Will Ackerman – FLOW – LMB Music 11006, 50:33 ****1/2:
With three instruments and bona fide gravitas as instrumentalists, Flow is a group of established solo artists who have joined together to share a specific musical vision. Will Ackerman, Windham Hill founder and producer may be the most recognized member of Flow (whose spelling is an acronymic play on their names; Fiona/“F”; Lawrence/“L”; Jeff Oster/“O” and of course /“W”). Ackerman’s career spans over three decades and his thoughtful approach to acoustic guitar is iconic. At Windhan Hill, the music that he popularized was known as New Age. He is joined in the band by Australian pianist and vocalist Fiona Joy, finger-guitarist Lawrence Blatt and trumpet/flugelhorn artist (and “organizer” of this band). Individually all four players have critically acclaimed recordings and live performances on their resumes in Contemporary Instrumental music, New Age or even Ambient stylings. Regardless of the classification debates, this “supergroup” transcends the limitations of any genre. While still performing and recording, Ackerman has been a fruitful producer at his Imaginary Road Studios, in Vermont. This opportunity to work with brilliant musicians and create a cohesive, yet expansive aural landscape was impossible to ignore. FLOW was born out of respect, intellectual curiosity and the drive to make music democratically with input and ideas from all members.
The self-titled debut begins with a co-authored (for the record, all the music is credited to the foursome) piece, “Arrival”. This track delves into the space and personal intimacy under a gently pulsating piano melody by Joy that has shades of aspiration. The is a tempo pick up from the addition of acoustic guitars as Oster builds a swelling counter to Joy’s haunting lines. Even in this low-keyed arrangement, there is significant atmospheric texture. And that texture rolls into “Whisper Me This”. With a restrained percussion underpinning (Jeff Haynes), the quartet build a musical tapestry that’s demonstrates a palpable intimacy and traditional 1980’s engineering that includes how space changes the context of sounds. There instrumentalists have committed to preserve the sanctity of instrumental group dynamics. The results are breathless for their harmonic integrity and complex delicacy. As the title cut unfurls, a jauntier vibe is mined with dual acoustic guitars and trumpet inflection. Joy’s piano and murmuring voice shading adds considerable texture. At the 2:00 minute mark there is a meditative shift that lasts for one minute. The percussion anchors the jam and this feels like the essence of the band is on full display.
“Free Ascent” has an expansive “airy” intro with superb guitar articulation. The aural swelling surrounds the crisp guitar notation in this “dreamscape”. The gently pulsating closing is stunning. Shifting gears, “Waiting For Sunshine” is finger-snapping breeze with a rhythmic acoustic guitar, smooth flugelhorn lines and a focused guitar lead. it has an hypnotic effect and when Joy comes in on piano (with understatement), the lyricism abounds. On “Waters Gather”, Oster sets a moody context as Joy executes measured classical runs. A cello (Eugene Friesen) is a nice addition to this “cerebral” musical stream. A certain standout on Flow is the mercurial “And The Sky Was”. It captures nuanced, jazzy folk chording. With muted trumpet and piano trading off, the guitar work has a sustained gossamer resonance, like Jorma Kaukonen or David Crosby.
“A Night In Nocelle” is nothing short of guitar bliss. Oster’s trumpet and Joy’s inimitable soft vocalese caress the melody with graceful nuance. “Tenth Life” begins with a baleful refrain, but the inspirational piano and cello take the arrangement to a different level. Each section or instrumental passage is fresh and inventive. “Rest Now My Friend’ delivers on its namesake with a plaintive, reassuring melody on guitar. There is an inherent solitude that exudes from the song. The acoustic guitar is at the core of the finale, “For Rosalita & Giovanni”. A heartfelt translation includes a deft piano, horn and bottom-filling cello. It is a fitting conclusion to a great album.
It is no surprise that Flow has garnered multiple industry awards. The instrumentalists are stellar and their interaction is seamless. The mix is luxurious and glows with ample expansion and texture. Hopefully there will be more albums on the horizon.
Will Ackerman – guitar; Fiona Joy – piano, vocals; Lawrence Blatt – acoustic, electric guitar, ukulele; Jeff Oster – trumpet, flugelhorn; Mark Shulman – guitar; Tony Levin – bass; Jeff Haynes – percussion; Sam Bevan – bass; Eugene Friesen – cello; Tom Eaton – guitar, bass
Arrival; Whisper Me this; Flow; Free Ascent; Waiting For Sunshine; Waters Gather; And The Sky Was; A Night In Nocelle; Tenth Life; Rest Now My Friend; For Rosita & Giovanni