Reviews 04-05-2010

Music Reviews 



First Day Back From Yesterday

by Lenny Kaplan

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First Day Back From Yesterday is the solo piano debut of WA composer/teacher Lenny Kaplan, and what an enjoyable and varied collection it is! Consisting of six original pieces and four arrangements, the music ranges from smooth ballads to blues to standards, with each piece telling its own story in a unique musical voice. A lifelong musician, Kaplan plays a variety of instruments, studied at San Francisco State and The SF Conservatory of Music, and has had more than twenty years of teaching experience. Kaplan’s music has the ease of someone who is completely comfortable with his piano and allows it to do much of his speaking for him.

First Day Back From Yesterday is an exceptional first album and a great introduction to Kaplan’s music. The title track begins the album. A warm and melodic love song, Kaplan’s wife wrote lyrics for it about living in the “now.” Kaplan’s arrangement of “Michael Row Your Boat Ashore” is a very pleasant surprise. Slower and more reverent than you usually hear it, with a lovely improvisation in the middle, this often-heard folk song takes on new meaning and grace. My favorite track is “Reunion (McMaster Family),” which is a musical depiction of an 80th birthday celebration and family reunion for Kaplan’s mother-in-law. In the liner notes, Kaplan says that his wife’s family is “full of larger than life characters,” and the piece is an assortment of musical themes based on various people, emotions, and events of the reunion. It’s fascinating to hear how Kaplan seamlessly binds such diverse themes into a cohesive whole. Great stuff!  Alec Wilder’s standard, “Blackberry Winter,” has an elegant melody and Kaplan’s arrangement retains the jazz flavor of the period when the song was composed. “Kitchen Dance” is about “the confusing looking but well orchestrated chaos that precedes a great meal.” The piece is not as chaotic as all that, but the spirit of light-hearted fun makes it a delight. Richard Rodgers’ “My Funny Valentine” is one of my favorite standards (right after Gershwin’s “Summertime”!), and Kaplan’s dreamy arrangement is a beauty! “Nora” is a graceful and loving tribute to a close friend of the family - what an incredible gift! “Walking In the Garden With Hymn” is based on the Scandinavian hymn “The Great Amen” and also contains bits of Pachelbel’s Canon interwoven into several themes - inspiring! “Birthday Tune” was one of Kaplan’s first original pieces, composed for his wife - a warm and gentle closing. 

First Day Back From Yesterday is a great choice if you are looking for melodic solo piano based on stories about life. It is available from , Amazon, CD Baby, and iTunes. Recommended!

Reviewed by Kathy Parson's Mainly Piano website reprinted with permission on Ambient Visions


The Path Ahead

by Rocky Fretz

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The Path Ahead ... And Steps Then Taken is pianist/composer Rocky Fretz’s eighth album to date, but my first exposure to his music. Where have I been? This outstanding album was produced by the legendary Will Ackerman and won the 2009 Independent Music Award for Best New Age Album - with very good reason, I might add. Most of the twelve tracks are solo piano, but Ackerman and some of the Imaginary Road Studio regulars including Ackerman himself (acoustic guitar), Eugene Friesen (cello), Jeff Oster (flugelhorn), Michael Manring (fretless bass), T-Bone Wolk (electric bass, mandolin, accordion), and Noah Wilding (vocals) appear on a few ensemble tracks.

The music is varied, ranging from delicate and soothing to more upbeat and energetic, clearly demonstrating Fretz’s versatility as an artist.I have heard some really good music so far this year, but this is near the top of the list. Warm, passionate, and optimistic, this is music to savor over and over again, discovering new things each time. 

The Path Ahead begins with “Kim’s Song,” a gorgeous piano solo written for Fretz’s wife. Gracefully flowing with just a touch of country flavor here and there, it’s a heartfelt tribute. “Leave It All Behind” is slow, dreamy, and introspective. “New Life Lullaby” brings in subtle bass and Noah Wilding’s haunting voice, adding washes of soothing color behind the gentle piano melody. “A Pleasant Stay” is a lazy, warm piece of solo piano tranquility - beyond “pleasant” and more like “blissful”! Love it!!! “Steps Then Taken” picks up the tempo, adding percussion with an infectious rhythm, jazz strings, and guitars to the piano, this time more of a percussion instrument - an awesome collaboration. Great stuff! “All We Are (Is In This Moment Now)” is a stunning ballad that overflows with deep emotion and elegant beauty. “Childhood’s Hymn” is a quiet, reverent meditation. I really don’t have a favorite piece on this album - they are all exceptional - but if I had to choose just one, it would probably be “Thoughts Are Us,” a soft-spoken but powerfully emotional duet for cello and piano. Will Ackerman’s “Pictures” is the only piece that wasn’t composed by Fretz, and this graceful and evocative piano solo is a lovely addition to the eclectic mix. “Stickney Brook Dance” is a study of the constant movement of a brook: sometimes slow and lingering, sometimes rushing, sometimes deep, sometimes shallow, always sparkling and pure. “The Path Ahead” begins as a slow, thoughtful piano piece with guitar accompaniment. The second movement is much livelier, adding percussion and strings as well as a sense of excitement and adventure. What a fantastic album! 

