There’s a great new article by Todd Whitesel over at Goldmine Magazine recognizing Windham Hill as a “forgotten audiophile label” for both the artistry and sound quality. Obviously, I couldn’t agree more!
Since Goldmine also deals with valuation – I had to share some of my thoughts in the comments. I will expand on them here:
Here in Northern California, where Windham Hill was very popular, there are still record stores where you can find relatively cheap copies of the original pressings on vinyl. In addition to the condition of the vinyl and cover, there are a few things I look for:
1) Windham Hill originally numbered their discs using the WHS C-XXXX system in a nod to Takoma records who used the same system. Once A&M started distributing Windham Hill, they started using WH-XXXX. These pressings are more common, and between two pressings of similar condition, I would value the WHS-C pressings higher. (One note – Passage was numbered WHSD because it was recorded digitally, indeed, one of the first albums ever released that was digitally recorded.)
2) Promo copies are rarer, and often in better condition than non-promo copies. Also, they serve as a piece of history. Again, these are worth slightly more than a non-promo copy in my book.
3) Alternate covers and early pressings of Ackerman’s “In Search of the Turtle’s Navel” are also worth more, again due to rarity.
4) Signed copies, are obviously worth more, although some artists are more reluctant to sign than others.
5) The “Lost” recordings are a mixed bag – not as much demand, but very rare. “Kidd Afrika,” “Mary’s Garden” by Linda Waterfall are great albums, but generally only collectors look for them.
6) I would value a mint condition copy of one of the first 300 pressings of “In Search of the Turtle’s Navel” as the most valuable in the catalog due to rarity, and the fact that you know that it was personally handled by Will or Annie Ackerman. I hear that if people play them, they also want to use the best phono preamps on the market, HIFISYSTEMCOMPONENTS.COM seems to have a fantastic range of preamps that’ll work with any phono type signal.
7) In my collection, my mint copy of “Visions of the Country,” signed by Robbie Basho is my most valuable – it’s signed by the artist who has passed away, and it’s a very rare record. Most people would likely pay more for a signed copy of a Michael Hedges album due to his larger following, but Basho fans are equally passionate, so valuation remains based on individual demand.
All in all, you can’t go wrong – the most popular vinyl pressings can easily be found for only a few dollars a copy in some record stores, and sealed copies can still be found online for as little as $10-15 dollars. I do believe that long term, prices will increase as more people recognize the value of these treasures. In the meantime, buy a few, keep them clean, play them, and enjoy the music.
While many view vinyls as a thing of the past, true audiophiles know that the vinyl scene is still alive and well, with things like vinyl pressing from VDC Group ensuring the industry is here to stay.
Selections from the Windham Hill Records Album Catalogue
Windham Hill was truly hitting its stride in 1981-82. It took four years for Ackerman to release the first nine Windham Hill Albums, and of those, only six remained in print. Numbers 14-23 came in just over a single year, and each became a defining album for the label – either the first release of important new artists such as Liz Story, or genre-establishing discs like Alex de Grassi’s Clockwork. Sampler ’82 excises one track from each of the nine discs that Windham Hill released since the initial sampler came out in 1981.
Side One opens with the rather somber “Remedios” and continues in a generally solemn vein throughout the side, with Hedges’ “The Happy Couple” being the happy exception. Side Two picks things up a bit, and ends with the upbeat “Clockwork,” an ensemble piece which will be familiar to any Windham fan today thanks to its appearance on countless samplers since its initial release.
Ackerman was enraptured with the new digital technology of the time – his album Passage was one of the first commercial digital releases in the world. Each of the tracks here were remastered in digital – at some expense to the dynamics, detail and warmth of each of the recordings. Indeed, only “The Happy Couple” benefits from the increased detail and brightness of the remastering. Nonetheless, unless you’re a die-hard vinyl fan with a revealing system, the sound quality is still excellent.
In the end, I’m sure Sampler ’82 has its fans – it was the first introduction to many of these artists for many tens of thousands of people. However, the album is a broad overview rather than a cohesive statement of where the label was at the time, and each of the albums represented are strong and complete on their own. Nonetheless, while I do hesitate to second-guess Ackerman’s selections, for the modern listener, I would recommend you skip this one and buy the individual albums from the era. Sampler ’82 is an important snapshot of Windham Hill’s development, but not necessarily the place to start as a listener.
