West River Records (2012)
If one could perform the aural equivalent of a blind taste test on an astute listener of the compilation CD The Gathering, that person might guess that the album is a “newly discovered” collection of tracks from the archives of the pioneering instrumental label Windham Hill. If that same listener was informed that the tracks were selected and sequenced by none other than Will Ackerman himself (founder of Windham Hill in 1976), that same listener would probably exclaim “See! I told you so.” However, that listener would be wrong. These are all tracks from independent artists, each of whom are recording and releasing on their own label. The album’s uniting factor is that the estimable (I am tempted to call him “legendary” although that might imply he is either dead or retired) Ackerman produced or co-produced each song .
However, one could conceivably make a solid case for the assertion that the 22 (!!!) tracks on The Gathering could have come from the vaults of Windham Hill. Each of the artists’ songs (lifted from their respective albums) exemplifies the best qualities of that ground-breaking label– the elegant simplicity of relatively sparse acoustic instrumentation played in a thoroughly unostentatious manner, filled with honest sincerity, an uncommon depth of feeling, and an abundance of technical talent. Not only did Ackerman produce/co-produce all the albums that these songs were culled from, but in addition, nearly all of the tracks were recorded at his Imaginary Road studio (in the mountains of Vermont). Perhaps one would not be remiss in stating that The Gathering is, in fact, a Windham Hill compilation minus being on the label, that is.
Having reviewed many of the albums featured on this amazing collection (and it is amazing when one listens to it all the way through), I recognized many of the songs on the first playing, while a few others were brand new to me. However, no matter how many of these artists’ CDs you may currently own, I urge you to still consider adding this to your collection (hey, I’ll bet you own at least one of the Windham Hill collections, don’t you?). However, since these artists do not, in fact, share a label, it seems highly unlikely that you own more than half (if that) of these artists’ albums. And, in that case, you really have no reason whatsoever to not purchase this puppy pronto (provided you enjoy excellent acoustic instrumental music, that is).
The sheer variety of the music on The Gathering is impressive, yet Ackerman still managed to select tracks which present a cohesive musical vision. Nothing here races too fast and nothing here moves too slow. While piano and guitar dominate the pieces as lead instruments (plus a song by flugelhorn player Jeff Oster, that being the funky “Serengeti”), the assorted accompanists who are sprinkled throughout the cuts more than compensates for the two-pronged approach. If you have made the acquaintance of any of the Imaginary Road-recorded works, you know that Ackerman works with a group of stellar guest stars whom I refer to as “the usual suspects” including such luminaries as cellist Eugene Friesen, vocalist Noah Wilding, bassist Michael Manring, and English horn player Jill Haley, among many others.
With so many tracks on the CD, singling any of them out, except as personal favorites, would require a two-part review. However, I will mention a few songs merely so that you, dear reader, can gauge the depth of musical magic that awaits you herein: “Taoist Winds” from guitarist Paul Jensen features his adroit fingerstyle picking matched by evocative cello, pianist Kathryn Kaye’s “Mountain Laurel” exudes a flowing sensation of warm nostalgia colored with a shading of melancholy, the appropriately titled “Feeling Sunshine” from down-under pianist Fiona Joy Hawkins is a jaunty tune on which her lead is counterpointed by buzzing didgeridoo plus an undercurrent of midtempo percussion, “Porch With a View” features the superlative talents of guitarist Frank Smith (joined by cello) in a sublime, soft, yet sad ballad, the guitar and vocal combination on Shambhu’s “Hide and Seek” evokes a tropical island feel, somewhat akin to the many fine works of Bruce BecVar, pianist Denise Young paints a sepia-toned minimalist portrait on the forlorn “Livia’s Song,” Ann Sweeten’s characteristic flowing melodicism can be distinctly heard on the peaceful “Dawn on Red Mountain,” and Ken Verheecke plays his acoustic guitar sans accompaniment on the impressionistic “Forever.” Ackerman himself, accompanied by strings, drums, and bass, closes out the album with “The Wheel,” a moderately energetic conclusion to all the great music which has preceded it.
The Gathering may be–no, is, the perfect gift for any acoustic instrumental music lover. I’d find it hard to believe that anyone will recognize every single artist here and it’s equally unlikely she/he will own more than a handful of the original recordings. However, the selection of specific tracks and their sequencing is so spot on that prior ownership is irrelevant. I have been sent the majority of these artists’ works for review and I still found myself hitting the PLAY button each time when The Gathering ended–I simply couldn’t get enough of this music. Major kudos to Ackerman (and mastering engineer Tom Eaton) and, of course, all the talented artists (and their many accompanists) who grace this album, which is surely one of the best compilations in the 30+ year history of this genre.
Zone Music Reporter