Revisiting ancient catalog gems in the planning process of creating and recording Returning: Pieces for Guitar 1970-2004, Will Ackerman realized that there are two distinct ways to view a 29 year old composition. First, there’s the perspective of the acoustic guitar icon’s fans, who may no longer number enough to fill the Hollywood Bowl or Carnegie Hall — as they did in his early 80’s heyday, when the term “new age” was truly new — but are still rabid enough to maintain a sentimental attachment to the original recordings that inspired a phenomenon.
Although Ackerman is currently playing “The Bricklayer’s Beautiful Daughter” with much more conviction, passion and dynamics than he did on his 1976 debut The Search For the Turtle’s Navel, that cheaply made recording bears a deep historical significance; it inspired him to create Windham Hill Records, which over the next fifteen years became the premier purveyor of New Age Music. “We dared to be different in the disco era, and by treating the music and fans with love and respect, created a cultural movement that endures,” Ackerman says.
The label’s roster began with cousin and fellow guitarist Alex de Grassi and grew to include George Winston, Michael Hedges, Shadowfax, Liz Story and Tuck & Patti. After producing numerous gold and platinum recordings of his own music and many of his artists, Ackerman sold his interest in the company to BMG in 1992. He still retains control of the publishing catalog from 1976-1992.
Still, Ackerman has long been his own worst critic, and until contemplating the idea of Returning, never listened back to his old recordings. It was, of course, those fans who pointed out that he was playing his classics with much more vigor and heart. So, fresh off a Best New Age Album Grammy nomination for his 2001 date Hearing Voices, he decided to do some long overdue time traveling. Although he considers his seminal solo piece “The Bricklayer’s Beautiful Daughter” probably the best song he ever wrote, he cringed upon listening to it when he pulled out …the Turtle’s Navel for the first time in years.
“It was a joke,” he says, “very metronomic and hurried, completely reflective of a kid entering a studio for the first time who had no money, a limited concept of dynamics and no sense of the emotional power a song could have. The kid who recorded that was basically scared to death. Just being in the studio was intimidating. I was just trying to get the notes in the right order and avoid any terrible mistakes. And yet, the notes and the writing were there. I was astounded at the difference 20 years of playing the song live had made. The emotional impact of it was totally different. I’m a much more mature player, and I wanted to showcase that over an entire recording.”
With an adult-sized budget and an incredible array of new technological advances to work with, Ackerman — a native of Palo Alto, California who has lived for years in (where else?) Windham County, Vermont - beautifully realizes the rich, emotional potential of eleven of his beloved songs, including “Anne’s Song,” “The Impending Death of the Virgin Spirit,” “Hawk Circle,” “In The Region of Clouds” and “Processional.” Technophiles might be fascinated to know that Returning is a 96/24 recording mastered by Bob Ludwig, and that Ackerman is also working on a second version of the album in a 5.1 surround mix. Over the years, Ackerman gradually added other instruments to his recordings mix, and by 1983 was recording his pieces exclusively with an ensemble. Returning marks the first time many of these pieces have been heard stripped down to just the guitar.
“Thirty years of audience reactions has helped me hone in on what works,” says Ackerman, who is planning this year to release an as yet untitled book detailing his deep emotional life’s journey and success as a businessman. “I wanted the songs to reflect where I was with them live. Having better guitars helps tremendously, of course. My early performances were played on good off the rack production guitars, long before I knew that handmade guitars existed. Today, I’m playing Froggy Bottom guitars made by Michael Millard and Andy Mueller, two of the most talented guitar builders on earth. The sound that comes from one of these instruments is simply unique and irreplaceable.”
On a more personal level, Ackerman at 55 reached a stage where he stared out at the Vermont snowball on a February day and began contemplating what he will leave behind when he was gone. “After eight years of personal therapy, I can finally accept people’s thanks for what my music means to them,” he says. “The concerts I give are more meaningful and I have a renewed confidence in the ability of my songs to touch and inspire people’s lives. I knew I wanted these songs to be left behind in a way that more completely reflected my knowledge of what they were meant to be. The most important criteria was feeling emotionally connected to every single note.”
As founder of the Encino, California based independent jazz label Favored Nations, legendary guitar master Steve Vai has built a thriving creative home for legends dedicated to the fostering the art of their axe, most recently adding Adrian Legg, Stanley Jordan and Tommy Emmanuel to the company’s ever diversifying roster. With the recent release of James Robinson’s label debut Colours, the company shows a deep commitment to the future of the instrument as well.
The return of Stanley Jordan to the realm of studio recordings after a decade long hiatus is the biggest news. Dreams of Peace, the culmination of his long association with the popular Italian jazz ensemble Novecento, is an artsy blend of ambient music, funky and smooth soul-jazz and blistering rock fusion featuring appearances by legendary jazz artists Randy Brecker, Guy Barker, Dave Liebman and Danny Gottlieb.
Tommy Emmanuel chose the title Endless Road as a colorful metaphor about life’s mysterious twists and turns. Yet it could apply equally as well to the multi-talented guitar virtuoso’s breakneck touring schedule, which tops 300 dates a year throughout Europe, the U.S. and his native Australia. In many ways a follow-up to his 2000 solo recording Only, the new all-acoustic recording reflects Emmanuel’s last six years on the road as a solo performer.
From 1993-96, the British born Adrian Legg was voted Best Fingerstyle Guitarist by the readers of Guitar Player magazine. On Inheritance, his second release for Favored Nations and ninth overall, Legg blends his well known acoustic sound with a sonic arena that harkens back to the musical textures of his childhood life before the guitar—which includes electric rock, folk, Irish jig and traditional church music.
Although he’s the rookie in this bunch, James Robinson has been something of a regional legend in San Francisco and his native San Jose for years. Larry Carlton once remarked of his fanciful fingerstyling that he’s “an extraordinary talent that deserves to be heard.” But it’s doubtful that Robinson will need that sort of hype once guitar fans get wind of his very accessible, pop-oriented mix of Latin, Brazilian, Middle Eastern and jazz influences.
WHAT I’M LISTENING TO:
1) Nicholas Gunn, Breathe (Gemini Sunn) – It’s been nearly 12 years since the flutist/keyboardist, composer and producer redefined the joys of Southwestern flavored Native American styled music via Afternoon in Sedona. Incredibly, he’s still finding new and innovative ways to mine the emotional, spiritual and very percussive riches of that region and its indigenous culture.
2) Philip Martin, Fourpoint (Carzino)
3) Joss Stone, Mind Body & Soul (S Curve)
4) The Crickets & Their Buddies (Sovereign Artists)
5) Doobie Brothers, Live at Wolf Trap (Sanctuary)