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Reviews 01-22-2005 

 

Beams

by Agatsuma

Visit Domo's website

This CD presents us with another vision by the master of the Tsugaru-Shamisen.  Agatsuma was a child prodigy on the Tsugaru-Shamisen, a three stringed fretless banjo-like instrument.  The Shamisen is an instrument that originated in China.  Tsugaru refers to the area in the northern tip of mainland Japan.  The Japanese developed their own style of playing this instrument and the Shamisen from this area of Japan are noted for their powerful style of sound and playing, which is why it is specifically referred to by its place of origin.    

While its history is one of use in classical Japanese music, the recent revival of this instrument and Agatsuma’s incorporation of this traditional instrument into modern music is one of the most successful integrations of this kind.  The flavor of the music is most definitely Japanese folk, but the beats are clearly western.   

This CD highlights the use of the Tsugaru-Shamisen in a variety of styles of music.  Recorded on his first national tour, these original compositions highlight the ability of this instrument to be incorporated into modern music.  They also establish Agatsuma as the master of the instrument not only in his ability to play it to a variety of styles of music but also composing music that allows the blending to be seamless as well as pleasing to the ear. 

The opening track of "Beams" is an upbeat fusion of electronica and the Tsugaru-Shamisen.  Almost William Orbit in style, it features driving rhythms in the background which emphasizes the Tsugaru-Shamisen as well as Agatsuma’s ability to play the instrument in harmony with the style of music.

"In Memory of NY" gives us an “on the streets” flavor, somewhat jazz, somewhat pop, and most definitely Japanese.  This composition is well constructed and features hot jazz and cool sound of the Tsugaru-Shamisen.   

"Solitude" has a “new age” feel to it, like a gentle breeze through the cherry blossoms.  This piece features piano and Tsugaru-Shamisen, and highlights Agatsum’s mastery of the instrument. "Accustom" is a very short piece, highlighting Japanese drumming with the Tsugaru-Shamisen, and adding light elements of electronica to fill in the background, very successfully softening the rough edges but being very effective. "Fun" is exactly that.  We experience Japanese folk music, with a Latin jazz beat, funky piano, and it is a very surprising upbeat piece.  Again we are presented with another style of music where the Tsugaru-Shamisen feels right at home. 

"On Bourbon St." challenges the ear with a very blues beat that can be found in a very Japanese sound.  And it works!  Blending the Tsugaru-Shamisen with only a drum leaves you snapping your fingers as you recognize the beat and delight in the blending. 

We return to the ambient/new age feeling with a short piece called "In the Rain" which again features the Tsugaru-Shamisen blended with drums and electronica as we experience the force of a storm and gentleness of a Japanese inspired rain.  And in the track "Groovin" we again have a jazz piece with piano, drums and instead of guitar we have the Tsugaru-Shaminsen.  Again, another great composition that is upbeat and brings your feet to the dance floor. "Curfew" is a very traditional piece, overlaid on an orchestrated background.  While most of the CD focuses on East meets West, this piece is more of a very Japanese composition.  This is a very dramatic piece that gives us the roots of instrument in a very impressive composition. 

The final track is called "Blown Away" and the energy level is kicked up to give this CD a rocking finish.  Elements of Rock, jazz and the ever present Japanese folk music are blended flawlessly to leave you wanting to hear the CD again. 

After listening to this CD, you can understand how Agatsuma ‘s first CD in 2001 received the “Album of the Year” award at the Japan Gold Disc Awards.   This is a wonderful addition to your music library and if you have not heard Agatsuma before, this can be a great introduction to this style of music.

Reviewed by Margaret Foster

 

Memories of Utopia

by Robin Spielberg

Robin Spielberg's website

“Memories of Utopia” is a ten-year retrospective of Robin Spielberg’s music, loving re-recorded as piano solos. The fifteen tracks include three pieces that haven’t been recorded before, several that are presented as solo works for the first time, and a bonus track that is a wild dance remix of “A Change of Season” that needs to be heard to be believed! I have been a big fan of Robin’s music since almost the beginning of her recording career, and it has been wonderful to be able to watch her mature and blossom as an artist. “Memories of Utopia” is the perfect celebration and commemoration of that journey so far.

