Review of “Signature: Synchronicity” by Fiona Joy

May 3, 2016 by Admin

In May of 2015, we reviewed and “very highly recommended” the album “Signature: Solo” by internationally acclaimed Australian pianist, composer, vocalist, producer, artist, and jewelry designer Fiona Joy. Our general sentiments about the album were stated as follows:

“On this album, Fiona Joy shows that she is a master at using subtle variations in tempo, volume, and intensity to convey the nuances of the thoughts, emotions, and moods she expresses. Her “touch” on the keys is at once gentle, tender, soft, elegant, graceful, passionate, and sincere. There should be no doubt that her hands are fully in touch with her heart – and her emotions – and all of the highs and lows – flow out onto the keys with every note. It is truly an album you will want to listen to over and over.”

Over the past year, the “Signature: Solo” album has been unquestionably successful, and spent some time in the coveted #1 spot on the Zone Music Reporter (ZMR) AirPlay Charts. In fact, the album has also been chosen as the winner of the prestigious ZMR “Solo Piano Album of the Year” award for 2015.

imageRecently, Fiona Joy has released a new and revised version of the album titled “Signature: Synchronicity.” While the earlier version of the album featured mostly solo piano works, the new version, which contains essentially the same songs, includes varied instrumental accompaniment on all of the tracks, provided by a stunning lineup of professional musicians, including Borbala Bodonyi, Eugene Friesen, James Englund, Jeff Haynes, Jeff Oster, Mark Shulman, Nick Hawkins (Fiona Joy’s son), Noah Wilding, Paul Jarman, Premik Russell Tubbs, Rebecca Daniel, Tom Eaton, Tony Levin, and Grammy Award winning guitarist and producer Will Ackerman.

Also, in many cases, the music is magnificently accented by Fiona Joy’s own vocalizations which in our earlier review we described as “whispery, mysterious, darkly sensual, ethereal, and passionate.”

This new version of the album was also co-produced by Will Ackerman, Tom Eaton, and James Englund, and mixed by Eaton, at Ackerman’s Imaginary Road Studios in Vermont (some of the recording was also done at Crash Symphony Productions in Sydney, Australia). Consequently, the production quality is simply outstanding.

You can view a promotional video for the album here.

For Fiona Joy, the “Signature” series of albums was originally imagined as “a very personal expression ” — an examination of her inner life, and how the unfortunate deterioration of the “signature” bone in her left hand was affecting her ability to share her life’s work. However, it eventually evolved into more of an exploration of possibilities, dreams, and fantasies — both good and bad. Whatever the inspiration, there can be no doubt that Fiona Joy has again, as we have come to expect, poured her heart and soul into every song, every measure, and every note.

This new version of “Signature” is quite different from the previous version. First, the original album featured two different versions of the track titled “Once Upon Impossible” – a solo piano version and a version with light accompaniment. In contrast, the new album features two different versions of the track “Grace.” But it is the addition of the accompaniment on the new album that truly distinguishes it from the original version. Generally speaking, while the accompaniment adds complexity and depth to the original solo piano tracks, as might be expected, it also, at various points, adds clarity, passion, energy, tenderness, character, color, drama, excitement, emotion, creativity, and poignancy. Most importantly, it enhances the interest appeal of the music so much so that a truly outstanding album has been made even better.

imageFor example, on the first track “Ceremony,” the addition of strong percussion by Haynes, electric guitar, electric bass, and keyboard elements from Eaton, and ethereal vocal layers from Bodanyi and Fiona Joy, certainly accentuates the energetic, up-tempo, and celebratory spirit of this track. It is, put simply, an exercise in “joy.”

“Grace,” which is, of course, the Fiona Joy song that appeared on Ricky Kej and Wouter Kellerman’s Grammy Award winning “Winds of Samsara” album, is rendered even more exquisitely beautiful with the addition of cello by Friesen, Levin’s NS bass, and Jeff Oster’s flugelhorn filling in some of Kellerman’s flute elements from the WOS version. But most importantly, it is the addition of the vocal elements – mostly by Fiona Joy – that takes this track to an even higher level of spectacular. Her wispy, profound, intensely emotive, stirring, and captivating vocal solo performance on this track really stands out and makes it our most favorite track on this new album.

According to Fiona Joy, “Grace came to me as a gift at a time when I was feeling down. Someone emailed me to say they had a still born baby girl 10 years earlier and listened to my music to help her recover. She named the baby Grace. Now, 10 years later she has a daughter called Sophie Grace and together they sit and listen my music to remember her baby sister. The message to me was that my music had stood the test of time and that the most important thing I can do with it is to touch and help others. ” Indeed it does!

