Mark Isham really captures an epic feeling here, so perfectly captured in the title. I’ve posted this before, and will likely post it again, but it somehow feels very current at the moment.
Mark Isham really captures an epic feeling here, so perfectly captured in the title. I’ve posted this before, and will likely post it again, but it somehow feels very current at the moment.
With Islands, Scott Cossu builds on the group efforts of his first two Windham Hill releases, with a star-studded group of collaborators. Mining much of the same territory as Spyro Gyra and the Pat Metheny group, Cossu adds a romanticism and sweetness that belies the genuine complexity and ambitious appropriation of influences. Islands is Cossu’s second release on Windham Hill, following Wind Dance.
If you’re coming new to Scott Cossu, you may be in for a treat. But for me, this is a tough album to review. I’ve heard the tracks that made it onto samplers (Ohana and Oristano Sojourn) too many times; they had lost freshness, and only hearing the non-sampler tracks allowed me to appreciate the album as a whole. The relatively flat and thin recording (when compared to other Windham Hill releases) doesn’t help. This was the early days of digital, and the recording doesn’t do justice to the amazing musicianship that courses throughout the album. What a treat to listen to the album anew.
After opening with the high-energy, if over-synthesized Ohana, Cossu fears nothing by delving into the near eight minute Gypsy Dance – wending its way from a quiet piano piece through a spirited two-step between piano and violin. St. Croix is a richly colorful and plaintive conversation between piano and horn, and Islands gives a cheery Caribbean vibe with the facile flute playing of Dave Valentin.
Cossu seems to save his more relaxed and experimental tracks for the second side, from the 7 minute crescendo of Harlequin Messenger to the pastoral Fawn, the feel is just right – searching, and with an optimistic, but not cloying or celebratory quality, Cossu’s musicianship and compositional skills shine.
I would call Islands underappreciated, but apparently it’s just me who was a late adopter. Both fans and critics celebrate Islands. You might, too. Thanks to the magic of YouTube and the very excellent WindhamHillLovers channel, you can listen for yourself below.
Special thanks to Will Ackerman, Anned Robinso, Steven Miller, Steve Lowy and all the people at Windham hill for their long and continued support. Also to my family, Robin, Jenny and our Creator.
Islands: Recorded on Manhattan, the most famous island, represents my progression of travels and my love of islands, their inspirations and the gypsy spirit within. May this music help unite us all as a family of islands.
(c) (p) Windham Hill Records, 1984.
<<note: liner notes taken from the Canadian release, WH-9-1033 – it’s just what I had on hand>>
Shadowdance confidently strides into the Windham Hill catalog with the showstopping New Electric India, electric guitar and thundering bass resounding. This is a slightly different approach than the bands eponymous label debut which was specifically composed to work within Windham Hill’s established acoustic sound. After the success of the first, the band was clearly given a little more freedom to follow their live sound than they dared on their original Windham Hill release. While Shadowfax has incredible depth texture and flow, Shadowdance brings dynamics and drive to the band’s gorgeous melodic sensibility.
From the opening note of New Electric India through the closing hum of the track Shadowdance, every note carries you through a churning river of sound depositing you at the end both thrilled and relaxed. Indeed, maybe the water analogy comes easily because Shadowdance has been used at the plankton exhibit at the Monterey Bay Aquarium for the last 20 years.
Side Two carries the torch with the Don Cherry-penned track Brown Rice – a standout from the live performances, and closes with the more conventional fusion track A Song for My Brother, a fan favorite.
The sound quality is again extraordinary. Ackerman once again looked to Mobile Fidelity for the mastering and RTI for the pressings. Playing the album on my current vinyl rig was a shocker: the recording is so dynamic and detailed. I’m sure that in part that’s because this album is seared into my memory from countless plays on a Maxell cassette. In 1984-85, I was an exchange student to Yugoslavia, specifically Serbia, and due to space restrictions I could only bring 10 cassettes for my year there. Shadowfax/Shadowdance was the one Windham Hill tape I brought. Truly, for me, this was a “Desert Island Disk.”
Unfortunately, Stuart Nevitt, Chuck Greenberg and Bruce Malament have all passed away.