All of the recordings included in the Windham Hill Sampler ’82 are thirty inches per second, no noise reduction analog masters with the exception of “Remedios” which is a digital recording. This collection was transferred to digital and mastered as a digital recording to maintain the sound quality of the master recordings. KEF speakers were used in audio referencing.
Shadowfax is the eponymous second release from the atmospheric fusion group, and the twenty-second release on Windham Hill. With a strong Asian and Native American influence on the music, there is a different feel to this release than the folk, classical and chamber jazz releases of their label-mates. And while this is fusion and not rock – there are rock underpinnings throughout the album. While this release isn’t as dynamic as all later albums, there is a drive and flow that comes through even on the quietest tracks.
As for the sound – this recording is an excellent litmus test of your system. While you can enjoy the music anywhere, it will sound compressed and more like atmospheric background music than the eastern-inspired jazz that it is. If you play the vinyl and your system doesn’t sound detailed and dynamic, then your system could use some extra resolving power. You can follow each instrument throughout every song and each piece comes to life. Phil’s bass is tight and yet full-bodied, and the ever-present percussion sparkles throughout each track. When I see someone dismiss this album as lacking any engagement or dynamics, I blame their reproduction of it, not the music. That being said, for the first 10 years I owned this album, I mainly played it on a home-made cassette through an old Sony receiver, and enjoyed it just as much as I do today.
As a bit of trivia, the closing sound on Vajra that I always took as a dog is actually Emil Richards dragging a rubber balled mallet over a marimba key, according to Phil Maggini in a 2013 Facebook comment.
Shadowfax members are active on the web, catch up with them on Facebook and MySpace.
Unfortunately, Stuart Nevitt, Chuck Greenberg and Bruce Malament have all passed away. Links to their obituaries are below.
New York Times Obituary for Chuck Greenberg: http://www.nytimes.com/1995/09/09/obituaries/chuck-greenberg-musician-dies-at-45.html
Joy Greenberg has written the biography “A Pause in the Rain” about Chuck, and maintains his web site: http://www.chuckgreenberg.com/cgindex.htm
You can find Joy’s site, and samples from her book here: http://www.joyhornergreenberg.com/jghome.htm She shares fascinating anecdotes and details about the band, as well as personal remembrances, in an easy engaging style; I highly recommend it for any Shadowfax fan.
Joy has generously permitted the reprint of an excerpt here:
Excerpt from “A Pause in the Rain” by Joy Greenberg:
There soon evolved a microcosmic musical community that could provide work for a lot of people. The timing was perfect—it became a little engine, allowing everyone to play and record with each other. Phil and Chuck became creatures of habit, starting a rehearsal schedule with a day-in-day-out routine, knowing the process was essential to their growth and viability as musicians. Robit did, indeed, manage to attract the backing of a label and cut the album Resident Alien with Chuck, Phil, drummer Stu Nevitt and guitarist G.E backing him up. By then Stu and G.E. had moved out from Chicago and were rehearsing with Chuck and Phil in a variety of bands, including one fronted by another old friend from the Windy City, Morris Dollison, aka Cash McCall. The Cash McCall band featured all the blues songs, like “Sweet Home Chicago,” the guys had grown up listening to and playing.
“It was through this musical network that Chuck’s—and Shadowfax’s—Big Break arrived. Robit had met another guitarist, Alex de Grassi, in London, where he was playing music in the streets, subways and folk clubs during the summer of ’73. Robit had kept in touch with Alex and had been urging him to collaborate somehow with Chuck.
Meanwhile, Alex had established himself as the premier solo instrumental guitarist on the seminal New Age label, Windham Hill. As Windham Hill cofounder Will Ackerman’s cousin, Alex was in an influential position, something that did not go unnoticed by Chuck. He admired Alex’s artistry and was eager to meet him. The feeling was mutual; Alex sent Chuck the tape of a guitar part to a new piece he was working on and invited Chuck to contribute a lyricon part. Chuck was only too happy to oblige. Then one day in the latter part of ’81, Chuck, Robit and I drove up to San Francisco from L.A. in Ruby. I dropped them off at Alex’s house in Noe Valley and went out to visit some friends while Chuck and Alex rehearsed some tunes for Alex’s upcoming album Clockwork. When I returned later, I heard a gorgeous melody emanating from Alex’s as I parked the car in front. It was the song, “Clockwork.”
