Concept albums aren't solely the prerogative of grandiose rock bands, torch singers and producers with big ideas. As new albums by Jackson Berkey, Morgan Fisher and Carol Albert demonstrate, the piano and other keyboards, too, can be stars of thematic projects:
JACKSON BERKEY, with the Soli Deo Gloria Cantorum; "The Mountains and the Sea" (SDG Records/SDGCD 92). * * *"Fresh Aire" fans should recognize the name of Jackson Berkey, Mannheim Steamroller's innovative keyboard player. And they would hear familiar presentational styles in his new album, "The Mountains and the Sea." Nevertheless, this is not "Fresh Aire 8" but an ambitious, impressionistic tone poem. In fact, if we're applying art terms, maybe "pointillist" would be more appropriate, for Berkey's piano, synthesizers, recorders and percussion are more like dots and dashes and spots of harmonic color than brushstrokes meant to be representative of nature.
But let's take another tack. "The Mountains and the Sea" is in essence an aural travelogue, one capturing the grandeur and symbiosis of mountains, water and sea. The Appalachians and the East Coast's Fall Line in particular figure prominently, though not exclusively, in titles given the tracks: "Appalachian Images," "Smoky Mountain Dulcimer," "Newfound Gap," "Shenandoah Memories." And it isn't surprising to learn from a cover note that the music has been "blended with spectacular nature photography in the award-winning `American Visions' videocassette series."
On its own, "The Mountains and the Sea" is one of those musical creations that might appeal to those who appreciate a certain cathedral ambiance in the background as they do other things. Or maybe its more appropriate for those able to engage memories and imaginations to fit the music. (For example, when listening to the album I feel compelled to turn down the lights, don the headphones and let the hypnotic music take me on a little mental holiday.)
Melody, traditionally speaking, is not paramount in "The Mountains and the Sea." Images and atmosphere are, and Berkey helps us envision natural settings by generously employing sound effects - bird calls and chirps, insect noises, the wind, thunder, and water gurgling, burbling, cascading, falling and crashing in waves. The Soli Deo Gloria Cantorum, directed by Almeda Berkey, adds choral majesty throughout, in wordless vocalise and by interpolating passages from the folk song "Shenandoah" and Martin Luther's "A Mighty Fortress."
MORGAN FISHER; "Echoes of Lennon" (Global Pacific-Kitty Records/GPD 351). * * *
For almost 30 years, music of the Beatles, and of John, Paul, George and Ringo on their own, has been fair game for reinterpretation by singers great, middling and atrocious; by symphony orchestras and classical ensembles; and by pop, big band, jazz and, recently, new-age instrumental artists. Keyboard musician and pecussionist Morgan Fisher is one of the latest in a long, long line, and his focus, as the title "Echoes of Lennon" implies, is the work of John Lennon. Specifically, all 10 tracks re-explore songs - most familiar, some not - composed by Lennon after the Beatles era, or on the cusp of the big breakup.
One word pretty much describes all of the melodies on "Echoes": dreamy.
But "dreamy" itself encompasses other descriptions. "Mind Games," for instance, floats, taking on a new meaning. "Oh My Love" and "Grow Old With Me" bring to mind "spacey." "Jealous Guy" is spare yet exotic. "How?" uses a harmonica effect backed by subtle, psychedelic snippets for a meditative mood.
Another simplistic term also fits Fisher's approach: slow. In fact, the cumulative result after several songs is downright sleepy. But interesting arrangements of "Beautiful Boy" (one of several with an Oriental shading), "Give Peace a Chance-Happy X'mas (War Is Over)" and a stately, vaguely Vangelis-like "Imagine" attract attention.
Probably the most affecting track of the collection is an almost 6-minute impressionistic setting of Lennon's "Love." The song starts delicately, with a synthesized rhythm and sparse, resonating piano. Then Yoko Ono herself adds the lyrics, spoken softly like apoem, with echoes and reiteration: "Love is real/Real is love/Love is feeling/Feeling love/Love is wanting/To be loved. . . ."
On the back of the album Ono offers a quote, commenting on Fisher's approach to "Love," but her observation is pertinent to all of the interpretations on "Echoes of Lennon." "By slowing down the music to its extreme limit," she says, "Morgan Fisher has allowed the musical notes to float in a space the size of the universe."
In fact, one suspects this album is rather more to Yoko's taste than to John's - but it's nice to think he too would enjoy its gentle, minimalistic take on his musical legacy.
CAROL ALBERT; "Love in Your Eyes: Piano Themes" (IC-Digit Music/IC 720.162). * * 1/2
Besides being one of the prettiest numbers on the album, "Song Without Words" accurately describes three-quarters of the dozen performances on Carol Albert's cozy album "Love in Your Eyes." Those nine are, of course, instrumentals, and far from being gauzy or fragmentary, they are songs in which, instead of vocals, pianos, synthesizers and other instruments speak - their cadence and phrasing seeming to enunciate unspoken lyrics.
Words, of course, aren't needed for Albert and her supporting cast to fulfill the musical promises of titles like "Below the Border," featuring, besides her piano, Melvin Miller's obligatory trumpet; "Castles Under the Sea," which opens with liquid harp effects; the light-jazz "The Sun and the Moon," co-starring Skip Lane's saxophones; and the final, moving "Farewell." As these arrangements hint, "Love in Your Eyes" is more than simply the "Piano Themes" referred to on the album's cover. Albert's piano and synthesizers are generally at center stage, but they also sometimes play a secondary role.
Nor is this simply an instrumental collection. Three songs - "Captivated by You," "Open My Heart" and "Lady With Grey Hair" - include Albert's vocals. The first two are lyrical love letters; the third is a cautionary song about lost love. Albert's voice, if challenged here and there, is pleasant enough and pop-jazzy in a Lani Hall sort of way. And even the songs with words contribute to the comfortably romantic atmosphere of "Love in Your Eyes."
RATINGS: four stars (* * * * ), excellent; three stars (* * * ), good; two stars (* * ), fair; one star (* ), poor, with 1/2 representing a higher, intermediate grade.