Joy Greenberg has written the biography “A Pause in the Rain” about Chuck, and maintains his web site: http://www.chuckgreenberg.com/cgindex.htm
You can find Joy’s site, and samples from her book here: http://www.joyhornergreenberg.com/jghome.htm She shares fascinating anecdotes and details about the band, as well as personal remembrances, in an easy engaging style; I highly recommend it for any Shadowfax fan.
Joy has generously permitted the reprint of an excerpt here:
The success of Shadowfax enabled the band to go into production on a second album. For material, they didn’t have to look too far. Intuitive businessman that he was, Chuck began thinking about all those old Watercourse Way masters over at Passport Records.
Although Watercourse Way had been out for eight years, the band had never received a dime in royalties. Chuck knew that there were many copies in print, however, and that the demand for them would increase with the release of the new Shadowfax. He also believed that if Shadowfax turned out to be a hit, there might be a renewed interest in the band’s first album, Watercourse Way. However, he wasn’t willing for Passport to be the beneficiary of any newfound success, particularly since he felt that Passport had burned the band for nonpayment of royalties. So, Chuck and the band’s attorney Steven Lowy devised a scheme to buy back all the old master tapes. Chuck knew he’d have to move quickly—before the release of Shadowfax. Once Passport suspected it might be able to gain more mileage out of Watercourse Way, the price for the masters would go up.
It worked—Chuck made them an offer and Passport was only too happy to rid themselves of what they perceived to be a “dead horse.” On the very day that the Billboard review hit the stands raving about Shadowfax, Chuck was collecting the master tapes from the Passport warehouse and blithely walking out the door with them.
Gaining the rights to Watercourse Way turned out to be more significant than even Chuck imagined at the time. In addition to re- releasing it en toto, Windham Hill selected one of its cuts, a lilting Chuck/G.E. duet called “Petite Aubade,” to be on the first of their Winter Solstice series, which went on to achieve Gold Record status. It also made it possible to “borrow” those tunes which the band felt were basically worthy but which had not succeeded as well on Watercourse Way as they had expected. For this reason, the title song from Watercourse Way, along with G.E.’s “Song for My Brother” were selected to be rerecorded for the second Windham Hill Shadowfax album, Shadowdance.
As with Shadowfax, Chuck and G.E. shared song writing duties on Shadowdance, with the exception of a piece by Don Cherry which was a medley of two tunes, “Brown Rice/Karmapa Chenno.” G.E., Phil, and Chuck were big fans of Cherry’s music and had been performing “Brown Rice” live, traditionally as the closing number of their set. It was the only non-Shadowfax composition they ever recorded or performed, and likewise one of the few with lyrics. Nonetheless, it was a testament to the band’s arranging skills. A consistent and perennial show-stopper, “Brown Rice” featured rap-like (before it was in style) nursery rhyme lyrics growled out by G.E. and backed by his searing guitar, with Chuck screaming on tenor sax, building to a crescendo then switching to a wailing lyricon—all pushed forcefully by Phil and Stu’s rhythm section.
Shadowdance became another showcase for Chuck’s burgeoning production genius. Although it cost slightly more than Shadowfax to create, he brought it in on time and under budget. In addition to the seven touring band members, he enlisted Emil Richards in the studio again, with Michael Spiro and Mickey Lehockey to beef up the percussion. The title tune from Shadowdance went on to become a featured number live, often receiving the greatest recognition and applause whenever they performed it and deservedly so. “Shadowdance” combined all the best qualities of Shadowfax: a catchy melody, rhythmic beat and interesting assortment of instruments.
Virtuoso percussionist Emil Richards had filled up the whole room at Group IV Sound with his esoteric collection of instruments from around the world, and the result was astounding. “Shadowdance” became a consistently sought tune by filmmakers, TV and radio shows for background music. After more than a decade, it is still being used by the Monterey Bay Aquarium for what I call its “dancing plankton” exhibit.
The band was also now able to afford a better recording studio when they set out to do Shadowdance, finding in Group IV the perfect place financially, personally, and technologically. A few years earlier, Chuck had performed on a movie soundtrack at Group IV and managed to cut a deal for himself through the owners to use the place at night—traditionally “dead” time––at a bargain rate. Without Angel Ballestier and the rest at Group IV, it would have been impossible to cut such high quality records for the price. So began an illustrious multi-record liaison between band and studio.
