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Album Review: Better Days: Music For Small Ensemble
Christopher James
Cover image of the album Better Days: Music For Small Ensemble by Christopher James
Better Days: Music For Small Ensemble
Christopher James
2021 / Christopher James Music
41 minutes
Review by Kathy Parsons
Better Days: Music For Small Ensemble is truly a collaborative album by Christopher James and some of his extraordinarily talented musician friends."I had always imagined this project as totally acoustic, with 'live' studio production. But like so many creative projects in 2020, that was not to be." Instead, the recording came together, instrument by instrument, in home studios in various locations. The idea for the album came about after several people asked Christopher James why the piano was not more prominent in his recordings when he himself is an accomplished classical pianist and the ex-CEO of Universal Music Group's Classical and Jazz division. Although he does not play on the album, James composed eight of the ten tracks and co-composed the other two with Bob Stark. Taylor Eigsti is in charge of the piano keys on the first six tracks and Greg Goebel on the last four. Other members of the ensemble include John Patitucci and Jon Lakey on bass, Ben Butler and David Torn on guitar, and Doug Yowell, Nate Smith, and Mike Snyder on drums and percussion. Seven of the tracks are quartets with piano, bass, guitar and drums/percussion (not always the same musicians), two are quintets and one is an octet. Ranging from smooth to much more upbeat and "jazzy," the music is stellar from start to finish.

Better Days begins and ends with different versions of "Beyond the Sunrise," a warm and dreamy piece that reflects on the calm stillness of dawn and the optimistic promise of a new day. The two versions are quite different from each other, but the relaxed, easy spirit is very much present in both - a great way to start and finish! "The Dunes" expresses the feeling of the rolling sand dunes of the central Oregon Coast (and elsewhere, of course!). In places, it feels like the dunes go on endlessly, but in Oregon, they always lead to the ocean. The rhythm of the piece has a forward motion, but is never in a hurry. My day gets better just listening to this one! The title track is a jazzy, moderately up-tempo toe-tapper that reflects on the influence Elton John and Keith Jarrett have had on Christopher James' own music. "Blue Mountain" is another favorite. A look back at James' early years in Pendleton, Oregon, an area surrounded by the Blue Mountains, the piece has an easy flow with exceptional solos by Ben Butler (guitar) and Taylor Eigsti (piano). "Pear Blossom" refers to Medford, Oregon ("the pear capital of the world"), another area where James has spent time. More pop than jazz, the melody floats on sunshine as the beat drives it forward - another favorite! "Don't Let It Slip Away," a soulful ballad with a gentle swaying motion and a beautiful melody, proves once again that less is more. I love this one, too! "A Previous Thought" expands the ensemble to eight musicians, adding flute, clarinets, trumpet and euphonium - a fascinating contrast to the smaller ensembles and a beautiful piece of music!

Better Days: Music For Small Ensemble is a great pick-me-up for any day (or night) with its optimistic spirit and expression of love for the beauty that surrounds us. It is available from Amazon, Apple Music/iTunes and streaming sites like Spotify. Both thumbs up!
September 28, 2021
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