The other version of “Grace” that appears on this album is dubbed a “Chill Version.” It is a somewhat shorter, more upbeat, less emotional, and jazzier version of the song, with steadier and more prominent percussion, including Fiona Joy’s son Nick on a beatbox, as well as a strong electric guitar solo by Shulman. It also features truly great bass and flugelhorn elements. And Fiona Joy’s vocals are also even more prominent in this version, as are the layered vocal contributions from Bodanyi.

The track “Fair Not” is rendered even darker, and more somber, intense, and dramatic with the additional accompaniment by Friesen on cello, Daniel on violin, and Eaton on bass, keyboards, and percussion. It even more magnificently conveys feelings of despair, devastation, anger, and of course, a sense of “not fair.” It is also easily one of our favorite tracks on “Signature: Synchronicity.”

imageAnother of our favorites is “Once Upon Impossible.” It seems to be a slightly recrafted version of the “accompanied” track that appeared on “Signature: Solo.” It nonetheless remains a sincere, emotional, and expressive lament that is both profoundly touching and disconcerting. The addition of the hauntingly poignant vocalizations of Fiona Joy adds to the unsettling sense of despair summoned in this song.

As did the version from “Signature: Solo,” “Calling Earth” magnificently conveys the feelings of isolation, hopelessness, foreboding, and perhaps resignation that one might expect from someone who is, as the title suggests, desperately “calling out to the earth” from some place very far away. And while the cello, NS bass, and ethereal vocals by Wilding added to this track are less prominent than on other tracks, they nonetheless contribute to and accent the emotional intensity conveyed by Fiona Joy’s piano.

The addition of an EWI (electric wind instrument) from Tubbs, percussion, and NS bass to “Invisible Train” provides more depth, complexity, and intrigue, and truly compounds the energy, spirit, and overall impression of movement conveyed in this work. Even more so than before, one can easily envision a locomotive starting on its journey, a bit slow at first, then gradually picking up speed; then powerfully and rhythmically pushing steadily onward, until, as it begins to approach its destination, it slows to an eventual stop. So just sit back and enjoy the ride.

imageWith modest accompaniment added, “Signature” remains one of the slower, more poignant, more reflective, and more pensive works on the album. An exquisite opening by Jarman on a Taragato (a woodwind instrument from Hungary and Romania) and subtle but nonetheless stylish acoustic guitar contributions by Will Ackerman, fit masterfully with Fiona Joy’s piano, adding beautifully to the magic and overall emotional power of this track.

“From The Mist” and “Little Star” are similar in that they both have a bit more classical music feel and both feature exceptional melodies. The addition of an Irish whistle to “From The Mist” provides more depth, more intensity, and more drama, and certainly emphasizes the decidedly Celtic music influences on this track, especially at the end. And on “Little Star,” even though the accompaniment is more subtle, the bass, and occasional slide guitar elements definitely accentuates the tender, gentle, contemplative, emotional, and dramatic elements of this song, and makes for a wonderful ending to the album.

In summary, both of the “Signature” albums from Fiona Joy are outstanding works, and definitely worth adding to your collection. But with the additional instrumental and vocal elements added, “Signature: Synchronicity” is truly a magnificent album and so we give it our highest possible recommendation.

Review of the Album “Dividing The Darkness” by Steve Rivera

November 22, 2015 by Admin

6PAN1T-C_Steve_rivera_F.inddSteve Rivera, a composer and pianist from southern California, began learning to play the piano at age eight, taught by his father, who was also a musician. By the time Steve was thirteen he was playing at church functions and in bands ranging from punk rock and alternative music to blues and jazz. After high school and his experience with various styles of music, Steve realized that music was what he wanted to pursue in life.

Steve says “My ambition was no longer to be the best garage band player I could be, but the best musician I could possibly be”.

This decision led Steve to enroll at Hope International University, where he studied composing and conducting with Dr. Don Sewell. While attending Hope, Steve was a member of a singing touring group and served as an intern at several different churches, as an assistant to the music directors.

In July of 1997, Steve created Ya Right Productions to produce his first album, “The S Collection”. That summer over 1,100 copies of “The S Collection” were sold exclusively through Nordstrom’s Gift Gallery. Three songs from the CD were chosen by Nordstrom’s and played nationwide through their Muzak System.