Shadowfax members are active on the web, catch up with them on Facebook and MySpace.
Ξ Selections Greenshadow Music (BMI)
Ο Selections Dream Wheel Music (BMI)
All Selections Administered by Windham Hill Music (BMI)
◊ Selection Eternal River Music (BMI)
Produced by Chuck Greenberg
This recording was made on Studer 24-track recorders and Trident consoltes with Ampex 456 tape at 30 inches per second. It was mixed to a Studer Mark III half-inch two-track recorder. No noise reduction, compression or limiting was used.
Special thanks to Will Ackerman and Anne Ackerman Robinson for having the faith to make this album possible.
Other Shadowfax albums on Windham Hill
2. Shadowdance 1983
3. The Dreams of Children 1984
4. Too Far to Whisper 1986
With 1983’s Past Light, Will Ackerman expands on the collaborations that he began to explore in earnest on 1981’s Passage, for an album that melds Ackerman’s meditative style with a larger vision of dynamic group performances.
Past Light is Ackerman’s fifth solo album, and twenty-eighth Windham Hill release. He must have been in the thick of the Windham Hill explosion, and it shows in a number of ways: the incredible stable of artists with whom he collaborates (Mark Isham, Michael Hedges, Darol Anger, Stein/Walder, Greenberg and Szmadzinski from Shadowfax, even Bay Area neighbors Kronos Quartet); the continued development of an aesthetic for group performances of Windham Hill artists, first seen on albums like Alex De Grassi’s Clockwork; and a confidence to keep pushing his vision farther, while hewing to his unique style, born out of Fahey and Kottke, but by now all his own.
While it still has poignant moments, there’s less mournfulness on Past Light than was present on Passage. There is less Erik Satie contemplation and more Robbie Basho exuberance in emotion, though stylistically Ackerman is wholly his own man.
The album opens with “Visiting” which varies enough in pacing and dynamics so that listeners are engaged and relaxed, taken on a journey with many uplifting moments. Where George Winston and Alex De Grassi write songs that are evocative of specific places at a certain time (a stream in January, a trip to Philadelphia) and Michael Hedges songs are paeans to rhythms, harmonics and dynamics, Ackerman’s work always strikes me as being about mood in and of itself. Each piece seems to be about that feeling you get when… (fill in your own very personal blank here.) Less intense and immediate than Passage, but profoundly evocative.
The fact that the moods here are varied, and often include the golden sunshine of Chuck Greenberg’s Lyricon just makes Past Light appealing to a wider audience, and a friendlier play for stalwart fans. Overall, it feels like Will was in a really good spot. Emotionally, the album it feels most like is Ackerman’s 2011 New England Roads (my current favorite of all of his albums, dare I even say it, over In Search of the Turtle’s Navel, and available exclusively at Target).
“One always goes to great lengths at times like these to thank a phalanx of individuals for their contributions to the project as a whole. This will be no exception. Often the musicians who joined me on Past Light were given little more than a basic form in which to work, and it is no false modesty to to say that many of the compositions represented in these recordings are pure collaborations on the part of these friends and myself. To them I am sincerely grateful. I must also thank my co-producer, Steve Miller, for having the talent and vision that enabled me to try new ideas.”
Produced by William Ackerman and Steven Miller
This recording was made on a Studer 24 track recorder at thirty inches per second. No noise reduction or compression was employed. The recordings were mixed digitally on a Sony PCM 1600 system, Kef speakers were used for audio monitoring and referencing on this recording.
Thanks to Harn Soper for loaning “Rain to River” back to me to record and to Dan Snow for the dream that inspired “Night Slip”. Thanks to Ervin Somogyi for the construction of my newest six-string and to Adamas strings.
Vapor Drawings is the first album by Mark Isham, the 27th Windham Hill release, and the first electronic release on the label.
“Vapor Drawings was my first solo recording, my first adventure into a large-scale electronic music record. I played almost all the instruments on it — in fact everything except the drums. It was a big challenge and took a lot of hard work. I see it as the first of a series of records that experimented with this genre (whatever that genre might be considered – somewhere between New Age and Fusion) the second of which was Tibet, the third of which was Castalia.”