“Because of You” opens the collection. A loving tribute to Robin’s husband, the piece is bubbly and effervescent. “Ireland” is a favorite from Robin’s debut album, “Heal of the Hand,” and has been expanded to a full 9 1/2 minutes. I really love this piece, with its varied themes and swirling air of mystery! “Piano Parlor Soiree” is one of the new pieces, and was inspired by performances Robin has done in Belcourt Castle in Rhode Island. Very classical in scope, this piece is actually made up of several separate themes that are woven together and showcase Spielberg’s elegant and very accomplished playing style. “A Change of Season” has been another favorite for years, and I love this solo version! “Meditation” is a new piece that is dreamy and reflective - gorgeous! Any “best of” collection would be incomplete without the wonderful “A Song For Jennie,” Robin’s piece for her grandmother. In concert she tells a spellbinding story about the hardships Jennie endured travelling from Russia to join her husband in America many years ago. Jennie passed away in 2003, but her spirit lives on with this piece. “West Bank Serenade” is another favorite with its wish for peace in the Middle East. The title track comes from a score Spielberg composed for a play back in 1987 for the Atlantic Theater Company, which she co-founded. “The Nature of Time” is one of my all-time Spielberg favorites, and I’m so glad she included it in this collection! More of a “concept piece” than most of Spielberg’s compositions, I love the contrasts between the frantic pace of the first part of the piece and the slow, lazy second part. And then there is the bonus track - a total surprise. A thumping bass and some electronic effects take this beautiful piece into an entirely new realm - and it works perfectly! It reminds me of the dance remix of Ray Lynch’s “Celestial Soda Pop” on his “Best Of” collection of a few years back - I loved that one, too!

“Memories of Utopia” is an outstanding collection! If you are new to Robin Spielberg’s music, this is a wonderful introduction. If you are a longtime fan, these updated solos will be a welcome addition to your collection. Very highly recommended! The CD is currently available from www.robinspielberg.com only. It will be officially released on September 7, 2004. Brava, Robin!

Kathy Parsons
Solo Piano Publications

 

Tibet - Nada Himalaya 2

by Deuter

New Earth's website

I am familiar with Deuter from his Reiki CD’s and when this work showed up in my mailbox I noticed New Earth records did not provide the usual press release I am used to receiving which covers the background of the work and the artist.  But seeing his name, I knew this would be a good piece to review and I was not disappointed.  

 This is the second CD by Deuter of the meditative music of Tibetan bowls.  I did not have the pleasure of hearing the first work, but this one is a collection of some wondrous harmonies and deep meditative sounds that only singing bowls can bring. 

True Tibetan bowls are made of a mixture of seven metals, one each for the Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.  They are made by pouring the metal onto a flat stone and then hand shaping the bowl with a hammer. The bowl is played by rubbing the rim with a mallet, and they can produce a complex range of sound that is deep and harmonic with many overtones. The bowls are usually made by Tibetan monks for their offerings, and for their meditations on the sound.  The bowls used on this CD come from a collection of bowls owned by Chandra. 

Deuter composed and performs the pieces on this CD, and the focus is on short meditations.  The music tracks run from seven to seventeen minutes, and can be taken individually or as the complete CD.  The CD is well recorded and you don’t miss any of the tones or values that can come from a poor recording. 

This kind of musical work can get monotonous if not done properly.  Deuter has enough different value bowls and the mastery of the medium to present us with various harmonics, complimentary tones, and complex compositions to provide enough interest so the music is melodious without melody and does not drone in the background.   It can be used as a focus for meditations, or can fill the background with sounds to add a relaxing feel to the work or living environment.

This is a pleasant and surprising work on singing bowls.  You do not expect the kind of light and relaxing feeling these sounds can bring.  While working with the CD in the background, I did not overly notice the music, but when I would stop for a moment, the sounds were calming, appealing and worked gently on the mind. When I used the music for meditation, it provided a focus without being obnoxious, as sometimes these kinds of works can get from over playing the same tones to the point of distraction. If you like the subtle harmonic tones of singing bowls and want some excellent compositions for meditation or calming sounds for your home or your workspace, this CD can provide exactly what you are looking for.

Reviewed by Margaret Foster

 

Pools of Light

by Brian Kelly

Brian Kelly's website

“Pools of Light” by pianist/composer Brian Kelly is sure to be on my Top 10 favorite CDs list for 2004. An amazing debut, the album is comprised of music composed and played in a variety of styles that include jazz, classical, and world. Two of the pieces are solo piano, and the other eleven tracks include keyboards, flute, and/or percussion. Kelly’s playing style has an easy elegance that comes from a phenomenal technique and chops to burn. His music is rhythmic and lyrical, and the moods range from pensive to joyous to ethereal. Despite the changing moods, the CD as a whole has a wonderful flow and cohesiveness, creating an uplifting and relaxing musical experience.

