Sunday, March 8, 2020

EJ Vol. II (2020), by Eric Johnson

What a difference ten years can make – in both time and age.

In 2010, then-55-year-old Eric Johnson released Up Close, his most frenetic and frenzied electric guitar record to date, so much so that he only sang lead vocals on a couple of tracks and served as accompanying or background vocalist on a few others, with most of the tunes sung by guest performers.

In the ensuing decade, Johnson released more albums than he ever had before – a live recording of a European tour, a duet album with jazz guitarist Mike Stern, an acoustic piano/acoustic guitar pop vocal set (to which this is the apparent sequel), and a return-to-form electric guitar pop rock album (although much more restrained than Up Close).

Now, in 2020, the 65-year-old Johnson returns with EJ Vol. II, which, like its eponymous predecessor, focuses on acoustic piano and acoustic guitar songs, but this time with tasteful touches of his trademark electric guitar flourishes. It is not so much a continuation of any one particular style as it is an expansion and progression of Johnson’s musical development.

The remarkable aspect of the new album is how far Johnson has come as an artist since Up Close. Up until then, Johnson was primarily a highly technically skilled guitar hero and virtuoso.

In recent years, however, Johnson has been focusing more on mastering the crafts of songwriting and singing, and he has been getting very good at both of those pursuits. In fact, the vocal songs – especially “Waterwheel,” “Divane,” “Hotel Ole,” “Different Folks,” and “Golden Way” – are more enjoyable than the instrumentals. That is not to say that the instrumentals are not good – they are.

In terms of singing, Johnson’s voice is something to behold, especially at this stage of his career. He sounds much younger than people who are half his age. You would not realize he is a senior citizen just by listening to him.

As good a singer/songwriter as he is, Johnson still works his magic on those six electric strings. However, his playing is much more refreshingly and enjoyably relaxed and refined now.

This is definitely one of Johnson’s finest albums, right up there with 1996’s Venus Isle, with which it shares a luminescent sonic palette and a spirit of transcendental meaningfulness.

To me, the title signifies not so much a follow-up to a particular album as it does the next phase of Johnson’s maturation as a singer and musician.

--Raj Manoharan

2020: The Year of the Guitar

Only three months in, 2020 is already shaping up to be a fantastic year for guitar albums.

Pat Metheny started things off auspiciously on February 21 with his first new release in six years, From This Place.

Then, on March 6, Eric Johnson debuted his latest album, EJ Vol. II.

Next, both Joe Satriani’s Shapeshifting and Paul Speer’s Sonoran Odyssey, his first album in seven years, come out April 10.

With all this great guitar music in just the first four months of 2020, one can only hope that the legendary Andy Summers has something in the pipeline this year as well.

It would also be nice to see more unreleased material from the late, great Allan Holdsworth, and maybe, finally, the eventual completion of his final, unfinished original studio album.

--Raj Manoharan

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Lyle Mays (1953-2020)

Just after having posted my review of Pat Metheny's latest album, I was shocked and disheartened to learn that Lyle Mays, Metheny's keyboardist in the Pat Metheny Group (PMG) from the 1970s to the 2000s, had passed away earlier this month at the age of 66.

Mays was instrumental to the sound of PMG with his lush, orchestral textures, in addition to his traditional jazz piano playing. Critics and fans alike had considered Metheny and Mays a songwriting duo as important and influential as that of John Lennon and Paul McCartney.

I was fortunate to see Mays live in concert with PMG twice, first at the State Theatre in New Brunswick, New Jersey, in the early 1990s, and then again at the Beacon Theatre in New York City in the early 2000s.

In recent years, Mays had retired from music and was working in computer software management.

For a while, I had been planning to post a playlist of my ten favorite PMG songs to celebrate the release of Metheny's latest album. I now offer it in tribute and dedicate it to the memory of Lyle Mays.

The Search * James * Chris * Last Train Home * Slip Away * Facing West * Rain River * Here to Stay * Follow Me * Wherever You Go

--Raj Manoharan

From This Place (2020), by Pat Metheny

One of guitar’s golden boys is back with his first album of all-new material in six years, and it was definitely worth the wait.

Having become a senior citizen the year previous and turning 66 in summer 2020 – which the sentimental track “Sixty-Six” most likely references – Pat Metheny is indeed a golden boy.

However, make no mistake. His performing talent and compositional brilliance are nowhere near retirement, as evidenced in this welcome mix of his styles both old and new.

The entire album is ambitious and cinematic in its orchestral scope, with Metheny’s core band – bassist Linda May Han Oh, pianist Gwilym Simcock, and longtime Metheny drummer Antonio Sanchez – augmented by the lush sounds of the Hollywood Studio Symphony, conducted by Joel McNeely.