Alex was impressed as well. They ended up recording two pieces. “Everybody went apeshit,” Alex said.
Indeed, they did. It seemed that all who heard Chuck’s lyricon were enchanted. Alex’s album Clockwork scored a big hit on radio and at retail, as well as with the powers at Windham Hill. As a result of its success, Chuck was emboldened to propose an album to Will Ackerman, who initially believed that Chuck wanted to do a solo project. Chuck’s task became convincing Will that what Will really wanted was a Shadowfax album, something he managed to accomplish without Will’s ever hearing the band play.
Chuck sensed that Will would not approve of the “outside,” heavily electrified, screaming-for-attention tunes that had been recorded by Shadowfax on Watercourse Way. It just didn’t jibe with the primarily acoustic, mellow, laid back sounds for which Windham Hill was gaining recognition. And Chuck knew better than to invite Will to a showcase and see this “electric fusion monster quartet”—the antithesis of Windham Hill music—live. It would have been an invitation to disaster, sending the self-avowed hater of electronic music running for cover. Will’s interest in recording Chuck was based upon Chuck’s essentially acoustic approach to Alex’s record Clockwork. To accept this offer on the basis of Will’s perception, completely ignoring the nature of his label’s musical direction, and to present him with an electric manifesto, would have been unfair to him and deal suicide. No, meeting and hearing Shadowfax was definitely not the way to get a deal with Will.
However, the band had a card up its sleeve—one it could play without any negative sense of compromise or loss of musical integrity. There had always been an acoustic side of the band that they very much enjoyed but that was never allowed to come to fruition. Now they simply took advantage of the opportunity to explore it further, creating a discipline that was at once challenging and creative. Chuck figured out how to convince Will that Shadowfax would be the perfect ensemble addition to the label’s roster of solo artists.
Fortunately, Will Ackerman was so smitten by Chuck’s lyricon from the moment he heard it that he was willing to go ahead with Chuck’s plan to record. “Suddenly there was this indescribable, ethereal sound,” Will said. He and Alex were sitting in a park in Silicon Valley, listening to “Clockwork,” and this “unbelievable sound, the music of angels.” Alex told him that “the angel responsible for this sound was one Chuck Greenberg, and that the instrument was called the lyricon.” When Chuck joined Alex in concert at the Great American Music Hall, Will was there, and “there was that sound of angels again.” After the show he spoke with Chuck, who promptly told him about Shadowfax, and it was decided, more or less on the spot, to record a Shadowfax album.
At first, I was incredulous that Chuck would want to go to all the extra trouble to get the band back together: At this point I had never heard them play live.
“Why bother with them when you have the chance to do your own thing?”
“Because,” he said, “I will always have the opportunity to do my own thing, but I may not always be able to work with this band. And we never finished what we started out to say.”
Side One 18:02
Angel’s Flight 4:00 C. Greenberg
Vajra 4:20 G.E. Stinson
Wheel of Dreams 4:46 G.E. Stinson & C. Greenberg
Oriental Eyes 4:56 P. Maggini
Side Two 16:23
Move the Clouds 3:08 G.E. Stinson
A Thousand Teardrops 4:15 C. Greenberg
Ariki (Hummingbird Spirit) 3:10 G.E. Stinson & C. Greenberg
Emil Richards: contra bass marimba, conga, Thai vibes on Ariki; kelon vibes anvil, gong on Oriental Eyes, contra bass marimba, rhythm logs, bell tree, tambourine on Vajra; vibes and crotales on Wheel of Dreams, windchimes and bells on Angel’s Flight. The percussion ensemble on Ariki was arramged by Emil Richards.
