Review of the Album “Across The Water” by Bill Leslie

December 13, 2015 by Admin

imageBill Leslie began his musical career while in elementary school when he was encouraged to join his church choir. A few years later, he continued his humble musical beginnings in the stairwell of his Morganton, North Carolina home “with a cheap Sears guitar laden with brutal steel strings that made my fingertips ache.” When he got older, and with a bit more musical experience under his belt, he joined a garage band called “The Beggars” and sang lead, eventually recording a couple of songs he had written at a studio in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Later in high school, Bill joined a group called the Cyntriks. While with them, he wrote a song about his girlfriend “Missy” which became a regional hit.

In college at the University of North Carolina, he bought a Martin 12 string guitar and teamed up with Tom Barrows for a coffeehouse folk duo called Augustus and Irvin. Just after graduation from college, with a BA in Communication, Bill roomed with soon-to-be instrumental music legend John Tesh in Raleigh, North Carolina, and worked at the same radio station. In fact, in 1996, Bill played guitar in John’s band at Walnut Creek in Raleigh. John encouraged Bill to take his music to Nashville. This resulted in several songs being published with April-Blackwood Music including a song called “Laughing Girl Lately Sad.” Meanwhile, Bill dabbled a bit in country music, wrote religious oriented songs for his church, and continued to sing in the church choir.

imageThen a fortuitous trip to Scotland and attendance at a concert by the contemporary Celtic music group “Nightnoise” (Mícháel Ó Domhnaill, Billy Oskay, Tríona Ní Dhomnaill, Brian Dunning), one of the founding groups on Will Ackerman’s Windham Hill Records, became pivotal experiences in Bill’s musical life — in fact, they set him on the path to the world renowned musician he has become.

Enthralled by the haunting sound of the Celtic whistle often featured in “Nightnoise” music, Bill would eventually teach himself to play it using books, cassettes, and eventually videos. He also bought a multi-track recorder and began blending guitar tracks with whistle and piano tracks. Soon he had built a full-fledged studio in his home.

That led him to co-found, along with Mary Page Johnson and Kerry Johnson, a Celtic fusion band called Bragh Adair, featuring guitar, whistle, violin, piano, bass and percussion. They played together for until 2002 and produced two outstanding albums “Grace in Stone” and “The Hunt,” and for which Bill wrote many of the songs.

Today, in addition to playing with his new band Lorica (with Sherry Lattin, Linda Metz, Marty Long and Stephen Levitin), Bill has put his Communication degree to work. You may also know him as the morning and noon news co-anchor of WRAL-TV in Raleigh, North Carolina. As a journalist, Bill has certainly excelled — having won more than 80 major news awards — including two George Foster Peabody Awards, five Emmys, the Society of Professional Journalists National Distinguished Public Service Award, the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, the National Headliner Award, the Gavel Award, the RTNDA Edward R. Murrow Award, the Charles Kuralt Award, the UPI National Award for Features, and twice won the North Carolina Journalist of the Year.

Lately, however, Bill has also become known as an accomplished Celtic fusion and contemporary instrumental/New Age recording artist. When famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma refers to you as “one of the greats in modern Celtic music,” you know you have reached a high point in your music career.

imageHis first solo album release “Peaceful Journey” was widely applauded and achieved a number one ranking on various World Music charts in 2004, including the New Age Reporter’s world music chart. His second and third albums, “Christmas in Carolina” and “I Am A River” each peaked at number two on the charts. In 2005, New Age Reporter named Leslie “Best New Artist” and his Christmas in Carolina album was named “Best Holiday Album.”

In 2006, one of the songs from “I Am A River” called “Tall Ships” was chosen as the official song of the 2006 America’s Sail Maritime Festival.

Then in 2008, “Blue Ridge Reunion” hit number one on the charts and was named Best Acoustic Instrumental Album of the Year by ZoneMusicReporter.com.

The album, “Simple Beauty,” in 2010, also hit number one on the world music charts and was voted by radio hosts worldwide as the Best Acoustic Instrumental Album of the year, again by ZoneMusicReporter.com. And then in November of 2011, Bill released another holiday recording “A Midnight Clear – Christmas in Mitford.” This album also received critical acclaim, voted as the number one Holiday album by Zone Music Reporter for 2011.

“Scotland: Grace of The Wild”, which is a tribute to Bill’s Scottish roots, was named World Radio Album of The Year and overall Album of The Year by Zone Music Reporter for 2013.” The latter top musical honor was presented to Bill in New Orleans on May 17, 2014 by Grammy Award winner Will Ackerman, founder of Windham Hill Records, the original recording label of “Nightnoise”, the group that so inspired Bill early in his musical career.

imageBill’s latest album, “Across The Water” is another “simply outstanding” Celtic fusion project — a gorgeous work of art that is easily one of the best overall multi-instrumental music albums we have reviewed in the past few years — and that will no doubt garner a new round of prestigious awards during the coming months. It magnificently represents exactly the type and quality of Celtic/New Age fusion music we had in mind when we started GAIA Prime Radio.

