Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy Birthday, Andy Summers!

Today is the 68th birthday of my favorite guitarist and musician of all time – Andy Summers.

I first became acquainted with the music of Summers in 1983 at the age of 10 in a Catholic elementary school classroom when I heard a hypnotic and futuristic-sounding pop/rock song emanating from the radio of Candy, my substitute teacher. When I asked what the song was and who recorded it, I was promptly informed that it was “Spirits in the Material World” by The Police. I was instantly hooked, so much so that that Christmas, my parents got me a vinyl copy of Synchronicity, The Police’s fifth and final studio album and one of the biggest hits of the year. The Police have since remained my favorite rock band of all time.

Summers was the guitarist for the mega-popular group, 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.

One of Summers' upcoming projects is Spirit Garden, 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

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

Sunday, December 19, 2010

CD Review – Calmness of Spirit, by David Hoffman

Composer and brass-man David Hoffman couldn’t have picked a better title for this CD. Combined with the beautiful, soothing cover photograph of mountains under a misty golden sky, it sets the mood for the sweet syrup for the soul contained on the album.

The horn player, who was part of Ray Charles’s band for over a decade, has cultivated a lush, lyrical, and dreamy soundscape to envelop oneself in when seeking solace from the stress of everyday life. The CD is also a perfect backdrop for relaxation as well as an engaging stimulus for focused meditation.

The music really epitomizes the concept of jazz/New Age fusion. The jazz part of the equation is apparent in Hoffman’s utilization of the trumpet, the flugelhorn, and the piano. He is obviously a proponent of more is less, as evidenced by his tasteful phrasing and careful selection of notes. He places bits and pieces of trumpet, flugelhorn, and piano here and there, in essence weaving a musical tapestry. For example, on “Julie’s Dream,” dedicated to his wife, Hoffman hangs piano chords like velvet drapes over a foundation of lush synthesizer textures.

This brings us to the New Age component of Hoffman’s jazz/New Age fusion. The album is layered with ethereal and otherworldly keyboard and synthesizer textures that start off quietly and increase in amplitude without becoming overwhelming. The tones are just right and almost function as a conduit to other dimensions. Nowhere is this more apparent than on “The Ambience of Motion,” which is a really cool and groovy, meditative and mystical space-out.

Throughout, Hoffman is ably supported by his friend, collaborator, and label-mate Paul Adams on guitar, bass, flute, and percussion. Although the compositions are all Hoffman’s and this album is unequivocally his own unique musical statement, he and Adams work very well together and exhibit great musical chemistry. They truly are a fantastic duo.

Calmness of Spirit is definitely recommended for massage, healing, meditation, and for anyone who likes cool jazz/New Age fusion. It’s classy, artful, elegant, and therapeutic.

--Raj Manoharan

Saturday, December 18, 2010

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

The first new studio album in five years from Grammy Award-winning Texas guitar hero Eric Johnson has finally arrived, and it’s quite the trip – and well worth the wait. 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 20 years ago 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 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

Sunday, December 12, 2010

CD Review – Heavens, by Paul Adams

On his latest CD, Paul Adams’s Native American flutes conjure a transforming, shamanistic experience that will transport you to another time and place.

This is challenging music as it makes you focus on the center of your being and prepares you for a mystical journey into your heart, soul, and mind – the “heavens” of your inner self, if you will.

Adams’s compositions and performances channel the sanctity and solemnity of the very source that inspires his choice of main instrument and this recording. In addition to Native American flutes, Adams uses various instruments to help paint a portrait of the people and culture of this land in the times before the arrival of the European settlers.

The percussion on one of the tracks sounds like a muted, barely audible gong that marks long stretches of time. It’s very ritualistic and conveys the effect of a liturgy of the ancients. Also, rich keyboard/synthesizer textures make it seem like Adams is conjuring ethereal spirits.

Adams’s flute playing is very appropriate to the style and purpose of the music. The melodies are hesitant and searching, yet every note is carefully chosen and constructed. Tracks like “Into the Deep Blue” in particular exemplify the penetrating and transcendental nature of the music. On the other hand, Adams wraps up the album with the jazzy “The Sky of Hope,” which almost feels like a celebratory culmination of a religious experience.

Heavens is effective on several levels – as background music; for catharsis, therapy, and healing; and for focused meditation. It’s also a perfect showcase for Adams’s compositional and performance talents and for the Native American flute as a hypnotic conduit for the cultivation of musical dreams.

--Raj Manoharan

Thursday, December 9, 2010

CD Review – On Christmas Night, by Steven C


Following on the heels of his elegant Heart Strings CD, pianist Steven C provides a touch of class for the holidays with his album, On Christmas Night.

This isn’t just a typical collection of the usual secular seasonal standards, nor does it celebrate the capitalism of Christmas with all of its commercial trappings. Rather, it is really about that Christmas night – that silent, holy night.

As such, the album contains the expected classics that tap into the spiritual side of the holiday, or “the reason for the season.” And yet these interpretations are not overbearing or overwhelming as these songs can sometimes be. That’s where the arranging and performing talents of Steven C come into play.

Rather than give them the shrill, over-the-top treatment that they occasionally get, Steven C plays them with a quiet reverence that is very much in keeping with the tranquil sanctity of the original Christmas. Even the few secular gems included in the mix, such as the concluding rendition of the Lee Mendelson-Vince Gauraldi Charlie Brown Christmas classic, “Christmas Time Is Here,” are played with the same solemnity as the religious tunes, such that they fit right in with the overall feel of the album.

With On Christmas Night, Steven C has accomplished something quite rare – a holiday album that channels the magic, mystery, and mysticism of that first Christmas night so long ago.

--Raj Manoharan