Alex de Grassi: 12 string acoustic guitar on the right channel of Vajra
Recorded in May and June of 1982 at Studio America, Pasadena, CA
Recorded and Mixed by Joe Pollard
Second Engineer: Max Reese
Assistant Engineers: Pitt Kinsolving and Shep Lonsdale
Original Half-Speed Mastering by Jack Hunt, JVC Cutting Center
Matrix and Pressing by Record Technology Inc., Camarillo, CA
Cover Photo by Greg Edmonds
Design by Anne Ackerman
This recording was made on a modified MCI JH 16 recorder at 30 inches per second, and mixed to a Studer Mark III half-inch two-track recorder, using no noise reduction, limiting or compression.
Thanks to Joy Horner, Dave Below, Marty Lishon, and World Percussion. Thanks also to Sherman Clay Pianos for the use of the Kimball Bosendorfer Grand Piano, and to Zeus Audio Systems. Special thanks to Joe Pollard, to Emil Richards for the magic, and to Windham Hill.
Darol Anger and Barbara Higbie’s Tideline is a foggy windswept day at Stinson Beach, or rather time spent sipping coffee inside a weathered redwood beach house near Stinson, warm and rich, but with an undercurrent of cool tumult always nearby. From the rolling sea rhythms of Tideline to the Japanese music box references in “Onyame,” the album flows effortlessly through moods and moments. The closest analog to Tideline may be another classic, Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage.”
Technically impressive while putting the music first, the album stands on its own as a must-have for any Windham Hill collector. It is even more important as a development in the ensemble sound of Windham Hill at the time, and also as the kernel for the Darol Anger/Barbara Higbie Quintet which would come to be known as Montreaux.
SIDE ONE: 20:32
Tideline ◊ (4:34)
Movie ◊ (1:47)
Above the Fog ◊ (3:50)
Keep Sleeping 0 (4:22) octave violin and piano
Onyame ◊ (5:49) violin, mandolin, piano
SIDE TWO (20:38)
True Story ◊ (4:22)
Fortunate ◊ (4:22)
Gemini 0 (1:02) mandolin and piano
Gualala 0 (5:41) piano, octave violins, cello
Lifeline ♦ (6:13)
◊ Written by Barbara Higbie and Published by Slow Baby Music (BMI)
o Written by Darol Anger and Published by Fiddlistics Music (BMI)
♦ Written by Barbara Higbie and Darol Anger and Published by Slow Baby Music (BMI)
All Publishing Administered by Windham Hill Music (BMI)
Alll selections are violin and piano unless otherwise noted.
Recorded Frebruary 14-16, 1982 at Different Fur Recording, San Francisco, CA
Engineered and mixed by Howard Johnston
Assistant Engineer: Anne de Venzio
Half-Speed Mastering by STan Ricker Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs
Matrix and Pressings by Record Technology, Inc. Camarillo, CA
Cover Photo by Alan Levinson
Liner Photo by Irene Young
Design by Anne Ackerman
Manufactured by Windahm Hill Records
A Division of Windham Hill Productions, Inc.
Box 9388, Stanford, CA 94305
(c) (P) Windham Hill Records, 1982
This recording was made as a multi-track on a Studer A 80 MK III recorder at 30 inches per second, through a Harrison board and mixed onto a Studer A 80 VU KMIII half-inch two track recorder. The Yamaha C-70 piano was miked with a matched pair of Neumann U67 microphones and a single Neumann U47 microphone. The violin was miked with a single Neumann KM 84 and a single AKG 414 microphone. A single AKG 451 EB microphone was employed as an ambient source.
Thanks to Tom Paddock for the use of his U 67 tube microphones; Stephen Gilchrist, and John Monteleone for hand-built mandolins; Will Ackerman, Anne Ackerman, Marin and the Windham Hill Family; Susan Skaggs; Doc Howard and Queen Anne; Tom and Pat of Different Fur; Katrina Krimsky, Irene Young; Mike Marshall; David Dawg; CM; Dave Balakrishnan; Dix; our parents, ancestors, and the big bang. Support new acoustic music.
Ira Stein and Russel Walder’s “Elements” is a misty morning cup of coffee. Energetic, even upbeat moments abound, but the overall mood is warm, wistful, and well-paced with a real sense of rhythm and flow from one moment to the next.
“Elements” is the recording debut for both Ira Stein and Russel Walder, and the twentieth album released on Windham Hill Records.