Celtic music typically focuses on one of several themes; the bitter taste and anguish of war, suffering and loss; an intensely passionate love of home, friends, family, and the land — the cold, hard ground, the fog shrouded moors, the big, gray skies, the brisk winds, the richly green rolling hills, and the charming villages full of friends you have yet to meet; and most of all, the sweet “twinkle in the eye” joy of facing each new day in one’s life. With “Across The Water,” Bill Leslie masterfully conveys all of these sentiments with a style, richness, and personal connection that is at times astonishingly beautiful.

Inspired by a recent trip to Ireland, the album takes us on a powerfully expressive and exceptionally vivid “musical” tour of the Irish countryside. As Bill states:

image“The beauty of Ireland exceeded even my highest expectations. And the history of this charming land is magnificent and humbling at the same time…..As a product of the Scots-Irish immigration to America I wanted to return to the land of my ancestors in search of inspiration. I found it in abundance in Scotland and now Ireland.”

The album features 12 tracks, ten of which are original compositions. The other two are arrangements of classic Irish folk tunes. Of the ten original works, three are recrafted interpretations of songs Bill originally wrote and recorded with Bragh Adair. Playing along with Bill on Celtic whistle, guitar, and keyboards is a collection of superbly talented musicians – including Brian Dunning (flute and pipes), Joseph Akins (piano), John Brown (bass), Brandon Bush (accordion), Jennifer Bush (violin), Nancy Green (cello), Melanie Wisden (oboe), and Anita Buroughs-Price (harp).

imageThe album begins with the title track, which is a slow, reflective, emotional, and completely enchanting work with a slight hint of anguish, and decidedly cinematic qualities. “Across The Water” features Bill prominently playing keyboards and guitar, as well as his signature Celtic whistle. It is easily one of our favorite tracks on the album.

“The Boatman” is one of the two covers of traditional Irish songs on the album. It is even slower and more emotional than the first track, with a clear element of melancholy. Leslie’s tender Celtic whistle and Dunning’s pipes serve as the primary expressive voices, but with Green’s cello at times offering a darker and more somber counterpoint. Nicely done!

“Connemara,” which refers to a small area on the West Coast of Ireland, begins with light acoustic guitar, eventually accompanied by Irish whistle, and then masterfully blended with oboe, cello, violin, and Brian Dunning on flute. The incredible melody evokes an air of a “misty” and “mysterious” land that has often been referred to as “the real emerald of Ireland.” Wow!

“Miriam,” which includes the super talented Anita Burroughs-Price on harp, is a more upbeat, cheerful Irish dance, with a very strong melody. With especially strong contributions from the accompaniment, this track will surely bring a grin to your face and spring to your step.

image“Lorica,” is one of the re-crafted and remastered works that Bill originally composed and recorded with Bragh Adair. Inspired by the Breastplate Prayer of St. Patrick, this completely instrumental version (the original had lyrics) is a beautiful, exceptionally melodious, positive, and innovative track, and again with clear cinematic qualities. It features a stunning piano component by Joseph Akins, accompanied magnificently by violin, flute, oboe, cello, and of course, Celtic whistle.

“Gaelic Ghost” is a haunting, dreamy, and slowly uplifting moderate tempo ballad with Bill’s light but passionate acoustic guitar opening eventually giving way to Celtic whistle as the lead voice, and supported by other instruments. It is another of the re-crafted works from Bill’s days with Bragh Adair and has been wonderfully reimagined.

“Stephanie” is also Celtic whistle driven, but this time accompanied stunningly by Bush’s exquisite violin and Green’s powerful cello. It is richly expressive, passionate, and full of love! And as one of the shortest tracks on the album, and another of our particular favorites, it definitely left us wanting to hear more.

“Irish Girl” begins with a passionate duet between Akins’ stirring piano and Leslie’s Celtic whistle later giving way to an exquisite piano and cello pairing. Another of the traditional Irish tunes recaptured in Bill’s signature style, it beautifully carries the bittersweet qualities of a traditional Irish ballad, with classic Irish phrasing, and a basic straightforward structure. Simply outstanding!

imageNamed for a 179 kilometer long circular tourist route in southwestern Ireland, “Ring of Kerry” is a more up-tempo and more positive, cheerful, and spirited track with a richly complex layering of guitar, cello, Celtic whistle, and other instruments. It has an adventurous quality that thoroughly captures the wonder of exploring country roads lined with walls of stone, ruins of fortifications and castles hundreds of years old, and the pretty pastels of towns and villages shining as jewels in the midday sunlight. This is certainly another of our favorites.

