Sunday, April 29, 2012

CD Review – Live at the Q, by Fiona Joy Hawkins and The Blue Dream Ensemble

Pianist Fiona Joy Hawkins and her band perform several of Hawkins’s compositions at a live venue in her native Australia.

In a live setting, some artists either deviate from their original recordings deliberately or wing it entirely, which is fine depending on the artist. However, Hawkins and her cohorts perform the numbers with such precision and intrinsic intensity and concentration that you wouldn’t realize this was a live recording, were it not for the applause of the audience.

Hawkins is in top form at the keyboard, and her collaborators are on the nose as well. The Blue Dream Ensemble includes Rebecca Daniel on violin and vocals; Andy Busuttil on percussion, wind instruments, and vocals; Dave Ellis on double bass; and John Napier on cello. There isn’t a sour note on the CD. The players give the music every bit of the attention it deserves, gently finessing every subtlety and nuance of Hawkins’s lyrical compositions.

The compositions and the performances are gentle and relaxing. Their easygoing nature coaxes the listener into a state of thrall. As a result, this CD not only provides a pleasant listening experience but is also perfect for letting your cares drift away.

--Raj Manoharan

Sunday, April 15, 2012

CD Review – Giving Voice: Guitar Explorations, by Rich Osborn

Many Western musicians have played Indian music, especially with authentic Indian instruments. Several have even played Indian music with synthesizers and electric guitars, the latter of which can sound like sitars with the aid of effects pedals, signal processors, and amplifiers. However, I have never heard a Western musician play Indian music entirely on a single acoustic guitar – until now. Such is the brilliance of West Coast guitarist Rich Osborn.

Based in San Francisco, Osborn uses a nearly one-hundred-year-old acoustic guitar to channel the spirit of Indian ragas, a free-form improvisational style of Indian classical music that is structured loosely enough to allow musicians to take the music in whatever direction their muse leads them. As a result, Osborn starts with basic ideas and rough sketches and ends up creating music in the moment, basically composing as he performs. This gives the music a sense of spontaneity and unpredictability, making it a living, breathing, organic process.

Although Osborn’s compositions and the cultural inspiration behind them are remarkable, it is Osborn’s overall performance that is the real star. He plays with no accompaniment, and with little or no overdubs. All the sound is pretty much him in the act of musical creation. He plays lead, backup, melody, and harmony all at once. And if that weren’t enough, he manages to achieve the full sound of Indian ragas all by his lonesome. This is a rare art form delivered with masterful skill and craft by an even rarer artist.

--Raj Manoharan

Sunday, April 8, 2012

CD Review – Patterns of Reflection, by Peter Sterling

Peter Sterling’s self-established record label, Harp Magic Music, is named after his first album, and it is an apt description of the celestial sounds that emanate from his muse and find expression through his hands on strings.

The harp is not something that comes to my mind when I am looking for new music to listen to, but that’s where Sterling’s talent and vision come in. Ditch any preconceived notions you may have about the harp – think of jazz/new age/rock fusion with a harp instead of a guitar, keyboard, saxophone, or flute as the lead instrument, and you have the music of Peter Sterling.

The key to the success of this album is the fact that Sterling’s electric harp often sounds like an acoustic guitar, but with that extra grace and elegance that only a harp can provide. Sterling adds his keyboards, flute, and vocals to the sonic mix, augmented by other musicians on bass, guitar, tablas, flute, violin, and vocals, resulting in a sound that is heavenly while grounded in infectious melodies and rhythms.

Stylistically, the music is undeniably new age. The lyrical compositions and arrangements have flowed naturally from Sterling’s spiritual sensibilities, and the performances by Sterling and his fellow musicians impart those sensibilities to the listener, creating a safe haven that engenders peace, tranquility, and warmth.

This is one of those albums where I don’t have any particularly favorite tracks, because all of them, even with their various nuances and subtleties, are of one accord. This is both a cathartic and a pleasant listening experience from beginning to end, making this a perfect new age album.

--Raj Manoharan

Sunday, April 1, 2012

CD Review – Wires Rosewood & Roots, by Bob Ardern

Nova Scotia-based guitarist Bob Ardern presents a collection of twelve gentle instrumentals that, as the title indicates, pretty much stick to the basics.

Ardern goes it alone on half of his intricate and lyrical compositions. On the others, he is accompanied by a solid set of collaborators and back-up musicians on bass, cello, piano, and percussion. They all provide stable support without taking away from the focus of the guitar.

Ardern’s playing is just as masterful and involved as his composing style. This is a six-string stylist who knows his craft.

Although the music is predominantly New Age, several of the tracks have a down-home rustic feel. “Scotch Rocks” stands out in particular because of its jazzy tempo and rhythm.

This CD is heartily recommended to fans of quiet guitar music, as well as anyone who appreciates tranquil, soothing music in general.

--Raj Manoharan