“Open Sky” opens the album with a buoyant, carefree piece that is full of rhythm and excitement. The title track is much more meditative and soothing, and was inspired by a trip to Maui. “Cool Blue” is a great jazz piece for flute, piano, percussion, and bass - this one sounds like fun to play! ”Sacred Waters” is a surprising little percussion interlude inspired by a waterfall in a jungle on Maui. My favorite track is “Troubadour,“ an ensemble piece where Kelly played all of the instruments himself (piano, sampled guitar, bass, and drums). A little mysterious, it was influenced by Kelly’s years of singing a capella Renaissance music. Parts of the piece swirl and dance, and others are a bit quieter. I really like the energy in this one! “Angels Breathing” is very new agey with floating sounds, gentle bells, and a beautiful piano part. “With Eyes Closed” is another favorite. Rhythmic and kind of dark, it, too, has a compelling energy and spirit that are addictive. “Home At Last” is a gorgeous piano solo with a beautiful flow. “Calling For Rain” is more of a smooth jazz piece, a little dark, a bit mysterious, and there’s that catchy, compelling rhythm again! Good stuff! The second piano solo, “Speak Your Heart,” is much showier and full of passion - it really shows what Kelly can do at the piano. “When Stars Align” closes the album with an upbeat and breezy little jazz piece.

“Pools of Light” is an outstanding debut, and Brian Kelly is a very versatile musician who is comfortable playing many styles. Samples and purchases are available at www.briankelly.com , and the CD is available at amazon.com and cdbaby.com. Very highly recommended!

Kathy Parsons
Solo Piano Publications

 

8 Shades of Sound

by Formaria

Chillfactor10's website

Formaria is actually Pete Kelly whom we know from Igneous Flame, Nick Kemp also known as Darkness within Darkness and Mary Whitaker whose manipulated and treated vocals permeate this entire project. The vocals from Mary are wordless vocals but they have a calming effect on you as you move through the 9 tracks included on this CD. The music is quickly established as a peaceful, relaxing and contemplative experience and will require little of the listener except to lean back and let the waves of sound wash over you. According to the liner notes Mary’s vocals were recorded at 32 bit  resolution using high quality microphones and it is apparent as you listen to Mary’s vocals drift in and out of the soundscapes that have been created on 8 Shades of Sound that they are well defined even through the processing that was done to them.

Pete Kelly and Nick Kemps's guitar work is excellent as they drift in and out of a song with the same subtlety as Mary’s vocals. Never overpowering the ambient mood of the music but simply adding to the textures that have been created within each piece. One of the problems that I have with some CD’s is that they are uneven when it comes to creating an environment similar to that which was created on 8 Shades of Sound. These uneven works end up moving from upbeat rhythmic songs to floating spacey music and back again all within the space of the same CD. This is not always a negative aspect of a piece of music but there are times that you need to decide on one direction because it will offer the listeners a stronger piece of music in the end. Pete and company have maintained from first to last an even approach to the music contained on this CD and that is what makes it such an easy CD to listen to. This would be the kind of music that I could put on my stereo at night before going to bed and I would be able to drift off to sleep without any jarring changes to the music that would disturb that relaxing feel that the entire CD offers. There are a few artists out there who want to throw everything into each project and sometimes that is not conducive to maintaining a thread of continuity that moves through the whole work. 8 Shades of Sound takes that thread from the 1st song Easter Morning and keeps it intact to the very end of Infinity’s End.  

Even though the music has common elements that flow throughout the entire work there are enough variations as you move along that the music does not become boring but manages to hold your attention throughout its length. I think that the last song takes on a slightly darker feel than the rest of the CD as it closes things out but it is well within the parameters that were established by the songs leading up to it to still be an integral part of the whole. I have heard many projects that the vocals were a distraction from the music that I was listening to because they became too prominent in the mix but 8 Shades of Sound manages to not fall into that trap and uses Mary’s vocals as another element of the landscape rather than a dominant feature. And when her vocals do come to the forefront they captivate you and you can hear the classical training that lies at the core of that voice which is being used more as an instrument to add color to the landscape of the music that is always ebbing and flowing behind Mary’s voice.  

All in all this is a great piece of work by Formaria. The guitars, the samples and Mary’s vocals form a seamless whole throughout the project and creates an atmosphere that is both soothing and contemplative but also mysterious and haunting. I think that those listeners who pick up this CD will be pleased with what they hear coming out of their speakers when they get the disc home.  An enjoyable listening experience and a recommended purchase.  Favorite track is # 7 Caspian Sea. Wonderful vocals and delicate guitar riffs. Hats off to these fine artists and I hope that we have not heard the last of Formaria.

Reviewed by Michael Foster

 

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