Occasionally, an album comes to our attention that takes us quite by surprise. The surprise is that even though we knew little to nothing about the artist, the album is of such indisputable high quality, and such a perfect fit for the GAIA Prime Radio playlist, that it immediately becomes a favorite. Such is the case with the new album from Max Highstein titled Flying, Not Falling. Like a carefully crafted tapestry that weaves many different types and colors of threads to form a creative, beautiful, and perhaps even spiritually uplifting design, on Flying, Not Falling, Max Highstein intricately weaves together melodies, themes, and instrumental voices into a delightful, sophisticated, complex and exceptional work of art.
Raised in Baltimore, Max Highstein received a BA in Music from Goddard College in Vermont, studying jazz and classical piano. A few years later, he received an MA in Spiritual Psychology from the University of Santa Monica in Los Angeles. In fact, Max was in the first graduating class of USM and even wrote the school song. Later, he received a second MA in Counseling Psychology from Antioch University in Los Angeles.
While completing his academic work in counseling, Max began writing and producing therapeutic guided imagery, meditation, and music recordings. Max wrote the scripts for each of these, but hired actors to voice the dialogue. Then he composed and scored background music to accompany the narration. The first of these programs not only took the listener on a guided tour of the 12 signs of the zodiac, but also linked the 12 musical key signatures to different parts of the body. In fact, this work was one of the earliest commercial recordings to use music as a healing therapy.
The Healing Waterfall (1985) was Max’s second guided imagery recording and became a best seller with distribution in more than 1500 stores nationwide. In fact, it is still one of the most popular guided imagery programs ever recorded. Since then Max has written and recorded over 100 other guided imagery programs on a wide range of topics covering personal growth, relaxation, and healing.
Soon after producing The Healing Waterfall, Max decided to begin focusing more on his music. While combining elements of jazz, classical, and popular music, his musical style began to feature a lot of instrumental variety, including woodwinds, strings, percussion, and keyboards. In fact, Max regularly brought in a number of top Los Angeles session musicians to play parts he had written specifically for them.
The result was two CDs — Touch The Sky (1987) and Stars (1988). Both “purely instrumental” albums featured Max on keyboards, supported by a wide variety of other instruments, including oboe, cello, violin and flute. Another instrumental release, Path of The Heart (1997) was also a quite successful. Then, in 2009, Max recorded a vocal album, Flight Plans, which won two 2010 New Mexico Music Awards.
Max’s latest release, Flying Not Falling, is certainly his best album to date. In fact, we would rate the album as one the best we have heard so far in 2017. Overall, the music can described as original, melodic, contemporary, positive, cheerful, uplifting, joyous, lively, bold, innovative, well developed, and a whole lot of pure fun. It also features elements of classical, jazz, popular, and world music artfully blended throughout every track.
Accompanying Max on piano, fretless bass, and occasional synthesizers, are John Yoakum (soprano sax, flute), Ed Willett (cello), Willa Roberts (vocalizations), Mark Clark (percussion), Jesse Tatum and Charly Drobeck (flute), Jay Rusty Crutcher (alto sax), and John Gustafson (oboe).
Additional mixing input was contributed by Chuck Wilson and Daniel Ward.
The album begins with the title track, which is unabashedly uplifting, cheerful, happy, spirited, energetic, bright, poppy, distinctive, melodic, and wonderfully whimsical. It also features a wide variety of instrumentation such as piano, piccolo, clarinet, flute, acoustic and electric guitar, strings, synthesizer, oboe, and various types of percussion. And with its joyous and spunky attitude, it is an excellent opening track that truly sets just the right mood for the fun that is to come. One is reminded of walking briskly down a street, happy-go-lucky, whistling, perhaps even skipping now and then, without a care in the world.
This is nicely followed up by “Dreamwalk,” which is certainly our most favorite track on the album. In contrast with the first track, “Dreamwalk” is slower and more contemplative, with pronounced classical music qualities, both in expression and development. It is magnificently melodic, complex, stylish, well crafted, and quite memorable, with a truly outstanding blending of instrumentation such as flute, oboe, cello, violin, synthesizer, piano, ethereal voices, and percussion. On this track, Max’s abilities as a composer really shine through. Simply outstanding!
