would be absurd because, as storied and steeped in tradition as they are, these standards were written by mere mortals after all.

The subtitle indicates that these recordings are for prayer and meditation, and they are thus useful for such purposes by people of any faith, creed, or persuasion. Regardless of the muse or context in which they are created, good works of art allow people to create their own context for how they receive them, thus ensuring the universal appeal of such art. David Nevue’s incomparable and unquestionable talents as demonstrated on his superb new release fit the bill perfectly.

--Raj Manoharan

CD Review -- Arrival, by Devin Rice and Erin Aas

As an amateur guitarist, I love guitar albums. However, I hate guitar duet albums. Unless one person is playing steel string and the other nylon, or one is playing electric and the other acoustic, you never know who is playing what.

That having been said, Arrival is one of the best guitar albums I have ever heard, even though it is primarily an album of guitar duets. I say primarily because although many of the tunes are guitar duets, many tracks also contain guitar and piano duets as well as accompaniment by other instruments. Erin Aas focuses on guitars and also plays shakers on one or two songs, while fellow guitarist Devin Rice does double duty on piano, congas, and shakers. A couple of additional musicians add cello and other instruments to the mix here and there.

Aside from the numbers on which Rice plays piano and Aas plays guitar, and aside from a couple of notations regarding who plays a guitar solo on one or two tracks, it really doesn’t matter who’s playing what. The music is beautiful, owing to thoughtful, lyrical compositions and top-notch performances. This is true guitar heaven, a stellar achievement in the New Age genre wrought by six or twelve strings.

As a collection of songs, this CD is perfect from beginning to end, with no one track more memorable or outstanding than another. Every tune is exquisite, but if I had to pick a couple of absolute favorites, they would have to be the percussive and propulsive “Nevada” with its strong melodic hooks and “Whiskey in the Watertower” with its ringing guitar chords. There’s nary a lull on the album, unless you count the closing “Lullaby for Now,” but what do you expect from a lullaby? Plus, it’s a quietly stirring piece and an appropriate coda for the set.

Devon Rice and Erin Aas have strung together a guitar album of such high caliber that I could see this being released by Narada, Higher Octave Music, Guitar 9 Records, Steve Vai’s Favored Nations, or Windham Hill Records/Private Music, whose legendary founder, Will Ackerman, serves as the CD’s producer and contributes some of his own guitar brilliance to one track. Arrival is an appropriate title as it marks an auspicious debut for Rice and Aas. Hopefully it is just the first of several collaborations from these highly talented and expressive guitarists.

--Raj Manoharan

CD Review -- Inner Voyages, by Christopher Boscole

As the title and the cover artwork – a lone figure rowing a canoe in the middle of a vast sea – suggest, Christopher Boscole’s latest collection of solo piano recordings takes listeners on a quiet excursion into the deep solitude of the soul.

Boscole’s intent here is not to impress with his range and ambidexterity, but to gently transport the audience to another dimension beyond the visceral and tangible. Boscole succeeds greatly in his desire to create a musical buffer zone of dreaminess, transcendance, and imagination.

While the whole album is soft and gentle in feel, it really sojourns into otherworldly realms in the second half. “Princess Taiping” has a slightly Oriental affect to its airy chords; “Land of Sea and Sky” and “Sea of Spirits” conjure the mysticism of water and air; “Memories of Satie” is an appropriate tribute to the minimalist composer.

The most affecting track on the album is “Om.” While it does not remind me anything of the Buddhist utterance, it comes the closest of any cut on the album to being pure New Age jazz, and, as a result, it becomes a spiritual meditation of its own. Set against swirling clouds of piano chords, Boscole’s lead piano line seems to be in search of a melody, slowly and steadily constructing one as it goes along. Whether deliberate or not, this makes the tune very much in the spirit of improvisation and makes it a fitting metaphor for anyone’s personal journey, whatever it may be.

There’s plenty on this disc to keep lovers of solo piano music, New Age, and jazz engaged and enlightened.

--Raj Manoharan

CD Review -- Just This Side of Spring, by Ann Sweeten

Pianist Ann Sweeten’s latest album, Just This Side of Spring, offers a refreshing change of pace from the usual solo piano genre. Rather than show off her chops with an obvious display of thunderous chords and lightning-quick melodic runs, the award-winning Steinway Artist instead chooses to focus on quiet, introspective compositions that are thoughtful and contemplative.

Perhaps this creative direction is due to the recent loss to cancer of her beloved Siberian husky, Nikki – much of whom this album is inspired by, especially the track “Nikki’s Song” – and the pianist’s own recent battle with breast cancer.