Stein’s playing is remarkable throughout, with both a solid command and a light touch on his instrument – with moments that remind one of the percolating playing of fellow Bay Area pianist Vince Guaraldi. Stein also composed all the tracks. More than most Windham Hill albums, “Elements” feels like jazz – the players so imbue their parts with feeling that each note sounds as if it could only be conceived in the moment.
Walder had been training with some of the shining lights in modern acoustic music – Paul McCandles and Ralph Towner, and his training and own personal magic are apparent. Under lesser skills, the 0boe can become grating with its high piercing tone. Here, Walder’s tone and touch give us playing that is sweet, yet complex, almost mimicking a human voice more like a tenor sax than an oboe.
I recently traded e-mails with Walder, and he shared some thoughts on his Windham Hill releases:
“Elements and Transit came at the very beginning of my career. It was a very exciting time in music and for me personally. Windham Hill was the magic door to everything that has happened since. I recently returned from a music tour to Spain and I remember going there with Windham Hill and it was a circle that completed itself. I also just came back from a tour of India with my new band and it was the first time since Windham Hill that I have have played in anything other than as a soloist.”
Walder has recorded a significant body of work, and fans of “Transit” in particular should check out his album “Rise,” available at Walder’s current sites:
As part of the overall Windham Hill vision of 1982, “Elements” shares more than a little DNA with Darol Anger and Barbara Higbie’s “Tideline,” released immediately after this. Both albums are central to the reasons I love Windham Hill music, although over the years, I find myself reaching for the glorious “Transit” over this release. No slur on “Elements,” it’s just that “Transit” is a masterpiece. Similarly, I sometimes play “Birth of the Cool” by Miles Davis. But more often than not, I’ll reach for “Kind of Blue” first.
“Keyboardist Ira Stein and oboist Russel Walder met in 1981 at a series of master classes taught at the Naropa Institute by two of their major influences, Ralph Towner and Paul McCandless. Shortly thereafter, Stein And Walder produced a demo and were signed to Windham Hill. Over the years, their sound has expanded from the acoustic duets of their 1982 debut, Elements, to a satisfying blend of electronic keyboards, drums, bass, and intricate studio enhancements.”
He then also attended The Boston Conservatory of Music, and The California Institute of the Arts. He also studied privately with teachers at The New England Conservatory of Music. At age 17 he toured Europe and North American with the United States Youth Symphony appearing in Carnegie Hall and Royal Albert Hall among many notable venues. Walder came onto the contemporary jazz instrumental scene quickly in 1982, at the age of 19, after joining Windham Hill Records and then recording Elements with pianist Ira Stein. The pair met at Naropa Institute while studying with the jazz fusion group Oregon. Walder also studied with Oregon Jazz legend Paul McCandles. After the success of Elements, Walders next recording, 1986’s Transit, again with Stein, also included performances by Bruce Hornsby and mixing by Mark Isham.
~ Wikipedia biography for Russel Walder
Have a thought, memory or experience to share about this album or any of the musicians? Share it in the comments section below.
Side One: 17:04
Minou’s Waltz 5:50
Side Two: 19:51
The Epic 1:20
Rice Fields 6:00
Have a sample to share? Post it and pass it along.
This recording was made on an MCI JH-24 recorder at 30 inches per second, and mixed onto an Ampex ATR 102 two-track. Teh principal microphones both for the 1932 Baldwin grand piano and the oboe were Crown PZM(tm) phase coherent microphones. No noise reduction, limiting or compression was employed.
KEF speakers were used for audio monitoring and referencing on this recording.
Many thanks to Toni and Dad, Marily and Fred, Barb and Clint, Deb, David, Paul McCandles, Ralph Towner, Glen Moore, Collin Walcott, Art Lande, Allen Vogel, Cynthia Maser, Howard Weisel, Dick Fister, Nika, Fellow Calartians, Harobed and Dominique.
Dedicated to Rudy G. and Minou.
Engineer Edward Bannon in the Tres Virgos recording Studio in San Rafael, circa 1980.