Steve’s exposure at Nordstrom’s and the success of his CD manifested into several performance opportunities. Some of those opportunities led to Steve playing at such locations as: The California Club (Los Angeles), The Ritz Carlton in Marina Del Rey & Laguna Niguel, and The Wyndham Resort in Palm Springs. Steve has also performed solo piano concerts at the Crystal Cathedral and various locations throughout Southern California. In 2008, Steve also scored the music for the independent film “Scorned.” Currently, Steve is also a featured pianist at a restaurant in Dana Point, California.

Steve’s latest project, “Dividing The Darkness,” is his second CD, and essentially his debut album, as it is the first released for general distribution. It is dedicated to his mother and his brother. Two important things you should know about this album right up front.

First, it was recorded at Imaginary Road Studios in Windham County, Vermont, co-produced by Will Ackerman, founder of Windham Hill Records, and world renowned producer Tom Eaton. Consequently, the production quality on the album is, of course, outstanding. And moreover, there is a stellar group of professional musicians supporting Steve on the album, including Charlie Bisherat (violin), Eugene Friesen (cello), Jeff Haynes (percussion), Tony Levin (NS bass), Noah Wilding (vocals), Jill Haley (English Horn), Tom Eaton (electric bass, electric guitar, and keyboards), Premik Russell Tubbs (EMI), Gus Sebring (French Horn), and Will Ackerman (guitar).

Second, the album is, to put it simply, an exceptional work; easily one of our overall favorite piano centered albums released in 2015. Not since Fiona Joy’s “600 Years In A Moment” have we come across an album with piano as the primary voice, where it was so difficult to choose any one track as the best one on the album. And for what is essentially a debut album, it particularly stands out.

Steve’s musical style is at once innovative, sophisticated, contemplative, complex, creative; and at times emotionally intense and passionate, and at other times delicate and calming. In fact, his piano work is sometimes reminiscent of that of Fiona Joy, with a particularly strong sense of the use of variations in touch, pace, and silence as expressive of mood. But most of all, and something we always appreciate, Steve’s music is intensely personal, reflecting both his profound faith in God and his faith in humanity.

As he states, “I have journeyed amid life’s lessons, trudging through desolate valleys and exploring new mountain tops….may God continue to teach and guide me.”

The nine songs on “Dividing The Darkness” — eight accompanied and one solo piano work — vary in style, tempo, mood, and intensity, and collectively demonstrate that Steve is a pianist with masterful composition skills, and a bright musical future ahead.

The album begins with “My Way Home”, one of our favorites. With a moderate tempo, a strong, emotional, solo piano opening, and innovative and catchy piano phrasing throughout, it is one of the more melodic, deeply emotional, and reflective tracks on the album. While Steve’s piano clearly stands out as the lead voice, the accompaniment is particularly prominent throughout on this track with Bisherat’s passionate violin and Friesen’s droning cello each taking the lead at times. Ethereal vocals from Wilding near the end of the piece emphasize the contemplative qualities of the track while adding a profound, mysterious quality.

Similarly, “Help Me To Listen” has a moderate tempo, strong and prominent accompaniment, especially from Tubbs and Eaton, and a clever and distinctive melody. Also one our favorites, it is truly a magnificent work and is perhaps the best on the album. On this track in particular, one really senses Steve’s genuine faith and his passion for his craft. And I am sure we can all think of someone who is definitely in need of the same type of guidance.

In contrast, “This Ancient Road,” is a bit slower and more piano focused, with softer piano phrasing and lighter accompaniment. Nevertheless, it is at times also intensely passionate and reflective.

“Skyward”, “So Quickly Gone” and “Beautiful Years” are each outstanding tracks and easily demonstrate Steve’s innovative and powerful skills as a composer. While the first of these three is a decidedly more up-tempo than the latter two, each work displays strong piano components and clever, mellow, and memorable melodies, artfully woven together with strong accompaniment, especially by Will Ackerman’s guitar on “So Quickly Gone.”. Each work is also a powerful example of the general “intensity” characteristic of Steve’s signature style.

“Delicate Force” goes in a very different direction and as the apparent contradiction in the title suggests, is a bit of a study in contrasts. At some points, it has a much more delicate “classical piano” feel, but also reflects an intensely darker and more somber mood. With much more percussion behind it, Steve’s prominent piano eventually rising in intensity to a climax, and minimal accompaniment except for some intensely passionate and mysterious vocals from Wilding, this track is certainly the most unabashedly dramatic “force” on the album.