The result is a beautiful collection of songs that never grate or overstay their welcome, but flow seamlessly into one another like a calm and steady waterfall. And like such a waterfall, the CD has a therapeutic effect that makes it the perfect soundtrack for personal reflection, recuperation, and regrouping.

Sweeten doesn’t go it completely alone on this outing. The beauty of her soft piano is accentuated on the title track by just a hint of tasteful, subtle acoustic guitar by Windham Hill Records/Private Music founder and New Age legend Will Ackerman, who also co-produced the album. Other tracks also feature light seasonings of violin, viola, cello, flute, synthesizer, and voice.

Just This Side of Spring is highly recommended not just for fans of solo piano music, but for anyone seeking musical comfort and solace.

--Raj Manoharan

CD Review -- A Delicate Balance, by Lisa Downing

Lisa Downing’s third solo piano album, A Delicate Balance, is inspired mostly by her son, and this is evident by the passion with which she has infused her new CD.

Downing has channeled this passion into a wide range of emotions. The variety of moods runs the gamut from inner reflection and quiet contentment to confident determination and exuberant joy. Downing conveys all of this with engaging arrangements, lyrical melodies, and rapturous chords.

Two standout tracks on the album are “Indecision” and “No Matter What I Do.” Downing has been compared to Liz Story and Peter Kater and rightly so. With these two tracks, the adventurous and quirky spirit of Bruce Hornsby can also be detected.

Downing definitely has musical chops. Apparently, in addition to recording and touring, she is available for private engagements. If this CD is any indication, no one could go wrong booking her for anything from weddings to anniversaries and other social and corporate events.

A Delicate Balance is definitely recommended for connoisseurs of solo piano music and anyone interested in hiring a professional and accomplished musician.

--Raj Manoharan

CD Review -- One Day in a Life, by Bill Wren

It’s unusual to come across an album credited to a composer and musician who plays not one note on said album. Such is the case with One Day in a Life, written by Bill Wren, who plays bass, guitar, and piano but does not perform at all on the CD.

However, this oddity does not get in the way of the enjoyment of this album. While it would have been nice to hear Wren display his instrumental abilities, it is certainly clear that he has quite an ear for striking compositions fusing a wide variety of eclectic styles.

The CD, which is arranged, conducted, and performed by Frank Ralls and his orchestra, is enjoyable from beginning to end. Most of the pieces feature acoustic guitar leads with acoustic guitar backings, which is not a surprise considering that the acoustic guitar is Wren’s instrument of choice and probably the instrument with which he composed most of the tunes. A couple of tracks feature acoustic guitar paired with cello. Horns, strings, and Northumbrian pipes also feature prominently throughout the album.

The two most memorable and outstanding songs on the CD are “Old Friend,” a buoyant, rollicking ballad anchored by acoustic rhythm guitar and a solid backbeat behind lead flutes, and “Nightfall,” which is pure smooth jazz heaven led by a sultry sax. This is easily the most complex and dynamic track on the album.

It’s nice to have another Texan musician/songwriter, in the vein of Michael Nesmith and Eric Johnson, whose tastes and influences extend far beyond the reach of the Lone Star State. As good as this CD is, though, it would be nice to hear Bill Wren make a more direct connection with his audience by playing on a future album, even if it’s only acoustic guitar backings and rhythms.

--Raj Manoharan

CD Review -- Dragonfly, by Timothy Crane

It’s a perfect album that captures the listener from the first note and enthralls the listener all the way to the end. Timothy Crane’s Dragonfly is that album.

The pianist’s second CD is a collection of dreamy instrumentals embellished by lush orchestral accompaniments, resulting in one of the best albums, independent or major, in years.

While Timothy Crane is obviously the star of the CD, as his compositions and piano playing are the foundation of the album, that is both the beauty and the strength of the music – his compositional and instrumental skills lay the groundwork for epic and grandiose musical statements that are brought to completed perfection through the complementary and absolutely rich orchestrations arranged by Jason Rowsell and the guitars and drum programming by Rick Henley.

As both primary composer and pianist, Crane foregoes virtuosic showmanship in service of the music, which makes the album accessible to a much broader audience, including those not predisposed to instrumental piano music. Evidence of this can be seen especially in tracks like the set opener “Two x Two,” which while not exactly melodically similar is very sonically reminiscent of one of Enya’s biggest hits. Another example is “Play,” in which dense piano chords, refreshingly simple and laidback rhythm guitar, a rolling bass line, synthesizers, and orchestral accompaniment create an infectious main chorus that is one of the most beautiful musical passages ever committed to CD.