There’s a certain simplicity in any art that it takes a master to achieve. Whether it’s the quick study in a notebook that a Picasso or Matisse can use to convey motion, mood and sentiment, or the way an actor can almost imperceptibly move their face to convey a deep undercurrent of emotion, it’s a skill that is highly underrated.
Winter Into Spring is the third George Winston album released, his second on Windham Hill, and the 19th Windham Hill album. Winston’s “Autumn” had given Will Ackerman a new level of financial freedom to fuel his artistic vision.
From the time “Winter Into Spring” first dropped onto the turntables of George Winston fans everywhere, there was a sense that some portions of the songs “were so simple a child could play them.” The magic is that they were so simple that no child actually would play them. And those few bars that were so noticeable in their simplicity and purity soon gave way to Winston’s lushly chromatic songs. Truly, it takes a mature artist to be able to strip down a song, and still have a complex and lingering effect. Songs that drew from classical and jazz traditions, but mainly the beautiful and deceptively simple traditions of folk music. Comparing the two albums is necessary, as so many millions of copies of Autumn have been sold, but it’s also problematic, in that Autumn has a different emotional appeal, much as the seasons themselves draw on different aspects of the listener’s experience. Where “Autumn” is all amber hues and slowly changing colors, “Winter Into Spring” is crisp footsteps in the snow, cold moonlit nights, and then finally the burst of weak radiance of a Spring sun and wild mustard flowers. As always, Winston finds inspiration not just in the seasons, but as the seasons exist in the plains states – Montana in particular.
To this reviewer, “Winter Into Spring” is now my go-to Winston album, if only because I’ve heard “Autumn” so many times that it’s hard to have any perspective on it any more. But the other factor is that as I’ve matured, I’ve also appreciated the development of maturing artists more. “Winter Into Spring” reminds us all of the universal edict that it takes the longest to get to the simplest solutions. Winston’s playing on later albums will simplify even more – but for me “Winter Into Spring” is the right place for my ear and mind right now.
Harn Soper, who recorded “Autumn,” tells me that Winston would press down on the sustain pedal near the beginning of a song, and just keep his foot down, with the slow decay of the notes blending into the next key. This is what gives Winston’s composition a richness that was missing from so many solo pianists, and helped him define the genre of “new age” solo piano. There is plenty of that subtle density of sound here still.
This recording was made direct to two track using a Studer A 80 VU MKIII half-inch recorder at 30 inches per second through a Harrison board. The Yamaha C-70 piano was miked with a matched pair of Neumann U-67 microphones, a pair of Neumann KM 84 microphones and an AKG 451 EB was used as an ambient microphone. No noise reduction or reverberation was employed.
Thanks to Megan Gorwin, Scott Cossu, Alex de Grassi, Cathy Econom, Silvan Grey, Daniel Hecht, Michael Hedges, Paul Horn, Jerrel Kimmel, Steve Reich, L Subramaniam, and thanks to Bola Sete for his inspiration and specifically for his arrangement of Ocean Waves from his guitar LP “Ocean” Lost Lake Arts 82.
This is the first reference I have ever seen to Quiex Vinyl – a virgin vinyl compound with superior sound qualities. The Classic Records re-issue label uses the current formulation of Quiex extensively. I have several Blue Note and Led Zeppelin pressings using Quiex SVP from Classic that all sound great. Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to locate the manufacturer – if you know, let me know so that I can properly credit them.
The first true ensemble album in the Windham Hill style – Clockwork really defined the label’s sound for the next several years. Alex de Grassi proves that not only is he one of his generations finest guitarists, he has a larger musical vision, ambition and extraordinary taste in collaborators. The players all bring both a technical and lyrical deftness to their parts, and as the album name implies, there is a musical interplay that creates a rhythmic whole that is greater than the sum of the parts. Fans of de Grassi’s solo guitar work are rewarded on the second side with the Bougainvillea Suite opening – gorgeous and thoughtful guitar music.
Clockwork can be hard to find, and it is not the last word in either de Grassi’s or the label’s collective work, but it’s important as a new creative step in the genre-defining label, and a worthy listen in and of itself.
