Review of the Album “Undercurrent” by Michele McLaughlin

May 9, 2015 by Admin

imageUnlike many of the artists whose music we have reviewed over the past year or so, talented pianist and composer Michele McLaughlin is not the product of years of piano lessons, understudy with world renowned pianists, or a world class music school education. Although Michele did start playing the piano at age 5, she did so without much guidance, and so is, “astonishingly,” completely self-taught.

Inspired, when she was a child, by a live piano performance of the great George Winston, her first few albums were played on an electric piano, self-recorded, and given only to friends and family as Christmas gifts. However, as Michele has honed her skills, her more recent works have received multiple nominations, accolades, and awards, including “Album of the Year”, “Song of the Year” and “Top Picks”. In her own words, “I am in a constant state of evolution and growth, and I’m always trying to improve my skills and stretch outside my comfort zone…” She also now owns her own recording studio, and runs a concert series in her home in Salt Lake City, Utah, which showcases renowned pianists from all over the world.

In a manner similar to other well established piano artists, such as Mark Pinkus and Grammy Award Winner Laura Sullivan, Michele’s piano compositions can best be described as “musical storytelling” or “piano painting.” Much of her music is inspired by places and things she has seen during her many travels around the world, personal experiences, or tragedies or hardships she has endured in her life. Michele’s music can also be described as melodious and unabashedly emotional.

Her latest album, “Undercurrent,” is her fifteenth, and continues her penchant for compositions that convey her emotional reactions to various life experiences. The music is quite expressive– varying in style and mood from quiet and reflective to slow and pensive to joyful and energetic.

imageThe first track, “11,000 Miles,” is a spirited, bouncy, upbeat, and fast moving work inspired by a two-month, 11,000 mile US concert tour McLaughlin did in 2013, and seeks to convey the wonder and joy of traveling to new places and seeing new things. On this work, Michele clearly shows just how far she has come from those early days. The music is clever and adventurous, and provides an impressive opening track for the album.

A similar track is “Changing Skies,” which was inspired by Michele’s experience “watching the sky and clouds from the window of my mountainside home in the Salt Lake Valley. ” It presents a romantic and lively mood with conspicuous “waltz like” qualities. “Starstuff,” which was inspired by Carl Sagan’s quote “We are all made from starstuff,” has a similar brighter, positive, and energetic quality, as does “Full of Love,” “Melody in Motion” and “Never Give Up.” As the title “Never Give Up” clearly implies, the message here is “….no matter how difficult times may seem, there is always beauty in life and light at the end of the tunnel. “

Other tracks, such as “Living In Awe, ” along with “Evolution” and “On My Own” convey a different mood. Their slower, more subdued, peaceful, and reflective attitude suggest a sense of completion, resignation, or resolution — perhaps a sense that joy and contentment in life can be found in not wishing for “what is not” and accepting “what is.”

Somewhat darker than any of the other tracks, “The Space Between Us” was influenced by the physical separation Michele felt between and her sister after she (Michele) moved a long distance away. Sincere feelings of melancholy, sadness, and longing permeate this track and its poignant melody.

The title track, “Undercurrent,” was inspired by the Plato quote “Always be kind, for everyone is fighting a hard battle.” In Michele’s own words, “…it occurred to me that while there are many aspects of our lives that may seem peaceful and calm and wonderful and beautiful on the surface, we are all battling something, however big or small, underneath.” The music is more down tempo, darker, with a profound sense of turmoil and struggle.

“Synesthesia” is the final track and has a lively, but also moody, soulful, and “falling-rain” quality. One can easily imagine being in a car driving on an isolated road with pouring and blowing rain inundating the windshield.

In summary, “Undercurrent” is a creative, sincere, expressive, and entertaining album and one that is certain to resonate in some way with all who hear it. Highly recommended.