With a lighter, upbeat, and more cheerful mood, “Valley Of Light” then brings us out of the darkness, with Steve’s bouncy piano opening and core melody, and strong accompaniment by Gus Sebring on the French Horn, and Eaton on percussion, bass, and keyboards.

In summary, Steve Rivera’s “Dividing The Darkness” is a magnificent “debut” album from a composer and pianist who demonstrates an astonishing level of sophistication, intensity, and heartfelt emotional expressivity. The music is innovative, varied in style, and consistently distinctive and memorable. Thus, the album is an “easy listen” and will certainly leave you wanting more. That is why we give it our highest possible recommendation.

Our Favorite Recently Released Contemporary Piano Music Albums

February 26, 2015 by Admin

Below we present a list (not in any particular order) of our favorite Contemporary Piano Music albums released during the fourth quarter of 2014. We highly recommend each of these albums. To qualify for this list, an album had to be a new release (not a re-release) in either October, November, or December of 2014, feature solo piano music (or solo piano with light accompaniment) and be available for purchase on either iTunes, Amazon.com, or CDBaby.com. In selecting these five albums from over a hundred possibilities, we applied the same rigorous standards that we use in choosing music for play on GAIA Prime Radio. So if you enjoy the music we play on our station, we are confident that you will enjoy the music on these albums as well. Click on the album title or CD cover image and you will be taken to iTunes where you can listen to samples of music from that album and/or purchase it.

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Saving Tiny Hearts – Paul Cardall
Pianist and official “Steinway Artist” Paul Cardall is known for his original, sincere, sophisticated, intensely spiritual, and emotionally uplifting musical style. This particular album presents a collection of remastered piano works from several of his previous albums and would be highly recommended based on the exceptional quality of the music alone. However, there is another reason why we strongly encourage you to purchase this album

For every album sold, $1 will be donated to the Saving Tiny Hearts Society whose mission is to raise money for grossly under-funded, lifesaving grass roots research of congenital heart defects (CHD’s). Congenital heart defects are the #1 type of birth defect affecting more than 1,000,000 babies every year. This is a cause for which Paul is an especially appropriate advocate, given that he was born with essentially half of a functioning heart. That life-threatening congenital defect, a series of difficult surgeries and heart-related illnesses, and recent heart transplant surgery, have all shaped Paul’s musical style and inspired this collection of outstanding melodic compositions and arrangements.

Featuring largely piano music with extensive and elaborate and “real” orchestral and choral accompaniment, that at times has a “classical” feel, Saving Tiny Hearts is one of those albums where it is truly impossible to choose one favorite track. Each selection reveals a level of careful crafting, sophistication, expressiveness, and genuineness that we have come to expect from Paul.

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Eternal – Steve Banks
“Eternal” is a collection of original piano/orchestral compositions from the heart and the deepest emotions of gifted composer and talented pianist Steve Banks. Each work, as evidenced by the song titles, is a reflection of the wide spectrum of emotional experiences – joy, sorrow, and love – from the artist’s own life. Each song has special meaning to Steve, telling the story of family, heritage, faith and love.

Somewhat reminiscent of the orchestral works of Yanni, and perhaps in the spirit of the album title, “Eternal” features grand, powerful, dramatic, and sweeping melodies with a decidedly cinematic quality, and showcases well developed and exceptional orchestral accompaniment (with occasional, but not overdone, synthesizer). While not so much “music for relaxation,” the music is nonetheless soothing and uplifting with just a slight hint of a “classical” tone. On “Adoration” and “Reminiscence” in particular, the melody is simply “breathtakingly” creative and beautiful, and with just the right amount of support from strings and woodwinds. These two songs alone would be a worthwhile purchase, but there are nine other works that make this entire CD one that we highly recommend you add to your collection.

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Seasons of The Heart – Renee’ Michele
Co-Produced by Will Ackerman, Tom Eaton, and Oregon based composer and pianist Reneé Michele, and recorded at the legendary Imaginary Road Studios in Vermont, Seasons of the Heart is the most technically accomplished and emotionally intimate album of Reneé Michele’s career. The accompanying ensemble players are some of Imaginary Road’s best and include Charlie Bisharat (violin), Eugene Friesen (cello), Jill Haley (English horn), Noah Wilding (vocals), Jeff Haynes (percussion), Michael Manring (fretless bass), and Tom Eaton (bass).

Renee Michele started playing the piano at the age of six and continued through college as a music major. She later added a degree in Occupational Therapy, which led her to teach piano to children with special needs. One of her proudest achievements is having developed teaching strategies that allowed a musically gifted autistic child to learn to play the piano and later perform in a school talent show.

