Winter – Album Review
Winter begins with “Three Good Kings,” a medley of “We Three Kings” and “Good King Wenceslas” plus some original touches – a peaceful yet sparkling arrangement! When I was growing up, it seemed like all of the arrangements of “O Holy Night” were very big and dramatic, but that trend has certainly changed over the past few decades. Marvel’s arrangement for solo piano is expressive, but also very soothing. “Walking In the Air” from The Snowman has become one of my favorites. I have heard a lot of great arrangements of this haunting song, but George Winston’s is probably the best-known. Marvel pays homage to Winston in the middle section – a wonderful arrangement! “Arran Boat Song/Holly and the Ivy” is a lovely duet for flute and piano that features Leslie Anne Nielsen on Celtic flute. I’ll be honest here – “O Come O Come Emmanuel” is one of my favorite Christmas songs, but “Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming” is not. Listening to Marvel’s solo piano medley was unusual in that I thought, “Wow, this is really nice!” Good job! “Coventry Carol” is one of the darkest of the traditional Christmas pieces (another favorite of mine!), and this arrangement is a duet for piano and cello (Heidi Mausbach) – absolutely stunning! “Winter,” an original piano solo, beautifully captures the stillness as well as the magic of that time of year. A Colorado native, I’m sure Marvel is an expert on the winter experience! This 8 1/2-minute piece is one of the highlights of this excellent album. A big surprise is “Little Didge Boy,” an arrangement of “The Little Drummer Boy” for piano and didgeridoo (Doug Powell)! Really? Yep – and it works amazingly well along with being lots of fun! “Silent Night” begins as a simple and somber piano solo but later becomes a sweet vocal piece with Marvel’s daughter singing the lyrics. The other titles include a medley of “In the Bleak Midwinter” and “O Sanctissima” (Liz Story’s arrangement), “The First Noel” (with just a little bit of “Jingle Bells”), “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and “Auld Lang Syne.”
Winter will be a wonderful addition to your collection of Christmas music that focuses more on reflection than Santa and loud parties. It’s available from Amazon and CD Baby. Very highly recommended!
Wind and Wire
Pianist Ryan Marvel lends his touch to some “marvelous” arrangements of traditional holiday carols, both secular and spiritual, on the aptly titled Winter. Marvel is a gifted artist and an imaginative arranger, something immediately apparent on the opening track, “Three Good Kings” on which “We Three Kings” is lightly brushed with subtle (and occasionally, not so subtle) jazz influences – not enough to make the tune unrecognizable, but with new wrinkles nonetheless. While not every carol/song is treated to this amount of improvisational embellishment, Marvel’s goal seems to be painting each selection with just enough extra flourish to distinguish his music from cookie-cutter carols. In every case, the arrangement never detracts from the beauty of the original and, actually, it sometimes enhances it, such as on his lovely rendition of “O, Holy Night.” One carol that stands out for brazen originality and features the most imaginative arrangement is “Little Didge Boy” which, of course, is “Little Drummer Boy” and yes, it features didgeridoo (played by Doug Powell). Now, I admit hearing the growling and barking of a didge set against the melody of “Little Drummer Boy” can take some getting used to, but it’s more than a “novelty” take on this classic, as Marvel also jazzes up the heart of the song as well on piano.
Marvel shines brightest when he takes a quiet approach to an interpretation which allows his nuanced style of soft playing to come to the forefront. “Walking in the Air” carries a hint of melancholy. In the middle of the song, Marvel (per the liner notes) pays homage to George Winston’s ostinato motif. The haunting melody perfectly captures the image of a twilight walk through falling snow – at least for me it does. Marvel’s sole original composition is “Winter,” a somber piece that clocks in at 8+ minutes that sheds its minimalism part way through and turns to a more classical-oriented style.
Besides Powell’s didgeridoo, Heidi Mausbach plays cello on an evocative version of “Coventry Carol” while flutist Leslie Anne Harrison’s lilting flute transports the listener to Ireland on the medley track “Aran Boat Song/Holly and the Ivy.” The transition from the sorrowful “Aran Boat Song” to the lively “Holly and the Ivy” is seamless – much to my surprise.
Marvel’s last three selections are a wonderful trio of classics. First is a superb rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” that captures both the magic of the carol as well as its sadness. “Silent Night” receives an appropriately respectful treatment and is quite minimal at times and always sincerely reverent. Appropriately, the last song, “Auld LangSy ne” sends us into the New Year. Once again, Marvel plugs into the heart of the song, playing the tune in a particularly plaintive yet also optimistic fashion.
Winter is a winner, pure and simple. It’s an album meant to be enjoyed with loved ones during the quiet times of the holiday. Bravo, Ryan Marvel, bravo.
Possibilities – Album Review
Possibilities is the second release from pianist/composer Ryan Marvel and his first album of all-original compositions. A classically-trained pianist from Durango, CO, Marvel started exploring composition and arranging at a very young age. He released his first solo album in 2005, Left Hand, Right Hand, which is a collection of classical pieces, original arrangements, and a couple of original works for piano. Possibilities was nominated for “2010 Album of the Year” awards by both Whisperings Solo Piano Radio and SoloPiano.com. Marvel characterizes the album as “a musical journey of personal reflection,” and the fourteen tracks all ring very true. The piano solos were composed from 1994-2010 and include pieces composed for a daughter’s birth, to grieve the loss of a grandmother, a love of wolves, lost love, and a choreographed dance. In addition to being a pianist/composer, Ryan Marvel is Director of Music and Choirs at Foothills Unitarian Church in Fort Collins, CO, an independent arranger and he has a full private teaching studio.
Possibilities begins with “Five Years,” a prelude of sorts in its brevity and introductory feeling. It flows right into the title track, an energetic yet somewhat tentative piece that seems to express excitement at getting moving while holding back just a bit. “The Gift” is the earliest composition on the album, written in 1994 – very beautiful and heartfelt! “Dance” is a collection of themes and musical ideas that flow together much like the “dance” of life does – fascinating! “Tender, These Thoughts” is a favorite. Stunning in its openness and honesty, it expresses soul-baring emotion with a minimum number of notes. “Wolf” does a wonderful job of describing the wild beauty of these animals while also expressing their struggle to survive in the natural world. “Lost Love” again expresses so much with so little. Poignant beyond words, feelings of loss and pain flow from the heart of the composer to the heart of the listener – also a favorite. “Lanie’s Theme” is the song Marvel heard when he first held his daughter – so delicate, fragile, and overflowing with love. The closing track, “For Rose,” was improvised in Marvel’s home studio shortly after his grandmother’s passing. Rather than intentionally composing a piece in her honor, this was “a grandson letting healing musical thoughts escape.” No mastering was done on this track, so it is as Marvel created it. The emotional expression in this wonderful piece is pure, and I’m sure much healing took place in its creation.
I missed out on Possibilities when it first came out, so reviewing it six years later has been a real treat! The album is available from RyanMarvel.com, Amazon, iTunes, and CD Baby. Very highly recommended!