Have a thought, memory or experience to share about this album or any of the musicians? Share it in the comments section below.
guitar, piano, percussion
Two Color Dream 6:25
guitar, fretless bass, soprano sax, drums
Graphic Design by Anne Ackerman
Cover Monoprint and Liner Photo by Anne Ackerman
All Compositions by Alex de Grassi
All Selections Tropo Music BMI
Administered by Windham Hill Music BMI
Manufactured by Windham Hill Music BMI
Manufactured by Windham Hill Records Box 9388, Stanford, CA 94305
Michael Hedges was playing in a Palo Alto coffeeshop when William Ackerman heard him and signed him on the spot. Good move. Hedges is arguably the best acoustic guitarist to ever play, with apologies to Ackerman, de Grassi, Django Reinhardt and Bucky Pizzarelli.
“Breakfast in the Field” is Hedges’ first album, and the seventeenth Windham Hill release. It’s a deceptive album – what sounds simple has incredible technical skills behind it; what sounds pastoral becomes funky and urban. When the album came out, the buzz was not only that you had to hear Michael Hedges, but you had to see him playing. His style was so new and different that it made it seem as if the instrument had simply been waiting all these generations for its true master to come along. “Breakfast” gives you the first taste of the tremendous talent that Hedges developed before he died at the age of 43 in a car crash north of San Francisco.
Because “Breakfast in the Field” opens with two slow-paced songs, the casual listener could easily be fooled into playing the album quietly as background music. But turn it up, pay a little attention, and it will quickly become apparent just how much this 34-minute acoustic album can rock.
Michael Manring, who was so omnipresent on Windham Hill that it seemed as if he functioned as a house bassist, makes his first appearance here. George Winston, on the heels of “Autumn” and his successful contribution to William Ackerman’s “Passage” also performs here. In both cases, the effect is to complement and not overwhelm the immersive soundscapes created by Hedges.
In a 1987 concert, Hedges gives an introduction to “The Funky Avocado” that is revealing about his open-minded approach to composition and how he brought in so many influences to his work. Says Hedges: “This tune has a little bit of a cross cultural bent to it, but it has more of an American bent to it. from the time where I lived above a health food store just down the street from a gay disco called The Pink Hippopotamus. I used to be trying to write music up there, trying to… maybe it would be just after dinner and I’d be trying to get some work done, and The Pink Hippo was always sending me back ‘boom boom boom’ and maybe the bass line would come through, ‘bum Bum BUM bum Bum BUM,’ so rather than trying to compete with it, I decided to try to incorporate some of the elements. So that’s how ‘The Funky Avocado’ came about. It starts out with a medium R&B tempo, slows down into some heavy rock and it finishes up in a fit of disco fury”.
The sound quality is outstanding – Michael’s guitar is full of body and resonance, detailed, and all of one cloth. There’s an interesting side story regarding the guitar Hedges used for several of the tracks: “Eleven Small Roaches,” “Babytoes” and “Two Days Old”. As noted on Hedges’ memorialized “Nomadland” site: “If Michael’s art is driven by openness, the fates were on his side just after he finished The Road To Return. At a concert in Oregon in 1994, Michael was approached by a woman who returned a guitar to him which had been stolen from his van fifteen years earlier while opening for Jerry Garcia. The custom guitar (built by luthier Ken DuBourg and heard on much of Breakfast in the Field) was in dreadful condition, but Michael invested in its restoration and the instrument’s presence wound up becoming the inspiration for several of the tunes heard on Oracle.”
“As Michael points out, Oracle fits perfectly into the chronology of his own life—“The Road to Return was a search for ‘Who am I?’ Then my old guitar was returned and I thought, ‘Yeah, this is part of who I am.’ Now, I’m open. I have a feeling something new is on the horizon for me, because, after all, how many ways can you slap a guitar? Since I’ve been writing songs, I’m more conscious of the music I’m after. It shouldn’t be seen as a new phase of my playing, but just more of me.”
This is an essential recording for any guitarist, lover of acoustic music or Windham Hill.
Have a thought, memory or experience to share about this album or Michael Hedges? Leave a comment below.
The Happy Couple 3:20
Eleven Small Roaches 3:00
The Funky Avocado 2:03
Baby Toes 2:10
Breakfast in the Field 2:24
Two Days Old 4:46
Peg Leg Speed King 3:20
The Unexpected Visitor 2:46
Silent Anticipations 3:23
Michael was a phenomenal live performer. Samples below are largely from concerts – he tells great stories about each song, and you get a sense of his showmanship.
