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World Music CD Reviews New Age & Avant Garde

Will Ackerman, Jim Brickman, Mark Isham, Shadowfax, Tuck & Patti

By James Rodgers
Published March 20, 2007

Windham Hill

Will Ackerman, the founder of Windham Hill, once threatened physical violence against anyone who referred to the music on his label as New Age. While it’s unlikely anyone was ever hurt, it’s easy to understand his strong stance against the term. Besides being a silly moniker that explains nothing, the spacey connotations attached to the phrase don’t fit the mix of instrumental and smooth jazz Ackerman and Co. created. As Windham Hill celebrates their 30th year, they’ve released the first five in a proposed 10-release series, introducing new audiences to some of the heritage artists on their incredible roster. Though why George Winston, their biggest artist, isn’t currently scheduled to get the “Pure” treatment is puzzling.

The Pure series highlights these artists’ careers by collecting anywhere from 14 to 18 tracks that combine hits and album cuts that fit the mellow mood of each CD. The covers are simple, with a serene and sometimes bleak nature photo and the artist’s name on the front. There’s a brief description of each artist, and a few words describing how they hope fans will feel listening to the songs within. Despite Ackerman’s hatred of the phrase, the packaging has a very New Agey feel. Luckily, the superior music rises above the marketing.

Shadowfax mix world and jazz into something uniquely theirs, still sounding fresh almost two decades in. Their disc only samples the five records they did with Windham Hill, and the breadth of style and change between 1982 and 1990 is astounding. Mark Isham’s disc has 14 songs, including a bonus track, “All Blues,” that samples the Miles Davis classic and makes the connection many of us have heard for years. Some of his film pieces, though, don’t always fit seamlessly with the rest. Will Ackerman’s 16 tracks showcase his guitar work at its subtle best and demonstrate why an entire label was built upon it, though the omission of anything from his debut is puzzling. Jim Brickman’s piano pieces are more straightforward, but still hummable and pleasant. Plus, his release includes two bonus cuts. Tuck & Patti have the only disc that isn’t primarily instrumental, with Patti Cathcart’s bluesy vocals dancing over Tuck Andress’ incredible playing.

Those who own greatest hits or retrospectives from any of these artists will see some overlap – three songs on Jim Brickman’s, and up to eight songs on the Shadowfax disc, the worst offender. But for newcomers, this series is what it tries to be: a fine starting point.