The only jarring moment comes in the middle of “Vasilissa the Beautiful,” the only composition not solely penned by Crane, when the characteristically beautiful track suddenly goes into overdrive with a dual attack by sharp, melodic piano and lead electric guitar that almost sounds like rock opera on the order of Queen. But the brief disorientation is not because of lack of creativity or virtuosity, which this is surely a display of, but only because it is out of character with the rest of the CD.

Still, this is only a minor quibble with an album that is nonetheless a perfect record of musical collaboration at its best, and the uncredited orchestral musicians are as much a part of the CD’s success as Crane, Rowsell, and Henley. The compositions, musicianship, orchestrations, recording, engineering, and production are all so top-notch that the agents, managers, and promoters handling this project should seriously consider submitting it for consideration in the instrumental and new age categories of next year’s Grammy Awards.

--Raj Manoharan

CD Review -- The Renewing, by Isaac Shepard

The Renewing is a nice collection of pleasant solo piano instrumentals, the third such CD offering by Isaac Shepard.

The set gets off to a strong start with "Tears Can Fall." Tears can fall, but they won’t, because the track is a formidable musical statement full of confidence and optimism. After that, Shepard settles into a comfortable zone with pretty compositions that blend seamlessly into one another, all the while displaying this sensitive artist’s competence and chops.

The album then undergoes a renewing of its own in its second half as the compositions become really complex and introspective, weaving a musical tapestry that creates unique stories and journeys in the minds of each listener. The most dynamic of these tracks is "Countdown," which, as a result, is the most dynamic track on the entire album. The tune is defined by a pointed, driven, and urgent melody that gives the composition a cinematic feel. In fact, this track would make a great main and end title theme for a motion picture.

Even as the album is winding down, it is still ramping up, culminating with "Slow Down." The track provides a satisfying conclusion to the album while leaving the listener with anticipation for what Shepard has in store next. Speaking of which, it will be interesting to see what direction Shepard takes his music in. He definitely has the compositional and instrumental chops to score television and film soundtracks and lead a jazz trio or a bigger fusion band.

The Renewing will most likely appeal to aficionados of solo piano music. For those not so inclined but that like fine musical compositions regardless of genre or instrumentation, perhaps they will like individual songs like the highly recommended Tears Can Fall, Countdown, and Slow Down.

--Raj Manoharan

CD Review -- The Promise, by Michael Stribling

After the orchestral explorations of Love, Light, and Water, contemporary instrumental keyboardist Michael Stribling returns to form on his fifth album, The Promise. The CD comes after the longest hiatus of any of his previous works – about a year – but the wait was certainly worth it, as it showcases Stribling doing what he does best – composing upbeat and engaging tunes structured with strong, memorable melodies and propelled by bright bursts of piano, energetic bass lines, driving percussion, and solidly timed backbeats.

In fact, the thing that separates Stribling from his peers in the New Age genre is that his songs are infused with a jazzy, pop-oriented sensibility that makes his music easily accessible to more than just the most ardent New Age purists. Sure, there are the introspective and pastoral themes associated with New Age music, but these are balanced by the energetic numbers, resulting in a nice mixture that offers something for everyone while maintaining stylistic and thematic fidelity.

“Bright New Day,” “Daily Living,” “Angular Reasoning,” and “The Promise” are the most kinetic songs on the album, with their catchy hooks and propulsive percussion. “Facing the Great Unknown” strikes a balance between the energetic and the introspective, with a sensitive, subtle melody anchored by soft, jazzy percussion, resulting in a light, casual, easy-listening feel.

“When Love Comes Near,” “Late at Night,” “Distant Shores,” and “Expansion” are among the more thoughtful compositions that soothe the heart and soul with inner peace and calm and transport the mind to higher dimensions of enlightenment and awareness. “Ascending Through Clouds” is ten minutes of pure electronic and spiritual bliss.

The two strongest, most standout tracks are the album opener “Bright New Day” and the title composition “The Promise.” Both grandiose, epic themes, they respectively embody the spirit of starting fresh and anew full of hopes and dreams, and the resolve and determination to keep reaching for those dreams. While “The Promise” isn’t exactly the last track on the album, both of these tunes serve as fitting thematic bookends.

As with his previous albums, Stribling’s Promise ends on a positive note with the expectant and hopeful tunes “At the Last” and “All in Good Time.” These tracks wrap up the CD nicely, anticipating the thrill of the wait for the next time we hear from Stribling.

Ultimately, the best thing about Michael Stribling’s music is its positive outlook. Stribling’s first album was called Songs of Hope and Healing; all of his work can be described as such. This is music that inspires, emboldens, and empowers.