Guest performers include Luis Conte on percussion, Gregoire Maret on harmonica, and Meshell Ndegeocello, who sings the politically and socially charged title track, which is not only very much from this place, but also very much from this time.

Longtime fans will take a special liking to the Pat Metheny Group-reminiscent “Same River,” with Metheny breaking out that classic sitar-like sound as well as that awesome, unmistakable guitar synthesizer.

Other standout tracks include the epic and formidable “America Undefined,” “Wide and Far” (the best and most distinctive guitar melody and the most classic Metheny-like tune on the album), the haunting “You Are,” and the reflective “Sixty-Six.”

If you have been off the Pat Metheny path for a while, like me, this is the perfect opportunity to return to the fold.

--Raj Manoharan

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019), by John Williams

It is fortunate that John Williams was able to compose and conduct the score for the final installment of the nine-part Skywalker saga, completing a musical endeavor that he first undertook for the original 1977 film, now known as Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope.

As a result, the nine soundtracks stand together as an epic, self-contained body of work spanning 42 years. Williams perhaps may be the only film composer who has made music for that many movies in a franchise, all of them focusing on a core group or family of characters, as well as several Star Wars video games. The only other Hollywood composer who comes close is the late Jerry Goldsmith, who scored five Star Trek movies and wrote the main theme for three Star Trek television series.

Incidentally, Williams is also one of only two major creative talents to be involved in all nine episodes of the Skywalker saga, the other being Anthony Daniels, who has played C-3PO in every one of the main movies (as well as a cameo in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and other guest spots).

Just as Star Wars: Episode IX:  The Rise of Skywalker is an entertaining and enjoyable wrap-up of a nine-part storyline, its soundtrack is just as fitting a musical coda for the entire saga, with a lot of welcome callbacks to iconic themes from the original trilogy.

For example, because of the resurrected presence of Ian McDiarmid’s legendary, villainous Emperor Palpatine, the Imperial March makes a triumphant return, along with Palpatine’s appropriately dark and sinister throne room motif.

Williams has also come up with a new episodic theme, bearing the film’s title, The Rise of Skywalker, that is moving and poignant, with a sense of wistful reflection and a view to a hopeful new future.

And for a first (and possibly the last) in a Star Wars score, the opening arrangement of the main title theme, along with the fanfare, appears near the conclusion of the end credits, perhaps signifying the final curtain call, at least for the beloved original trilogy characters.

In what is most likely his final Star Wars soundtrack, John Williams offers up one of the series’ best musical entries, right up there with A New Hope, Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi, and The Force Awakens.

--Raj Manoharan

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017), by John Williams

There is one thing you can count on regarding a Star Wars score by John Williams – while the soundtracks may vary in quality like the films themselves, they are still heads and shoulders above the majority of original motion picture music.

Such is the case with the music for Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi. Once again, the octogenarian composer and conductor turns in an exhilarating and majestic score, replete with the blaring fanfare, main theme, sweeping new motifs, and the all-encompassing finale.

The only exception this time around is a new episodic theme that is not as compelling or as intriguing as the ones for the original trilogy and Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens. This could be because Williams, like any artist, is only as good as the material or muse that inspires him. As enjoyable and entertaining a Star Wars entry as The Last Jedi is, it does take some weird and wacky turns and has a clunky midsection, especially involving the casino gambling world of Canto Bight.

This has happened before in the Star Wars franchise, particularly in the case of the much-maligned prequel trilogy. Not all of it was terrible, but a lot of it was pedestrian and uninspired, and even Williams’ brilliance could not elevate the material. In other words, Williams was as unimpressed as the rest of us, and it shows in those musical scores.

The good news here is that regardless, the music of The Last Jedi is far superior to that of the prequel trilogy and is one of John Williams’ better works. Like the film itself, it is a worthwhile entry in the series.

--Raj Manoharan

Saturday, February 8, 2020

Robert Conrad (1935-2020)

Robert Conrad was the star of the classic 1960s television series, The Wild, Wild West, in which he played James T. West, a Secret Service agent working for President Ulysses S. Grant.

I had the pleasure and honor of interviewing Conrad by telephone in 1995 when he was promoting his new show at the time, High Sierra Search and Rescue.

He had also just turned 60 years old that year, and he said to me, “I'm 6-O and on the go.” Later that week, I saw him repeat that exact same phrase on Live with Regis and Kathy Lee. That was pretty cool.

He also starred in Stephen J. Cannell's late 1970s/early 1980s TV series, Baa Baa Black Sheep (aka Black Sheep Squadron) and appeared alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sinbad in the 1993 Christmas comedy, Jingle All the Way.

Conrad was 84 years old at the time of his passing.

--Raj Manoharan