On Seasons of the Heart, Renee delves deep into her most personal memories — recollections both beloved and painful. The focus is on the emotional depth of the music rather than a “flashy” playing style, and the result is music that might be best described as sentimental, reflective, introspective, sometimes wistful, intimate, complex, sophisticated, uplifting, memorable, and always deeply felt.

Will Ackerman summed up Reneé Michele’s talent for soulful evocative music when he stated

“The first piece Renee’ Michele sent me was simply stunning. It revealed a composer capable of brilliant and accessible melody and hands that had clearly matured in classical discipline. This experience proved to be just the first of many as I became acquainted with more of her work. As a producer, one dreams of encountering such talent. The recordings for “Seasons of the Heart” all display the same remarkable combination of rich melody and stunning technical ability. At the center of all of her work is an intense and very personal emotional connection to both composition and performance that is breathtaking to experience. Renee’ has 4 solo piano albums prior to producing an [this] album with accompaniment. This is as powerful a CD with ensemble as anyone could hope for…”

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Treasures of Peace: The Stanton Lanier Collection – Stanton Lanier

After starting piano lessons at age six growing up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, award winning composer and pianist Stanton Lanier’s love for basketball made him want to quit at age twelve, but his parents wouldn’t let him. So he began writing songs and singing at age fourteen. Playing and composing continued as a hobby while majoring in chemistry at Georgia Tech and completing an MBA at the University of Georgia. After five years working in consulting and insurance, in 1994, at age thirty, he embarked on a ten-year career as a financial planner. However, the piano continued to serve as an life refuge. When he began composing instrumentals, he wanted them to convey a sense of God’s peace and hope. As people began to share powerful stories about how the songs were impacting their lives, he realized that “scripture inspired piano” was a unique way to share God’s story and his own story.

In this spirit, in 2004 Stanton and his wife founded the non-profit ministry Music to Light the World to offer God’s peace, rest, hope and healing in the church, the cultural arts, and the lives of cancer patients. Since that time, nearly sixty thousand CDs have been donated to cancer patients and families through Get Music Give Hope℠, where one CD is given away for every one purchased.

Stanton Lanier’s signature piano melodies are sure to refresh your spirit. This re-mastered collection offers sixteen listener favorites from his eight albums and ninety-nine singles. Listen for peace, rest, hope and healing with touching piano solos and exquisite accompaniment from nine acclaimed guest artists, including three Grammy winners. Many of the selections are from albums originally produced with the assistance of Will Ackerman at Imaginary Road Studios in Vermont, and feature such notable accompanying artists as Philip Aeberg, Eugene Friesen, Noah Wilding, Jeff Oster, Jeff Haynes, Tom Eaton, Richard Gus Sebring, and, of course, Will Ackerman. Highly recommended.

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One Journey – Ryan Stewart

Raised in Salt Lake City, Ryan Stewart says his mother is his inspiration. A classically trained pianist herself, she wanted to share her love of music with her children. Sadly, she passed away from breast cancer when he was just 13. Ryan says this was a poignant moment in his life and he realized the gift she had given to him. “As a teenager I missed her and I would sit at the piano on the stage at my school and play and think about her.” His father encouraged him to continue to pursuing his talent.

After graduating from high school, Ryan was awarded a full-ride scholarship in music to the University of Utah. He perfected his piano skills as he studied, and played and taught piano lessons. He especially enjoyed teaching students with an affinity for composition and song writing. Although Stewart eventually left the music department and pursued a career in computers, he never lost his desire to compose and play the instrument he loves. Today, his spare time is spent with music, and his passion has become something his wife, Cindy, and their two daughters cherish when spending time together. He has also composed and arranged music for film documentaries, Cellist Stephen S. Nelson (ThePianoGuys), Paul Cardall and other artists, and several dance studios.

On “One Journey,” Ryan presents us with uplifting rolling piano melodies, thoughtful chords, and carefully crafted orchestral and vocal accompaniment. The result is music that can most definitely provide a soothing effect on one’s soul and clear the mind of stress. The music is innovative, sophisticated, multi-layered, relaxing, peaceful, but also at times superbly powerful.

In the artist’s own words, “YOUR individual experiences sum up your ONE JOURNEY in THIS life. This album represents some of my more poignant life experiences found within my on-going journey. Make the best of YOUR JOURNEY.”

Coming Soon: Our favorite “Contemporary Instrumental: Multi-Instrumental” albums released in the fourth quarter of 2014.

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