“Cloud of Witnesses” is another of the pieces written and originally recorded with Bragh Adair. It is “a celebration of nature and loved ones who have passed but whose spirits are still very much alive” and is a richly complex, artfully layered, up-tempo, bright, cheerful, energetic, and positive work, like “Ring of Kerry,” but longer and with obvious “Irish dance” qualities. The melody is exceptional — the whistle, violin, oboe, and cello incredible — and the overall work amazingly beautiful. In fact, it is probably the best track on the album! We will definitely be hitting the replay button often on this one.

imageIn contrast, “Gougane Barra” is a darker, slower, more somber, more reflective, and emotionally moving melody that nonetheless conveys a profound sense of peacefulness. Bill describes this song as follows:

“Gougane Barra in County Cork is an absolutely gorgeous and tranquil place. This mountain man felt right at home with the rhododendron in full bloom next to a 19th-century oratory on a lake. Gougane Barra was once the scene of a 6th-century monastery and is described on a historical marker as a holy and healing place. There is something truly magical about early morning light and the stillness of life in Ireland.”

Bill’s musical portrait of this picturesque experience is at once vivid, powerful, exquisite, and majestically beautiful.

“Across The Water” ends with a traditional and heartfelt “Irish Blessing”; a straightforward, down tempo, violin and Celtic whistle led prayer, supported beautifully by oboe, cello, and the luscious sounds of Brian Dunning’s pipes. It is a powerful and appropriate ending to an astonishing rich, complex, and sophisticated journey through Eire inspired music. May the road always rise up to meet you! Our highest possible recommendation for this one!

Review of the Album “Remembering” by Bernward Koch

December 6, 2015 by Admin

imageBorn in January 1957, in Siegen/Westfalen, Germany, Bernward Koch began his musical endeavors when he was 12, playing the French horn in the brass band of his village. Later, he switched to the trumpet “to be able to play more melodies” and played in a marching band. He soon broadened his interests to bass, guitar, and drums and began playing in various music groups and local bands. At age 15, very soon after his father, an accordion player, gave him a piano, Bernward began taking piano lessons. Right away he displayed an aptitude for improvisation and composition, and so the piano became his primary instrument.

When he was 16, Bernward attended a concert by the legendary German rock group Kraan. This would prove to be a pivitol moment in young Bernward’s career. As he states, “I will never forget that; I was totally absorbed by the music, and from then on I knew I must be a professional musician.” Later in his career, in 2006, the Kraan keyboardist became ill one day before a performance at a big festival. So Bernward was invited to step in for him. In Bernward words, having an opportunity to play with the band that had so impacted his career ambitions “was really great.”

His enthusiasm for music continued to grow, especially for Jazz, Rock, Pop, and Folk, but particularly for Classical music. In his early twenties, he began studying music at The University of Cologne and, with his brother, participated in several music workshops at the University of Bremen, Academy Remscheid, and Schloß Weikersheim. Meanwhile, he also continued to play keyboards and percussion in various Jazz-Rock bands.

In 1989 he signed his first recording contract as a solo instrumental artist. That album, “Flowing,” was released in 1990, and immediately received widespread acclaim, achieving a top position on the Billboard New Age Chart. One song in particular from that album, “Ever Returning,” was chosen to be included on two AIDS benefit compilation albums. The charitable projects, were spearheaded by the Elizabeth Taylor Foundation and California radio station KTWV – THE WAVE (Wave Aid 4 – 1991), and radio station KKSF (KKSF Sampler For AIDS Relief 3). They produced albums that also included musical contributions from artists such as Sting, Bonnie Raitt, Al Jarreau, Ottmar Liebert, Lauren Wood, Bob James/David Sanborn, Dave Grusin/Lee Ritenouer, David Arkenstone, David Lanz, and Yanni.

Also in 1992, Bernward’s musical career took a major leap forward when his album “Laguna de la Vera” remained high on the Billboard New Age chart for a couple of months. In fact, it became one of the most highly acclaimed instrumental albums worldwide that year. Subsequent albums, including “Still Magic” (1995), “Picante” (1997), “Journey to the Heart” (1999), and “Walking Through The Clouds” (2005), were also highly successful.

In 2008, “Montagnola,” a live solo piano album, won the “Piano-Heaven” award in England and became the “Audio Highlight of the Month” of the German journal STEREO in September of 2009. The album was dedicated to the Nobel Prize winning German author Herman Hesse, who, while living in Germany during World War II, disdained the anti-Semitism of the Nazis, worked against Hitler’s suppression of art and literature that protested Nazi ideology, and assisted other persecuted authors with their escape into exile. Hesse died in 1962, and was buried in Montagnola, in the canton of Ticino, in Switzerland, near the Italian border.