--Raj Manoharan

CD Review -- Love, Light, and Water, by Michael Stribling

On his fourth CD, Love, Light, and Water, contemporary instrumental keyboardist Michael Stribling offers a refreshing change of pace from the dynamic and propulsive intensity of his previous, percussion-heavy albums. This time, Stribling’s muse provides a mystical revelation of peace, solemnity, and mystery, resulting in a musical journey that fuses the boundaries of New Age and neoclassical music.

The album opens with the velvety, spacey synthesizer chords of “First Adventures,” a brief introduction that revives the sonic majesty of “Procession of the Avatars,” the opening track from Stribling’s previous venture. Stribling follows that up with the quirky, quizzical reverie of “Dream Frontiers,” before segueing into the symphonic sweep of “New Love.”

In fact, “New Love” is indicative of the most striking aspect of Love, Light, and Water – its orchestral feel. Although Stribling created every single note and sound with keyboards and synthesizers, many of the songs sound as if they were recorded by a full orchestra. Compositions such as “New Love” and “Bright Silence, Quiet Light” simulate lush orchestral strings laden with graceful horn/flute melodies, while touches of classical guitar can be heard on various tracks as well.

“First Adventures,” “Pleasant Journeys” (with its beautiful understated tablas), “Before the Dawn,” “Sunrise,” “Behind Every Cloud,” “Prairie Rain,” “Afterglow,” “River Canyon,” and “Dancing on the Water” feature Stribling’s classic New Age keyboard and synthesizer sounds, but they never sound electronic.

Stribling’s inward musical journey winds down with “Quiet Conversation,” which is exactly that – an intimate exchange between Stribling’s piano and synthesizer, and “At the Gates,” a calm and hopeful anticipation of things to come.

While the music overall is quiet, it is far from simple. It is full of intricate harmonies and patterns found in serious, disciplined classical music and sophisticated popular music such as that by The Police and Genesis. Also, every song title accurately conveys the feel of the given track. The lasting impression is one of music that, while generated electronically, is far from the tinny and metallic timbres of many of Stribling’s peers and is, in fact, simply beautiful music.

--Raj Manoharan

CD Review -- Another Day in Paradise, by Michael Stribling

Michael Stribling’s third CD, Another Day in Paradise, cements the New Age keyboardist’s status as one of the most dynamic composers of our time. The collection of 11 instrumental compositions is an exhilarating musical journey that celebrates the vitality of life and pulsates with a positive, energetic vibe that just makes you feel glad to be alive.

The former Johnny Mathis drummer’s pop sensibilities and knack for rhythm manifest themselves in the form of propulsive percussion, hook-laden grooves, and infectious bass lines. The proceedings start with the mystical tones of the previous album’s final track (“A Further Glimpse Beyond”) before segueing into an epic theme (“Procession of the Avatars”) that, with its solemn melody and march-like percussion, could be a perfect opening theme for the Olympics.

On a couple of songs, Stribling introduces an ethnic flavor into the mix (the Far East flute sounds of “Asian Dawn,” the Middle East-like melody of the intimate “Union,” which features a pop cultural musical reference or two for discerning listeners). The CD also features introspective interludes such as “On a Quiet Afternoon” and “Ocean in the Sky,” a symphony of marine animal sounds against the backdrop of lush synthesizer tones that would make an ideal soundtrack for an IMAX nature/science documentary.

A human element is added through the presence of wordless vocals, for example, ancient tribal chants (“Evolution”) and the laughter of children at play (“Forever Young”). Other inspiring tracks include the reverent “Sacred Land,” the high-spirited “Celebration,” and the buoyant synth-pop of the electronica-tinged “When Angels Dance.”

The album closes on a peaceful note with the aptly titled “At the End of the Day,” which revisits the ethereal siren tones of “New Day Dawning” from Stribling’s first CD but creates a beautiful new melody accented with graceful piano chords. It’s a fitting coda to the bliss and joy that have come before and gives us a chance to take it all in.

Stribling makes music that stirs the soul, and it’s clear from this album that Stribling is in the right place spiritually, emotionally, and psychologically. Listening to this CD will put you in the same place as well. Stribling’s music surges with the energy and life force of the universe, and the result is another day in paradise.

--Raj Manoharan


Hi everybody!

Welcome to RajMan Reviews.

I am currently reviewing Ambient/Instrumental/New Age CDs and thought that this might be the perfect place to share them with anyone who is interested.

Since I am interested not only in music (and not just New Age music at that), but in movies and television as well, I will also share my thoughts on CDs, films, and programs of interest to me and fellow like-minded individuals (if any such individuals do indeed exist) from time to time.

I hope you like what you see, and I hope you can take something away, even if it's not spectacularly deep or profound.

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