If Rocky Fretz is new to you (or if he isn’t), trust me and get yourself a copy of The Path Ahead. They don’t get much better than this! I give it my highest recommendation. CDs and downloads are available from, Amazon, CD Baby, and iTunes.

Reviewed by Kathy Parson's Mainly Piano website reprinted with permission on Ambient Visions


Wings II: Return to Freedom

by 2002

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The year 2009 has been a very eclectic year for 2002 that have polarized their musical leanings starting off with the very progressive album A Word In The Wind  only to return to their mellow roots courtesy of Return To Freedom. The reaction to their latest creation will likely be divided with some viewing this as a step backwards and others welcoming the Copus’ return to what they do best with their mellow madness. No matter what your preference is, be ready to adapt and retune your ears as Randy and Pamela deliver a more ambient musical blend that is drenched in luxurious warmth and softness. 

After facing the setback of their former recording label disappearing, 2002 returned to the comfort zone of self promoting their album on Galactic Playground Music. Their way of doing business was also extended to their music as Return To Freedom will take you back to their impressive 1997 release Chrysalis which essentially established the flagship sound that has become 2002. It was at this time that Randy and Pam were beginning to bring a little more structure and melody to their ambient and spatial music and Return To Freedom relives that era. 

The album begins with the gorgeous title track that has all the bells and whistles that we can expect from 2002 including the chimes, swirling but soft synthesizers complimented by Randy’s beguiling guitar work. The song is followed by the mysterious “Memory Of The Sky” whose melody brings to mind a less energetic “Free To Fly” from their prior album, only this time shrouded in a very slow and purposeful state that will leave you floating in the air without the assistance of any altered state of chemical dependency. 

Return To Freedom clocks in over 64 minutes with a total of 10 tracks that all run over 6 minutes long. The musical theme is much less structured than some of their recent material, and seems very purposeful in allowing you as the listener to escape the complexities of life. It seems the deeper you get into the album cuts the more spatial it becomes allowing to you to just drift away to your own personal escape. Though the loose structure returns on “Athena” with Pamela’s reserved flute work bringing out the melody without interfering with the ambient theme. If you really prefer the spatial theme that they seem to be exploring, fast forward to the cosmic “Stillpoint” that would be a terrific soundtrack for an evening of stargazing. 

2002 geared us up at the start of 2009 with A Word In The Word and have now done the complete opposite courtesy of the healthy dose of relaxation therapy via Return To Freedom. No matter where your preference may lie on the 2002 music rainbow, the results are still the same...a musical delight of colors, shades and hues to escape from the routines and worries of a typical day.

Reviewed by Michael Debbage from the Mainly Piano website reprinted with permission on
Ambient Visions

Montagnola: Dedicated to Hermann Hesse

by Bernward Koch

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Montagnola: Dedicated to Hermann Hesse is a very different album from German pianist/composer Bernward Koch, known in the US primarily for his light and beautiful releases on the Real Music label. The primary difference with Montagnola is that it is improvised solo piano. Hermann Hesse (1877-1962) is the most widely-read German-speaking author of the 20th century, and Koch has been an avid reader of his works since childhood. Montagnola is the place where Hesse retreated to make a fresh start in 1919 after a life crisis caused by WWI and is where he wrote some of his best-known works, such as Siddartha, Steppenwolf, and Narcissus and Goldman.

The dedication of this album to Hesse is to be understood to be a symbolic fresh start, a meditation, and an inner retreat, following Hesse’s motto, “Be yourself.” The music ranges from very delicate and serene to bolder and more experimental. To understand Koch’s approach to this music, I quote from the interview he did with Stephen Cairns for the Piano-Heaven website: “I sat at the piano without any ideas. It was a risk, but one that I felt I should take, like a live concert in a wonderful atmosphere. The recording room was the Ratssaal at the town hall in Wenden, NRW. There is a very pleasant sound in this cherrywood boarded room with a nice view of a green valley. Only the recording engineer (Sebastian Meyer) and I were in the whole building, so we had the right silence and the best ambience to get my full concentration with the keys, to channel the music.” 

Montagnola begins with “Thank You For Your Love,” a warm, gentle love song that overflows with grace and tenderness. The title track is understated and very dreamy, expressing an overwhelming hope and desire for peace - gorgeous! “Dream” is also a quiet, heartfelt beauty that comes from very deep within - a favorite. “Little Ark” is another favorite, dreamy and serene, taking us away from our worries. “Playing Children” is one of two tracks that are shorter than a minute - perfect in their brevity. “Longing” is almost mournful in its deep emotion. “Maulbronn” refers to a monastery that was built during the Middle Ages in the town of the same name. Dark and imposing, it only hints at its many stories. “Snow Is Coming” is very different. During the recording session, Koch looked out the window and saw snow blowing down from the hills. Within seconds, the air was filled with snowflakes causing the piano keys to dance along with them. “Black and White” is a lovely ballad of light and shadow - like the keys on the piano. “A New Life” closes this beautiful album true to Hesse’s motto: “Be yourself.” 

Montagnola: Dedicated to Hermann Hesse is a must for Bernward Koch’s many world-wide fans. The physical CD is available in the US as an import, but download versions are available from Amazon and iTunes as well as from Strongly recommended!

Reviewed by Kathy Parson's Mainly Piano website reprinted with permission on Ambient Visions