Reviews

VARIOUS ARTISTS

The Gathering

West River Records (2012)

What Goes Around…

Twenty years ago compilation albums were de rigueur. Labels like Narada, Windham Hills and Higher Octave all had occasional offerings of their artists’ best works. Some were seasonal like Winter Solstice and some were collections by instrument or subject e.g. The Bach Variations and Passion – Music of The Guitar. It was a way for listeners to get a good sampling and make choices while being entertained. The tradition lives on in producer Will Ackerman’s recording, The Gathering. The legendary guitarist and founder of Windham Hills present twenty two extraordinary musicians on various instruments to delight the new listener as well as the old. I was fortunate to review many of these fine artists, so I will stick to the ones I have not. Every track is worth hearing as they represent the contemporary instrumental music genre at its best. This is Ackerman’s freshman debut of the West River Records label and frankly, he could not have chosen any better. I am not sure if this album is purely acoustic, but there are not a lot of electric-powered instruments involved. Another plus.

Glastenbury, VT by Masako is delightful glimpse into the Norman Rockwell age of America using solo piano as the medium. With a nod to George Gershwin, Masako’s composition wipes away the years and takes you to a place at the foot of the Green Mountains. It is a bygone era when dusty back roads got you from here to there, neighbors invited you in for iced tea and evenings were an opportunity to visit and talk without the use of electronic devices. Masako’s rendering is sharp and clear.

One of my immediate favorites on The Gathering is a song by guitarist Rudy Perrone called The Prophet. It is one of those tunes that, once you have heard it, just do not fade into memory and I for one really want to know the story behind it. Perhaps it is a tune of disbelief as in “I once met a man who said I would”, kind of thing. The easy going tune is beautiful in its simplicity, but the principal behind it remains complex. I love a good mystery.

Todd Boston contributes a lighthearted tune called The Brightest Night. He uses gentle guitar and a sweet serving of violin, and the song sparkles intensely. It is a tale of the warmest breeze, the darkest sky, and the most dazzling stars that Nature could muster all in the name of eternal romance.

Pianist Rocky Fretz weighs in with a heartfelt tune titled Kim’s Song. The solo piano ballad gently rolls along in your mind like an old time vignette. It is a walk along the path with hands held and fingers laced. It is the smile that lingers and that makes the earnest impression on the heart. This is the sound of a memory being born.

Livia’s Song by solo pianist Denise Young is a lento waltz that uses baby steps for the most part. Gentle, sweet and warm this song is a dance on daddy’s shoes kind of song with pretty ballerinas and afternoon teas with friends that are stuffed rather than animated. The song is also somewhat nostalgic in its melody, but that is a good thing as it brings back memories of the superlative kind.

I could easily learn to play Forever, a song by guitarist Ken Verheecke. I say that because the tune is quite simple, but the implications are astounding. I have to admit that I found the song to be sad, but not in a way created by despair, but rather by melancholy. There is a subdued sweetness to the tune that suggests promises made and love formed in the deepest place of the heart. The song would be right at home as a theme to a love story or a daytime drama. I listened to this song so many times that I think I could play it the way it was meant to be…by heart.

And finally blessed with abundant innate talent, producer Will Ackerman contributes a tune from his New England Roads album called The Wheel. I always thought that the wheel is the part that touches the road and carries you endlessly to places uncharted. Ackerman extraordinary guitar playing paired with a lush violin score by Steve Schuch allows the mind make endless discoveries. This album is highly recommended.

- reviewed by RJ Lannan on 1/20/2013

VARIOUS ARTISTS

The Gathering

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.

Rating: Excellent

Bill Binkelman
Zone Music Reporter

“A Place Called Home” Review

A Place Called Home is one of those rare albums that not only showcases an exceptional guitarist at the peak of his craft, but shows how a truly gifted composer, even with only a single instrument at his disposal, can write subtle and straightforward pieces of immense emotional and musical depth. Is this folk music? Is this adult contemporary? Is it some kind of ambient Americana? Amazingly, the answer to all of these questions is ‘yes’. This disc truly has something for everyone. Listen to this music NOW.

–Darrell Burgan of Blue Water Records, May 2004

“A Place Called Home” Review

Seldom does the re-mastering of an already enjoyable recording yield such a rich and vibrant result as it does with acoustic guitarist Ken Verheecke’s outstanding re-release of a place called home(originally released in 2004). Verheecke’s gentle and heartfelt guitar playing is literally reborn on this CD, enhanced by new clarity and depth of sound. In addition to the new engineering aspects, the graphics were likewise upgraded (the original artwork was already pretty good). The new cover art, a farmhouse surrounded by a wheat field in the warm glow of a setting sun, merges with the music, both of them resonating feelings of peace, contentment, and genuine friendliness. Hearth and home, profound beauty disguised as utter simplicity, are heard throughout this exemplary recording. Verheecke’s adroit technique (sometimes solo, sometimes multi-tracked) and artist’s soul are amply demonstrated on every song. 

In an earlier review, I wrote “It’s hard to not be touched by the opening Dawn’s Embrace which manages to be both affirming and laid-back at the same time, or the gentle minimalism of the closing title track, which ‘feels’ like walking up the lane to your house after a long day and catching sight of loved ones through a window, secure in the knowledge that a warm hearth, delicious meal, and good company await you inside.” All of that praise is amplified and underscored on the re-release, especially on the closing number, which has become one of my absolute favorite acoustic guitar pieces, period. I would put it up against anything by anyone (yes, even Will Ackerman). It is simply drop dead gorgeous and so heartfelt that it may even bring tears to your eyes if you are as sentimental as I am.

Another fact that I was reminded of when I played this new version of a place called home is how, much like Ackerman, Verheecke is able retain a soft gentle “candle in the window” mood throughout the album without being either repetitive or straying so far as to disturb the smooth flow of the album in its entirety. Nothing here will make you kick up your heels, granted, but you’re not going to get bored either (if you love acoustic guitar, that is). The pace of the entire album is slow and measured but not in a morose or somber way. It’s an instantly inviting, friendly, and engaging CD, and may strike you that it seems strangely familiar, but not in the way of imitation, but more like the feel of a well-worn shirt or sweater. It just “feels good”. 

I referred to a place called home as “an acoustic ambient album” in my earlier review and I stand by that statement. The music would easily fill a room with peace, calm, and invite the listener to indulge in reflection or remembrance of a most pleasant variety. Of course, direct listening would allow you to delve into Verheecke’s talent and this new re-mastering is ideal for just that since now the tone and clarity of his guitar sparkles like dew on morning grass. a place called home may be the perfect CD to play while driving the back roads of rural America in the early evening with the sun tinting the western sky orange, then pink, then deep violet-blue. If you have to restrict your traveling to the armchair type, though, the album will still serve you in excellent stead, guiding you in your mind’s eye through a landscape of rolling hills, wheat fields glowing golden in the sun, and the day’s end promise of arriving home, a tasty dinner waiting on the table, and good cheer from loved ones to greet you. Simply put, it doesn’t get any better than this CD. I have fallen in love with a place called home all over again and with this newly spiffed-up version, the recording wins my highest recommendation and is nigh essential for all lovers of acoustic guitar music.

- reviewed by Bill Binkelman on 6/19/2006