Tuesday, October 26, 2010

CD Review – Sacred Love, by Shambhu

New life has been breathed into the art of contemporary instrumental guitar with the first solo album of original material from veteran guitarist and composer Shambhu, aka Neil Vineberg. (Shambhu has a long list of impressive credits, having performed with Narada Michael Walden, Carlos Santana, and Clarence Clemons and recorded with Whitney Houston.)

Sacred Love is one of the most beautiful and most impressive guitar albums I have ever had the pleasure of listening to. One of the photographs on the CD, of Shambhu smiling meekly with his hand over his heart, might lead listeners to think that they are about to hear a collection of ponderous instrumental musings typically associated with New Age music. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But this is not that album. (Incidentally, the photograph is appropriate in that it conveys the sense of the music coming from Shambhu’s heart and making its way into those of listeners, which it does).

The CD is brimming with masterfully played, boundary-crossing tunes touching everything from New Age and fusion to world music and smooth jazz. In fact, several cuts are radio-friendly and would be right at home on commercial jazz stations.

Shambhu wrote most of the compositions, co-wrote two or three, and plays acoustic and electric guitars. He also plays electric sitar, which reinforces the exotic Indian sounds of several tracks. This Southeast Asian influence is also reflected in the guitarist’s name, a Sanskrit word meaning “source of happiness,” which is an apt description of his music as well. Shambhu’s guitar and composing skills are comparable to those of Andy Summers, Pat Metheny, Lee Ritenour, and Larry Carlton, as well as fellow independent newcomers such as Devin Rice and Erin Aas.

The rich, full sound of the CD is fleshed out by an amazing lineup of musicians, among them – to name just a very few – Tony Levin (John Lennon, Peter Gabriel, King Crimson, Andy Summers) on bass, Jeff Haynes (Pat Metheny) on percussion, Jeff Oster on flugelhorn, and Charlie Bisharat on violin, with enchanting wordless vocals provided by Claytoven Richardson and Noah Wilding. Album producer Will Ackerman of Windham Hill Records and Private Music fame also lends his guitar and piano talents separately to a couple of tracks.

Sacred Love is an album that will satisfy many musical palates, not just those of guitar music fans. Shambhu is an artist to keep a close eye on. Hopefully this is the first of many more wonderful new albums to emerge from his creative vision.

--Raj Manoharan

Sunday, October 17, 2010

CD Review – Christmas for Two, by Lisa Downing

At the ambidextrous hands of Lisa Downing, Christmas music isn’t just for Christmas anymore.

Christmas for Two is pianist Downing’s interpretation of several holiday standards. And by interpretation, I really mean interpretation. This is not a tired regurgitation of seasonal songs that everyone has heard millions of times over. Rather, Downing really interprets the songs, using them as jumping off points for new musical directions and really making them her own.

The result is an album whose appeal extends far beyond the yuletide. In fact, Christmas for Two can be listened to from two perspectives. On one level, the CD can be enjoyed as a collection of classic Christmas tunes with a musical twist. On another level, the album can be enjoyed simply as an album of beautiful piano arrangements that happen to reference familiar holiday themes.

The best thing about Christmas for Two is that it provides a great listening experience all year round, whether you celebrate Christmas or not. That is the mark of true artistry, especially as exhibited by Downing on this release. It’s also appropriate that a Christmas album be listenable anytime, because when you really think about it, the ideals and themes behind Christmas are about extolling them continually, regardless of the season.

Consider giving the gift of music with Christmas for Two, for Christmas or any occasion.

--Raj Manoharan

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

CD Review – Northern Seas, by Al Conti

The Norse legends of old come to vivid, sparkling life in this multifaceted musical tapestry woven by actor, composer, and musician Al Conti. The fourth album from the multi-instrumentalist is steeped in Viking lore and, as such, brims with the mystery and mythology of those ancient times.

The proceedings begin with the sounds of rushing water and haunting wordless vocals as the seafaring Nordic warriors row their way through a “Veil of Mist” into the realm of the gods. The album is Conti’s personal tribute to such figures as Iounn (the subject of the lyrical “Spring Maiden”), Loki, Odin, Thor, and Baldur. The scope of the CD also includes the Valkyries, the downfall of the gods, and “The Rainbow Bridge.”

The music itself is lush, with rich layers of sound constructed by Conti’s keyboards, synthesizers, pump organ, accordion, and percussion, as well as violins, fiddles, Celtic whistles, and acoustic and electric guitars by other musicians. The result is an album full of dreamy lyricism, epic themes, and memorable melodies.

While the album generally falls into the category of New Age and world music, the most apt description is that it specifically sounds like what might be called medieval pop. In other words, it sounds like Sting at his best post-Police, except without Sting’s vocals. In fact, Sting and Al Conti should get together and collaborate. Sting could use the inspiration.

Northern Seas is definitely a keeper. It’s worthy of the gods, and worthy of your attention.

--Raj Manoharan