By Jonathan Widran
Although they will forever be in the hearts of instrumental music fans worldwide as mavericks of classic new age music, David Lanz and Gary Stroutsos tapped joyfully into the jazz-based spirit of improvisation in creating their long awaited dual masterwork Spirit Romance. Elegant in its melodic and rhythmic simplicity, spacious and soothing in its ambience and deeply resonant on both an emotional and spiritual level, the project is more than simply the merger of two legendary artists and composers from the Pacific Northwest at the top of their game.
By design, the Zen like title Spirit Romance leaves the interpretation of the individual musical pieces - beginning with the wistful opening track “Serenada,” a reinterpretation of “Evening Serenade,” which Lanz and Stroutsos performed on 1997’s New Native collection I Am Walking - up to the listener’s soul imagination. The creative process behind the album, however, tells a distinct tale of enduring friendship and, more specifically, what happens when two old pals gather in a 105 year old house constructed largely of old growth timber far north of Seattle with just a few ideas in their pockets and an agreement to let their muses run free.
On Good Friday, 2005, Lanz sat at the grand piano in the front (living) room of the home he and his wife Alicia had recently moved into, admiring the concave ceiling corners and wooden columns that were helping to create a perfect acoustic environment. He, Stroutsos and album producer Gary Lanz — who had contributed musical and engineering expertise in various ways to numerous of his older brother’s projects over the years — called this the “parlor concert hall.” Stroutsos, holding an exotic Chinese bamboo flute called the Xiao and ready to roll at a moment’s notice, settled in the middle (dining) room just beyond the French doors with Gary Lanz and some recording equipment. Then they turned on the tape recorder and went to work.
“The makeshift home studio vibe worked very well for us,” says David Lanz. “My brother closed the doors between the rooms but installed a temporary window to maintain visual contact. The two Garys had worked together on many projects in the past, so it was really like a comfortable group of friends getting together with no preconceived notions as to where we were going to go musically. Gary Stroutsos had actually been on my case to do a full dual album since the late 90s, and I told him I could always see us doing it. Finally free from other contractual obligations, it was exciting to realize that we were finally at this point.
“Months earlier in Seattle,” he adds, “we had forsaken one of our usual lunch engagements and instead got together spur of the moment to create a few improvisational pieces, probably knowing we’d be doing an album sooner than later. We began the Easter weekend sessions with these tapes, going at it like real jazz guys, starting simply and then building improvised arrangements. The first piece we emerged with was the album’s second tune, ‘Satori,’ which was the darkest piece on the album, but we loved the vibe. From there, it was a total leap of faith for both of us.”
Lanz and Stroutsos used those earlier tapes as a template to convince Narada Records — a top new age label in the 80s and 90s, which in recent years expanded to world music and smooth jazz - that the time was right to contract a project like Spirit Romance. The label’s go-ahead had the sweet scent of a family reunion about it. From 1983, when he released his groundbreaking solo piano album Heartsounds, through 1999, the pianist was one of Narada’s top artists, recording nine solo albums, releasing numerous “best of” collections and three genre classics with electric guitarist Paul Speer. The biggest of these was 1988’s Cristofori’s Dream, which was Number One on Billboard’s first adult alternative/new age chart for 27 weeks and eventually became a platinum selling recording.
In the intervening years, Lanz had been with Decca Records and moved into a genre he called — tongue firmly planted in cheek — “smooth age.” While he achieved great success working with top smooth jazz stars like Dave Koz, Gregg Karukas and Peter White on Finding Paradise and The Good Life, his fans no doubt wondered when he would — to borrow a title from one of his solo piano albums — Return To The Heart.