Bernward’s more recent albums “Gentle Spirit” (2009), “Silent Star” (2011), and “Day of Life” (2013) have continued to demonstrate Bernward’s immense talent, both as a composer, and as a multi-instrumentalist, and have made him one of the most beloved instrumental musicians worldwide.

imageGenerally speaking, Bernward’s music can be described as slow, reflective, expressive, emotional, tender, gently optimistic, warm, and soothing, with “electric piano” as the lead voice. And although we are not normally inclined toward purely “electronic” music, two qualities of Bernward’s music make it stand out.

First, with it’s richly integrated electronic accompaniment, clever use of electronic and percussive accents, and sophisticated layering, the music is certainly complex and rich enough to keep it interesting with repeated plays.

Secondly, Bernward has an uncanny penchant for infusing his music with creative, catchy, clever, and quite memorable melodies. In fact, at times his melodies seem eerily familiar, almost as though that particular “beautiful” string of notes has always been in my head, just waiting for Bernward to come along and reveal them to me. In any event, his music is ideal background music for a quiet dinner, reading, deep listening, or simply relaxing. That is most likely why several major airlines around the world, including United Airlines, Japan Airlines, Lufthansa, Korean Airlines, Singapore Airlines, and Air China, provide his music for the enjoyment of their passengers.

Bernward Koch’s latest album, “Remembering,” is a strong and rich collection of masterfully rendered soundscapes inspired by those special moments and experiences destined to become our most vivid and unforgettable “memories” – and that help to define who we are as unique individuals. The album, which is also impeccably produced, features thirteen “electric piano” driven tracks in Bernward’s signature slow, reflective, and expressive style. Bernward composed, arranged, produced and performed all thirteen tracks and appears on piano, keyboards, synthesizer, guitar, bass, glockenspiel, cymbals, and gong. He is also accompanied by his wife, Christiane Bohm, on flute, and his brother Christoph on 12-string guitar, drums, and percussion. His other brother Moritz Koch appears on electric guitar on the closing track.

“Remembering,” the title track, and “Over The Fields” are similar – slow, gentle, and reflective, piano driven pieces, with light electronic accompaniment (synthesizer, guitar), electronic and percussive accents, and strong, memorable, and emotional melodies. “Remembering” is an especially powerful start to the album and is one of our favorite tracks.

“New Morning,” which reflects the new opportunity that comes with every new day, is similar to “Remembering” – slow, reflective, and emotional – but with perhaps more of an improvisational quality at times, more piano driven, and with less pronounced electronic accompaniment. It is also one of the longer tracks on the album.

In contrast, “My Secret” is a bit more up tempo and more cheerfully melodic, with a steady but subtle percussive rhythm, light electronic accents, and minimal accompaniment.

image“Longing For Night in Summer” is a haunting, beautiful, and intensely emotional piece, with a particularly strong piano opening, an exceptional and memorable melody, and especially masterful layering and integration of the electronic accompaniment. It is also one our most favorite tracks on the album.

“Time of Innocence” is an exceptionally well-crafted piano driven work with another especially strong and catchy melody. It is perhaps the most up tempo track on the album, with light percussion, and a steady but subtle beat. A definite favorite.

What may very well be the best track on the album, “The Sunlit Hill,” is a more complex, up tempo track, with a strong, memorable melody, electronic accents, and outstanding accompaniment, including light guitar and synthesizer. It certainly left us wanting more.

“Threads of Mastery” is again a much slower, sophisticated, reflective, emotional song, with another particularly powerful, innovative, complex, and memorable melody, with strong, well-integrated accompaniment. It also is a particular favorite.

“Carefree Sunday” is a very captivating and more upbeat, piano driven commentary, with many of the acoustic qualities of a ballad, and “calling out” for lyrics. In fact, as I was listening I was honestly feeling compelled to invent my own lyrics as it went along.

“Floating Feather” is very slow, relaxed, down tempo, and at times bordering on ambient. It is also occasionally intensely reflective and emotional, with beautiful and subtle electronic accents, and well integrated accompaniment.

Easily the most richly complex and orchestrated track on the album is the final track – “Through The Universe.” It is also the longest track on the album, with a dazzling expressive melody, strong and much more prominent percussion, a steady rhythm, and occasional jazz and rock infused accompaniment featuring flute, electric guitar and synthesizer. It represents a very strong ending to the album.

In summary, fans of Bernward Koch music will find this album a powerful and standout addition to their collection. The music is innovative, complex, reflective, and sophisticated, and generally consistent with Bernward’s signature style. At times, it is also intensely emotional and always quite “simply beautiful.” Very highly recommended.

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