While it is possible to hear the echoes of Tangerine Dream and Vangelis in Vapor Drawings, it stands on its own as a clear new vision of what could be done with electronic music. Humor, pathos, and inspiration are all heard throughout the album, all with lucid orchestral colors.
There is so much to say about Mark Isham that I’ve held off on this review for a long time. Mark has gone on to become one of the most effective and most prolific film score composers in history, while continuing to make beautiful music across genres. I love jazz, I love new age (at least as defined by Windham Hill); I love English art rock (David Sylvian, Brian Eno, Dead Can Dance). I can think of only one person who has crossed all of these boundaries: Mark Isham. In the end, I must send you on your own journey of the man’s work. http://www.isham.com can keep you busy all day long.
Regardless, Windhaming is intended to document the works of Windham Hill on their own merit. Fortunately, Vapor Drawings is as much of a masterpiece as a standalone album as it is the opening album in Mark Isham’s oevre. The music percolates, hums, and marches toward majestic peaks. Coming so early in Isham’s career, one could imagine that he was simply trying new styles in electronic music. But the effect is that the listener is rewarded by a walk through many possibilities.
It probably helps to like electronic music to truly love Vapor Drawings, but the classical underpinnings, organic drums, and emotional appeal give the album a draw much broader than “electronic” would imply. Also, the synthesizers used continue to sound fresh – include any of these tracks on an “ambient” sampler and you would be hard pressed to detect that they are 30 years old.
By the time Vapor Drawings came out, Ackerman had built such a trust level in his taste with Windham Hill, that I bought the album based solely on label and instrumentation. While the later “Interior” albums felt like synthesizer works, “Vapor Drawings” simply felt like music.
The wonderful “Many Chinas” was originally recorded by Isham on the 1976 Rubisa Patrol album (ECM 1081) with Art Lande, Bill Douglass and Glenn Cronkhite. Mark’s influence and horn playing is felt throughout that release, and anyone interested in his early work should seek it out. One of the joys of the Windhaming project is meeting people and learning more about artists I love. It was Record Store Day 2013 that I walked into Grooveyard Records in Oakland CA, and mentioned the Windhaming project to Rick Ballard. Turns out he was the original ECM importer before ECM had a major label partner in the US. A quick run through his bins yielded the Rubisa Patrol gem.
On the Threshold of Liberty
Raffles in Rio
Something Nice for my Dog
Men Before the Mirror
Mr. Moto’s Penguin (who’d be an Eskimo’s wife?)
In the Blue Distance
Credits / Liner Notes
Mark Isham: Synthesizers, trumptes, flugelhorn, piano, soprano sax, Steiner EVI, electronic percussion
Peter Van Hooke: Snare drum and electronic percussion
(c) (p) Windham Hill Records 1983
Distributed by A&M Records
On the Threshold of Liberty is named after the Rene Magritte painting:
It’s a pleasure to see that portions of Vapor Drawings were recorded in the same studio as Thomas Dolby’s “The Golden Age of Wireless.”
On Photographer Larry Bell’s work, which was used for the cover art:
Two large bodies of work on paper, Bell’s “vapor drawings” and the more recent “mirage works”, are also the products of Bell’s use of thin film deposition technology. The vapor drawings are created by using PET film to mask paper sheets, which are then coated. Bell describes the advantages of this process and medium:
Masking the paper with thin PET film strips to expose areas related to the shape of the page plane enabled me to generate images spontaneously. This work gave me a conscious glimpse of the inherent power of spontaneity and improvisation. The work happened intuitively…In a short amount of time I created a number of interesting pieces. I liked this way of working. It was different from tediously coping with the weight and risk of glass. In my mind, I was investigating improbable visuals using improbable means.
The mirage pieces, on the other hand, are collages constructed out of pieces of coated materials that are then arranged and laminated. As Bell says, “I colored sheets of various paper materials, strips of PET film, and laminate film. Then I fused them to canvases and stretched them. Tapestries of woven light differentials resulted.” 
You can see more of Larry Bell’s work at Artsy