Review of the Album “Patterns of Sun and Shade” by Kathryn Kaye

May 4, 2015 by Admin

imageComposer, organist, vocalist, and pianist Kathryn Kaye began playing piano at the age of four and later trained as a classical musician. And while she has performed professionally as a folk singer and soprano soloist in concerts, recitals, and operas, and on television in both Germany and the United States, it as a pianist that she has truly excelled. Grammy Award winner Will Ackerman, who has produced all of Kathryn’s albums, has called her “as talented a composer and pianist as any with whom I’ve ever had the pleasure to work.” Coming from a producer who has worked with some of the best, that is indeed high praise.

Her music ranges from traditional melodic and emotional compositions to more contemporary, meditative pieces, and draws heavily on classical music, Jazz, New Age music, and the simple harmonies of folk music and hymns from the Appalachian Mountains of southeastern Kentucky that she heard, sang, and played as a child. As Kathryn states, “those beautiful old songs often carry a message that includes a mixture of hope, loss, sadness, peace, and longing.”

Whatever the influences, Kathryn’s music always manifests a gentle elegance and an emotional sincerity that touches the listener in profoundly personal ways.

On Kathryn’s latest album, “Patterns of Sun and Shade,” she reflects her strong personal connection with nature and presents an acoustic vision of “sunlight” and “shadow.” In her own words: “I’ve always been fascinated by sunlight filtered through leaves or bare branches, the play of light and shade in clouds and high mountains, and shadows on a rock wall or on a narrow path winding through the woods.”

imageThe album was recorded at Will Ackerman’s Imaginary Road Studios and was recorded and mastered by Tom Eaton. Contributing artists include Gus Sebring (French horn), Jeff Haynes (percussion), Tony Levin (Chapman stick), Tom Eaton (percussion, accordion, bass), Eugene Friesen (cello), Jill Haley (English horn), Will Ackerman (percussion), Charlie Bisharat (violin) and of course the talented fingers of Kathryn Kaye (piano).

The music on “Patterns …” has a deeper tone and richer, more lush, and more muted sound quality than Kathryn’s previous albums, and at times displays clear “classical music” influenced phrases and nuances.

The first track on the album, “Julia’s Eyes,” is a melodic, mellow, elegant, and graceful duet for piano and cello, with conspicuous “waltz” influences, and was inspired by Kathryn’s daughter, who was born with “the largest and most beautiful pale blue eyes…” Another song, “Willow Waltz” has similar stylistic qualities, and evokes images of a majestic Weeping Willow tree bathed in summer sunlight while its long draping branches sway gently in a cool breeze and cast ever moving and deeply melancholy shadows across all that surrounds them.

“Elk Creek in the Fall” is the second track on the album and is a bit slower and richer than the first track and with a distinctly free roaming or “flowing” quality. Fast moving piano along with the cello, horn, percussive elements and the Chapman Stick, suggest the flow of water in a stream or river. In fact, Kathryn has also shed some light on the inspiration for this track: “By an old dirt road near my childhood home in southeastern Kentucky, a little creek trickles down from higher in the hills. It winds gently through groves of deciduous trees (glorious in autumn), past an old family cemetery and the remains of an abandoned cabin where I once sat by the fireplace with friends, playing and singing folk songs during an autumn thunderstorm…. ”

Three of the eleven tracks on the album (Something Like A Dream, Mom and Pop’s Waltz, and Distances) are gentle and reflective piano solos. “The Hills That Lead Me Home” has a simple melody and adeptly conveys an intense emotion of longing. “Festival of Leaves” is a bit more up-tempo with light percussion and has an upbeat, cheerful, floating, and spinning quality that evokes images of a sudden shower of falling leaves dancing and swirling in a gust of autumn wind. “Adrift in Fading Light” is intended to create an experience and mental picture “of drifting on a still lake at dusk.” The two strongest and most melodic tracks on the album are “Tiny Sliver of a Moon” and the title track “Patterns of Sun and Shade.” Both have a positive, romantic quality, and are perhaps also the most memorable tracks.

In summary, “Patterns of Sun and Shade” is a strong album of emotional, reflective, and imagery inspired piano music that is certain to touch on old and cherished memories of home, friends, family, love, and life. As you listen to this music, Kathryn says, “may you discover your own patterns, even if very different from my own…”

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