Winter II – Album Review (NEW!)
Winter II is the follow-up to Ryan Marvel’s 2013 Winter. Marvel was awarded the “Whisperings Album of the Year” for his incredible 2017 release, Reflecting Forward, and while Winter II might not be as deeply personal as last year’s album, it’s equally heartfelt and stunningly beautiful. The twelve tracks on Winter II include two piano and cello duets (with cellist Heidi Mausbach), a few Christmas standards arranged and played with Ryan’s unique touch, and several lesser-known Christmas pieces that Ryan included to hopefully bring them renewed attention. Although I’m sure Ryan Marvel can rock out with the best of them, it’s the depth of emotion and simple beauty of his music that make his style unique and so affecting. In a nutshell, this is one of the most peaceful and soothing Christmas albums I’ve heard – perfect holiday music for winding down with a glass of wine or a cup of hot cocoa, quiet holiday dinner music, or any time you just want to be wrapped up in the warmth of gentle Christmas music. All but the duets were recorded at Piano Haven Studios in Sedona, AZ and all were mixed and mastered by Joe Bongiorno, a wizard when it comes to beautiful piano recordings.
Winter II begins with “Ukranian Bell Carol” (aka “Carol of the Bells”), a piece that adapts to an amazing variety of music genres, instrumentation and playing styles. It can be very percussive, but in Ryan’s hands, it is smooth, flowing and elegant – a great arrangement! “Dona Nobis Pacem” comes from the Roman Catholic Latin Mass and translates to “Grant us peace.” A repeated rhythmic pattern runs throughout the piece to support a simple but very expressive melody. I wasn’t familiar with this one, so thank you, Ryan! “Huron Carol” is Canada’s oldest Christmas carol and dates back to 1642. Very dark and haunting, it really should be heard more often – gorgeous! The first piano and cello duet is the Bach-Gounod pairing of the “Prelude in C” with “Ave Maria.” I love the combination of piano and cello, and both artists really soar with this lovely duet! “What Child Is This?” isn’t an uncommon carol, but I never get tired of it – especially in such sensitive hands as Ryan’s! “Gloucestershire Wassail” is another new one for me. Bright and livelier than many of the tracks, it has an infectious, joyful spirit. “All Through the Night” is paired with “Away In a Manger,” a very sweet and gentle lullaby that is so soothing and comforting! “Quem Pastores Laudavere” dates all the way back to the 14th century and has a bell-like quality that feels celebratory but dignified. The second cello and piano duet is the last track, and is a different arrangement of “Ave Maria” that combines the Bach/Gounod version with Franz Schubert’s – a stellar close to a wonderful Christmas album!
Ryan Marvel is an artist who deserves much wider recognition! If you enjoy solo piano that isn’t flashy but overflows with emotion, his music is a must-hear!
Reflecting Forward – Album Review
I listen to an incredible amount of music in the course of writing reviews of new recordings and sheet music, and as much as I enjoy that, every once in awhile, an album comes along that smacks me upside the head and makes me stop and say “WOW!” Ryan Marvel’s Reflecting Forward is that album. I have thoroughly enjoyed Marvel’s previous releases, but this one is so intense and so emotionally powerful that it won’t be an easy task to take it out of my player and move on to something else when the review is finished. That doesn’t happen very often.
The fourteen original piano solos emerged from a personal crisis and the challenges and healing processes that followed. In Marvel’s own words: “The record represents emotions and reflections throughout the year, and what I experienced in trying to heal, cut out the noise, and rely on my own trust and personal growth. The album, to me, represents pain, anger, realization, healing, peace, love and renewal. It’s not meant to be a sad album…As I said in the liner notes, renewal is an ongoing process…and we all go through things in our lives that require us to look deep inside of ourselves and re-commit ourselves to family and friends. It’s personal, it’s human.” All but two of the tracks on the album were recorded at Piano Haven Studios in Sedona by Joe Bongiorno. The other two were recorded at Coupe Studios in Boulder, CO. Bongiorno did the mastering and the piano sound is absolutely perfect.
All of the pieces on Reflecting Forward are excellent, but I’ll mention some of my favorites. The album begins with the title track, a piece that begins with an intense intro that represents the sudden, devastating change that happened earlier this year. The rest of the piece is much softer and more cautious, representing a tentative hope. “Forgotten” was composed about Marvel’s 11-year-old daughter and her dance between being a child and a teen – a difficult time in every young girl’s life. Heartfelt and bittersweet, it truly shows the tenderness of a loving dad. “Conflict” features passages with the piano strings muted and the plucking sound that makes contrasted with the flowing quality of the more “normal” way of playing the piano – very intense and deeply emotional. “Apology” goes really deep and dark, but is also hypnotic and haunting. The piece lightens gradually as hope for forgiveness returns. The repeated pattern on the left hand in “Horizons” represents the steadiness of the horizon while the right hand is more improvisatory and reflects both the uncertainty and the possibility of this past year. “Then, Now” is almost a soliloquy and feels very isolated, introspective and brutally honest. “Stillness” goes even deeper inside, expressing loss and despair, but also finding rays of hope to cling to. “Somber” is very spare with lots of damper pedal utilized to create an effective atmosphere of dark reflection. “Hopeful” is much lighter as the dark clouds start to give way to sunnier skies and moments of joy. “Beginnings” closes this incredible album with cautious optimism and hope amid much change and complexity.
I don’t use the term “masterpiece” very often, but I really feel that Reflecting Forward qualifies. Ryan Marvel says that creating the music brought him much healing and peace, and I’m sure it will do so for his listeners as well. I give the album my highest recommendation. It is available from www.RyanMarvel.com, Amazon, iTunes and CD Baby. Again, WOW!
Winter – Album Review
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