St. Aidan's Episcopal Church on Camano Island, WA, site of the June 2011 Selah Services.
UNDER THE WONDER SKY
By Jeff Johnson, Brian Dunning, and Wendy Goodwin
NPR Echoes' December album of the month, this latest instrumental release lends a light Celtic touch to eleven Christmas carols, two revisioned as original compositions. Johnson's sixth seasonal album sets the tone for the season; it's just right for falling snow, warm candles, and hot cider.
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By Phil Keaggy & Jeff Johnson
A musical journey to a place where heaven and earth truly meet, this masterful recording was inspired by Keaggy and Johnson’s experience at Laity Lodge on the Frio River in Texas. Full of rich, lyrical, haunting melodies of beautifully textured guitars, piano and keyboards, these original instrumentals were produced as part of a collaboration with visual artist, Kathy Hastings..
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Jeff Johnson's Water Music
(A Hitchhiker's Guide to Jeff Johnson)
by Gord Wilson.
The universe is like a ball of string, but with ends everywhere; you can start anywhere to unravel its mysteries. Jeff Johnson's music is like that too; you can start anywhere to explore it, but following it may take you anywhere.
Or, to vary the metaphor, his music is like water. Diving in, you find yourself refreshed, but swim out from the land and plunge into the depths, and you undergo a sea change; the familiar landscape of the quotidian world is somehow altered, as if by opening a new door of perception.
Jeff's albums are of two kinds: mainly lyrical, and mostly instrumental. But he moves freely between them and they're really not all that different. As when you dive down and can hear nothing in the silent sea, and come up to be greeted by the sounds of birds and lapping waves, so Jeff's lyrics seem to rise up from the music and splash down again. On the lyrical albums, he clambers up onto shore for a longer time before diving in again; on the instrumental albums he navigates the undersea world, barely coming up for air.
Born of water was the title of an early instrumental album, and Jeff has continued to explore the symbolism of water. A reflective pool adorns the covers of both A Quiet Knowing--Canticles For the Heart, an instrumental album, and The Isle of Dreams, a lyrical album. Prayers of St. Brendan-- The Journey Home, released by Hearts of Space, and featuring classical singer Janet Chvatal, opens with "Oceanus" and closes with "Navigatio."
Beginning with Songs From Albion I , Jeff embarked on a unique partnership with fantasy author Stephen Lawhead. Songs from Albion I, II, and III by Johnson and Brian Dunning, form musical accompaniments, as it were, to Lawhead's The Song of Albion fantasy trilogy. In the first book of the trilogy, modern adventurers enter an ancient realm by tracing an endless Celtic knot. But the same experience of timelessness awaits the listener of Johnson's lyrical album, Icons , which echoes on its cover the interleaving Celtic design.
Byzantium--The Book of Kells and St. Aidan's Journey is similarly inspired by Lawhead's novel, Byzantium. The Windham Hill instrumental album, Music of Celtic Legends-- The Bard and the Warrior, includes a booklet with two short stories by Lawhead, the music forming a dynamic accompanying soundtrack. "The Dream of Taliessin" from this album also appeared on the Windham Hill Classics collection, Celtic Legacy .
Divers often report a sensation of how ancient everything seems. From the flora of the seabed to sunken ruins on the ocean floor, the water world seems to speak of something older than time. Celtic art resonates with this sensation of emerging from ancient haunts and returning to the fathomless sea, celebrating in its intricate tracery the manifold richness of creation.
Drawn from Taize choruses and Celtic melodies, Benediction gathers these elements of contemplative prayer and timeless worship. No Shadow of Turning and A Quiet Knowing similarly offer insrumental renditions of traditional hymns, deftly and subtly summoning the well-known words, allowing us to recall and hear them anew.
But Jeff's most evocative album may be his 2002 release, The Memory Tree. A reflective meditation on the passing of a friend, it may be the musical companion to C.S. Lewis' slim book, A Grief Observed. But it is more than that. Water is still present, and seems to sweep through the landscape like the vast waters of the Nile, but now another symbol enters in the memory tree, an evergreen planted in memoriam of his friend. As with Ygdrasil, the World Tree of Norse mythology, new life comes through the changing seasons, and as in Psalm one, planted and nourished beside still waters, such a tree shall not be moved.
Lyrically questing, musically passionate, The Memory Tree may be Jeff's most evocative album to date. One can imagine the weathered tree depicted on the cover beaten by storm and pounded by rain, releasing its seeds in the wind. And if you followed those seeds, like bits of string, who knows where they would lead?
Brian Dunning: Musical Son of Dublin by Gord Wilson
Had Brian Dunning been born in the last century, he might have featured among the colorful characters of James Joyce's celebrated portrayl of Irish life, Dubliners. As luck would have it, his wide experience of Celtic music and culture instead found expression in collaboration with another maverick musician, Jeff Johnson.
Gazing down, as he may be, from the realm of the angels, Joyce would no doubt be delighted to observe how the music of his environs, in the nearly one hundred years since he wrote, has gained listeners worldwide. And he would rejoice to know that another son of Dublin has kept the tradition alive, mixing it with jazz, rock, and blues, and updating it for a new century, teaming with Johnson to create definitive recordings in an emerging genre.
Dunning brings to the partnership an extensive background in jazz, classical and traditional Irish music. In 1974 he won a scholarship to to Royal Irish Academy, during which time he also studied in Master Classes with remowned flutist James Galway. In 1985 he joined the acclaimed Windham Hill group, Nightnoise, and worked throughout the '80s with various well-known artists, including Celtic music master, Donal Lunny.