“Frank & Mandy” is more like the first track in that it is generally upbeat, energetic, bright, up tempo, cheerful, and stylish, but with perhaps more classical music qualities. Featuring threads of flute, synthesizer, percussion, french horn, oboe, violin, viola, cello, piccolo, piano, and bass guitar, it is artfully woven together into a rendering of pure joy. It is also one of our most favorite tracks.
“Earthtones”, another favorite, is again slower, a bit more introspective, and exceptionally well developed, powerfully complex, rhythmic, melodic, memorable, and with “light jazz” influences. The magnificently intertwined elements of violin, piano, synthesizer, alto sax, clarinet, flute, acoustic guitar, oboe, and percussion, along with an occasional pulsating bass guitar and light ethereal vocals, foster a mood of tranquility, relaxation, and contemplation. This track, in particular, at times has a distinct classic Jazz/New Age crossover feel.
“Lily Pads” moves the album in a very different direction. It is much, much, much slower and with more “ambient” music qualities. The pace, softness, light percussion, and ethereal qualities are emotional, peaceful, and reflective. The occasional and clever use of Native American Shamanic rattles is particularly noteworthy. This, along with light “wind chime” like sounds gives the track subtle “spiritual” qualities. Overall, the experience is of sunlight dancing on the shimmering surface of a lake at sunset or dawn.
The longest track on the album is “Lake Shrine.” It starts out more up tempo, with a steady pulsating rhythm, and also a classic New Age feel. In fact, at times this track reminded me of some of the works of Tangerine Dream. Like their music, which typically involved carefully interwoven elements of rhythmic synthesizer and real instruments, and with exceptional complexity and layering, this track at times has a trancelike vibe. Later, however, the music diverges into a period of what I call “instrumental chatter,” with various voices each popping in to have their say, before gradually returning to the pulsating, melodic theme from the opening, and then finally and slowly drifting away.
Aptly titled, and similar to the first track, “Helium” is a light, airy, cheerful, poppy, rhythmic, and energetic “spirit dance” with light classical qualities, and featuring soprano sax, flute, fretless bass, piano, light synthesizer, and ending with a quite unexpected and purely whimsical riff on a calliope. Simply “fun” and a definite favorite.
“Simon & Michael” is a melodic, moderate tempo piece, with classical elements, a creative and memorable theme, and a distinctive melody. It is also perhaps the best example of Max Highstein’s masterful interweaving of varied instrumentation (flute, bells, synthesizer, percussion, cello, strings, piano, alto sax, English horn) in and out, lending the overall work decidedly “tapestry” like qualities. We especially like the English horn and cello elements on this one. Nicely done!
Having spent many years as a social psychologist studying human conversation, I can attest to the energetic, rhythmic, creative, and playful qualities it often exhibits. The ninth track on this album, “Let’s Talk,” most definitely reflects those qualities. Featuring a “wildly diverse but nonetheless effective” mixture of instruments such as soprano sax, flute, guitar, piano, cello, strings, mandolin, acoustic guitar, banjo, and percussion, the result is an up-tempo, bright, cheerful, chatty, clever, melodic, and “jazzy” work reminiscent at times of “ragtime” music. A clear favorite!
The next to last track, “New Girlfriend” features a particularly compelling and beautifully rendered opening that eventually gives way to a more poppy, rhythmic, lively, melodic, and energetic middle. The instrumental contrast in this track is especially noticeable with synthesizer, piano, bass guitar, bells, percussion, popping sounds, flutes, xylophone, a concert triangle, viola, and bass guitar all interwoven with magnificent handoffs between the instruments. There is even a perfectly clever “human whistling” riff near the end. And the cello work on this track really stands out. Wow!
The final track is titled “Olive Branch” and is an excellent way to end the album. It has a more moderate tempo, and is somewhat piano driven, but with amazing flute accompaniment. Like the other tracks, the instrumentation is highly varied and superbly interwoven to create an overall work of absolute musical glee. It also is one of our most favorite tracks.
Overall, Flying, Not Falling is a brilliantly crafted masterpiece. The music is novel, spirited, and spectacularly rendered and most definitely varied and distinctive enough to hold your interest throughout the album. In fact, every time we listen to it, we notice something that we didn’t hear before—and we have no hesitation listening to this album again and again. But of course, as we have noted throughout this review, it is the outstanding work Max does weaving together into a single tapestry the various threads of creative expression, style, and sound that is the real standout quality of this album. For that reason, we are enthusiastic about giving Flying, Not Falling, our highest possible recommendation!