Not that he and Lanz had ever really lost touch, but Gary Stroutsos was the one who had really pressed Lanz on the idea of a collaborative recording over the years. In his own career, the flutist had combined a rich jazz background with dynamic explorations of Afro-Cuban and American Indian Music and became a noted self-taught ethnomusicologist and American Indian Flute Historian. He has been featured throughout the world on the NPR syndicated programs Echoes with John Diliberto and Skitch Henderson's New York Evening At The Pops as well as on Ken Burns' PBS documentary, Lewis and Clark: The Journey Of The Corps Of Discovery, which led to a command performance at the White House in 1997. Stroutsos was also well known to Narada, having released Hidden World with “space music” keyboardist Jonn Serrie (who appears on Spirit Romance), working on the music of I Am Walking with Lanz and producing the Latin collection Cuba L.A. (a project Lanz calls “bringing the Cubans to Milwaukee”). Lanz also produced Stroutsos’ 2001 solo recording Pacific Moon.
“David is a dear friend and I’ve always looked up to him as a human being and as a musician,” says Stroutsos. “He has created a tradition all his own by finding a certain spirituality in his music, and his instincts have always led him to good creative places. I always thought his piano would be a good match for my musical ‘tone poems,’ and, even though he was doing smooth jazz the last few years, I had long envisioned getting together with him and trying to bring out of him the sound that established him as a legend so long ago.
“His old house gave Spirit Romance a sense of timelessness, and there was a natural rhythm that happened as we played, as if we were moving through space in a different kind of way,” he adds. “There was a sense that we were defining our own space, and a chemistry developed between us and his brother Gary that is hard to put our finger on. David’s bright but moody style of piano playing fused with my heavier melodic lines created something special. He’s a great songwriter who was able to let go of his restraints and experience the freedom that comes from improvising. He arranged chords, modes, and movements around simple melodic concepts. We liked to see it as two veteran musicians making spontaneous music reflecting the experience of living in the Northwest.”
“If you’re doing art,” Lanz concurs, “you may not be conscious of it, but you’re reflecting life around you.” On that note, the driving inspiration for the title track of Spirit Romance came from a dream Stroutsos had the night before their Easter morning session. He dreamed of his longtime friend, a Navajo Indian named Pauline, who had recently died suddenly, not long after Stroutsos had visited her and her husband Paul in Albuquerque. Over and over in the dream, he heard this ancient flute melody from a Zuni Pueblo song Paul had taught him, and this became the foundation of the song.
The five part suite “Return to Altair” also has a unique jumping off point, one that will be of interest to fans of Lanz’s Cristofori’s Dream album; it was Gary Lanz’s idea to reinterpret “Wings To Altair” and bring in Serrie, who played on the original track. The first three movements of this suite that closes the album are centered around this musical theme.
Adding harmonic and rhythmic dimension to the emotional centerpiece of piano and flute are two longtime friends of theirs, world-renowned hand master drummer Glen Velez (well known for his recordings and world tours with Paul Winter) and acoustic bassist Keith Lowe (Bill Frizell, Fiona Apple). Together with Lanz and Stroutsos, they create the Quartet Moon Ensemble, a group that, Stroutsos insists, will hit the road next year. This fall, Lanz and Stroutsos are scheduled to debut the material of Spirit Romance with a slate of local performances. Lummi Indian solo violinist Swil Kanim adds a beautiful texture to the title track as well.
“Making this album has given me a new shot in the arm, a certain confidence that artists can still find a way to create projects that are meaningful to them,” says Stroutsos. “I’ve spent a lifetime trying to carry the legacy of world flute music to a wider audience, and I hope that this recording will inspire people to want to know more about the Xiao, its unique intervals and leaps, and why I used it. It’s also time to bring artists like us back to the stage, where we can communicate with the audiences even more intimately.”
Lanz adds, “The greatest part of making Spirit Romance was working with both Garys in a way I never had the opportunity to do before. As my brother said, I’m going ‘back to the beautiful,’ returning to the impressionistic side of my artistry that I’d been away from on record for so long. It’s nice to strip things down and create music that’s so direct, emotional and honest, and I thank Gary Stroutsos for keeping on me to finally do it. I think there’s still an incredible need in the world for music that has emotional and healing power, and for me, Spirit Romance has a strong sense of coming full circle. It couldn’t have turned out any better for either of us.”Posted by Jonathan Widran at September 6, 2005 7:56 PM