A three strand cord is not quickly broken. The wisdom of that ancient proverb was borne out in the early '90s when Dunning joined Johnson in an unusual trio--the third member being not a musician but fantasy author Stephen Lawhead. The unique collaboration kicked off in 1992 when Johnson and Dunning recorded the first of a three CD series, Songs From Albion, creating an additional musical dimension for readers of Lawhead's best-selling fantasy trilogy.
The trio's efforts met with immediate acclaim. "Dunning's flute playing is nothing less than splendid, and Johnson's keyboard accompaniment are sophisticated and filled with emotion," enthused Syndicate magazine. Albion II (1993) was similarly well-received. "This is new age music of power and vision," extolled Billboard magazine. Of the third volume (1994), Heartbeats wrote, "The utter musicianship brought to these recordings is stunning...An adventure where Nightnoise meets Patrick O'Hearn." The initial enthusiasm for Albion I spurred Dunning and Johnson into ever-wider experimentation, with such artists as Irish fiddler John Cunningham of Silly Wizard joining to interpret the musical vision. A collection of eleven songs from the three Albion CDs along with two songs from Windham Hill's Celtic Christmas series was recently released as The Enduring Story--A Retrospective .
Following the release of Lawhead's 2001 novel, Byzantium, the duo released Byzantium--The Book of Kells and St. Aidan's Journey , a musical versioning which promptly placed on NPR's "Echoes" top 25. The soundtrack evocatively follows the Celtic monk, Aidan, from the Irish Sea through Gaul, into Viking kingdoms, down the Volga, and over the desert sands of Persia. Adding counterpoint to Dunning's Celtic sensibilities on this ambitious project are Turkish virtuoso, Omar Faruk Tekbilek, Irish violinist, John Fitzpatrick, and classical vocalist, Janet Chvatal.
Other musical collaborations include The Dream of Taliessin, recently remastered and retitled, with the additional talents of violinist John Fitzpatrick and percussionist Gregg Williams. Originally released in 1977 as The Music of Celtic Legends: The Bard and the Warrior , this long-unavailable CD gained immediate airplay. Inspired by Lawhead's then-current best-seller, this unique project indluded a booklet with two short stories by Lawhead.
Over the last decade, Dunning has continued to hone his skills on such diverse projects as Benediction , which conjures an aural abbey to recreate the experience of ancient monks, and an instrumental reprise of emblematic and well-known hymns, A Quiet Knowing--Canticles For the Heart . The duo followed with a musical soudtrack to Lawhead's 2003 novel, Patrick, which follows the life and legends of Ireland's best-loved saint. Vespers: Light into Light, inspired by the traditional evensong service, further meanders along Celtic byways.
Whether or not Dunning and Johnson are creating modern instrumental classics may be open to conjecture, but whether or no, their listenership is growing. A great many people have heard their memorable music drifting over NPR's "Echoes" or "Hearts in Space." Others have heard the odd selection on any number of collections from EMI/Sparrow or Windham Hill, including the Celtic Twilight, Celtic Christmas, or Winter Solstice series. And most recently, featured in the soundtrack of the Martin Scorcese film, Gangs of New York. Here a stirring, heroic paeon; there a haunting, ethereal refrain. The songs and styles may vary, but there is something instantly recognizable about the Dunning-Johnson nexus-- and something tantalizing. Once catch the fleeting strains of their siren song, and you forever long for more.
copyright by Gord Wilson. Used by permission.
A Review of Vespers by Gord Wilson
(A version of this review appeared on Amazon
as "A Little Night Music.")
Listeners who know Jeff Johnson from NPR's "Echoes," Hearts in Space" or the Windham Hill Celtic and seasonal samplers may be surprised at the diversity in his wide-ranging back catalog, but most who hear one CD will want to hear them all. Vespers is almost a follow-up to Benediction, which Johnson called "an ancient future experience of sacred music," and continues his genre-breaking experimental fusions of classical, jazz, and rock.
The point of departure is the ancient evensong service, traditionally held at sunset and based on the Psalms. The most immediate audiences for Vespers are Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans and others from liturgical churches for whom Agnus Dei, "The Breastplate of St. Patrick," and "The Prayer of St. Francis" will strike a familiar chord. Like Benediction, Vespers includes Celtic chants and Taize choruses, but lyrics are sparse in this meditation, which is carried by the music.
The longest vocal piece is "The Prayer of St. Francis." "Magnificat" repeats only the first line of Mary's musing, sung in latin by classical singer Janet Chvatal, who also appeared in the Austrian production of Phantom of the Opera (but the liner notes include the English translation). "Wait for the Lord," a Taize chant, is sung as a duet, with Chvatal taking the latin and Johnson handling the English. Johnson's restrained keyboard here echoes his haunting Songs of Albion, a three CD instrumental series loosely based on the fantasy trilogy by Steve Lawhead. Vespers opens with a 7:45 minute instrumental (again recalling Albion). "Blessed is the Man" takes its title from Psalm one, but the only lyric is "Alleluia," sung by Chvatal over snatches of Rachmoninoff.
While Vespers echoes the intentionality of the traditional evensong service (it was partly recorded in Chartes Cathedral, France), Johnson improvises widely. The ensemble includes electric guitar and bass, but it's balanced by cello, flute and violin. This is not a rock praise album (although I wouldn't be surprised is Johnson did one in the future), neither does it simply capitalize on the current popularity of chant, ala Enigma. Rather, Vespers offers an environment for meditation and contemplation, and for those who will, an experience of praise (For more information or to order, click on the top picture).