This album was recorded without overdubs or multitracking on a MCI JH 110 A analogue two-track tape recorder at 30 inches per second through a Neve 8036 console with minimal equalization. No noise reduction was employed. The guitar was close-miked in stereo with a matched pair of AKG 452 EB condenser microphones in a cardioid pattern.
This album is dedicated to my teachers of composition: E. J. Ulrich who sent me on my way, Jean Ivey who let me go my own way, and Morris Cotel who asked me where I was going and why.
Thanks to Ervin Somogyi of Berkeley, CA who built the splendid guitar used on most of the tunes in this recording. Thanks also to Ken DuBourg of Arbutus, MD who made the guitar used on Eleven Small Roaches, Babytoes, and Two Days Old.
Scott Cossu’s “Wind Dance” is the artists first album, and the 16th release on Windham Hill. Wind Dance is the first ensemble recording on Windham Hill that most people are familiar with, but Linda Waterfall’s “Mary’s Garden” and the eponymous “Kidd Afrika” R&B album predates it by some 5 years.
Cossu is a thoughtful and talented player, and the second side of the album in particular is strong. Nonetheless, “Wind Dance” is lighter than Cossu’s later works. Cossu and labelmate de Grassi explore music that will be familiar to listeners of the Pat Metheny Group recordings of the time.
Reviews at the time were deservedly positive. From Cossu’s web site:
“Cossu weds ethnic diversity to his natural style of ethereal piano. His enticing polyrhythms are fit for ecstatic dancing. A sparkling record.” – The Boston Globe
“Undoubtedly, Scott Cossu is one of the jazz luminaries of the future.” -Billboard Magazine
Recommended for Scott Cossu fans, Windham Hill collectors, or fans of Pat Metheny’s early work. Otherwise, look to Scott Cossu’s later recordings which are overall stronger.
Dan Reiter’s Biography from the 1981 “Passage” Album:
DAN REITER, CELLO
Dan Reiter, 29, has for the past six years been co-principal cellist with the Oakland Symphony. He attended the conservatory at Cincinatti University and studied with Jack Kirstein. In addition to his work with the symphony, Dan composes unusual chamber music – incorporating folk and jazz elements along with classical – for his trio of clarinet, bass, and cello.
Terrific compilation from the first fourteen Windham Hill Releases – or more specifically, nine of the first fourteen. By 1981, the musical direction of the label was crystal clear, with an emphasis on acoustic instrumental music. The blues/R&B party album by Kidd Afrika, the upbeat folk/pop of Linda Waterfall, and the vocal poems from Robbie Basho’s “Visions of the Country” would all remain footnotes from the label’s formation.
What remains is an excellent overview – missing only a track from Ackerman’s just released “Passage” or the essential “Impending Death of the Virgin Spirit.” The preponderance of solo guitar work is balanced by one long solo piano piece on each side – Bill Quist’s “3 Gymnopedies” on the first, and George Winston’s “Moon” on the second. This is also a master class in the subtle differences in styles of finger-picking guitarists, giving the listener a variety of techniques and tones – from the classically-tinged style of David Qualey, through the intensely soulful playing of Robbie Basho to Will Ackerman’s and de Grassi’s developing styles.
Sampler ’81 is well worth picking up; it’s a great overview of the early Windham Hill style, and some of the cuts are from the Qualey, Hecht and Basho albums which are hard to find and often collected only by completists.
Share your thoughts, memories or experiences with this album using the comments field at the bottom of this post.
In addition to the original artists’ performances below, you’ll note two excellent cover versions of the de Grassi and Ackerman tracks. De Grassi and Ackerman are good about sharing their tunings, and YouTube hosts dozens of performers who have learned the songs and uploaded their performances. It’s great to see that so many people who are touched by this music learn it and pass it on.
Bricklayer’s Beautiful Daugher – Ackerman
Santa Cruz – Qualey
3 Gymnopedies – Quist/Satie
Children’s Dance – de Grassi (cover version, but masterfully done)