Saturday, May 28, 2011

CD Review – Spiritual Piano, by Steven C

The latest album from pianist Steven C features music with a message, and the message is resoundingly good.

The message is not an obviously audible one, as the music is entirely instrumental. Rather, the message is the deep well of spirituality, compassion, and good will within the artist that inspired him to compose these gorgeous and moving songs, among his most passionate. In fact, of the three Steven C recordings I have reviewed thus far, this is easily the most heartfelt and invigorating.

Steven C has provided explanations of the meaning behind each piece of music, but you don’t have to know what they are to enjoy and understand the music. Chances are that the compositions will make you feel the very things that influenced their creation in the first place.

The CD strikes a nice balance between intimate solo piano tunes and full-fledged band tracks with mandolin, violin, guitars, bass, and percussion. The most affecting compositions for me are “Knowing,” “Temporary Space Suits,” “Space and Time – 2012,” and “The Spirit World – Return to Sender,” but the entire album is enjoyable from beginning to end.

This is another fine album by Steven C, and one that you will enjoy whether or not you like piano-based music.

--Raj Manoharan

Saturday, May 21, 2011

CD Review – Underground, by Lisa Hilton

On her latest album, pianist Lisa Hilton and her combo offer up an eclectic serving of jazz that never fails to satisfy.

Hilton is backed by a tight unit that includes saxophonist J.D. Allen, bassist Larry Grenadier (who occasionally records and performs with jazz guitar great Pat Metheny and will be touring with him later this year), and drummer Nasheet Waits.

Although Hilton’s name headlines the marquee, the CD never sounds like a purely solo record. It truly is a group effort, with both Hilton’s piano and Allen's saxophone sharing equal sonic space and Grenadier’s bass and Waits' drums rounding out the sound. At the same time, each musician puts his or her own unique stamp on the entire mosaic, resulting in a musical tapestry that can be appreciated both as a whole and in its individual parts.

The music is structured around Hilton’s dynamic and exuberant compositions, as well as the beautiful “B Minor Waltz” by jazz piano legend Bill Evans, to whom Hilton is often compared. The album is steeped in jazz, encompassing several forms of the genre, including freestyle, improvisational, and fusion, with a hint of ragtime and blues thrown in for good measure.

For those who like piano-led combos, jazz, or just good music in general, this set will have their ears engaged from beginning to end.

--Raj Manoharan

Saturday, May 7, 2011

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 21 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, May 1, 2011

CD Review – Songs to the Earth, by Annette Cantor

The primal and tribal power of ancient chants and hymns live on in Annette Cantor’s Songs to the Earth.

The German-born and Vienna-trained Cantor combines her powerful and earthy vocalization of Gregorian chants with Native American flute, cello, didgeridoo, tribal drums, and other voices to create a formidable musical alchemy that perfectly symbolizes the raw energy of the planet.

The combination of Cantor’s voice and the other instruments and voices, especially the tribal drums, creates a ritualistic effect that’s almost hypnotic in its pulsating rhythmic beats.

The juxtaposition of the European traditions of chant and cello with the American Southwest sound of the Native American flute especially creates an interesting hybrid that at once conjures age-old mysticism while setting the stage for new realms of sonic experience.

This is a perfect CD for reflecting on your own connection with nature and terra firma.

--Raj Manoharan