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Album Review: Watercolor Sky
Michael Whalen
Cover image of the album Watercolor Sky by Michael Whalen
Watercolor Sky
Michael Whalen
2024 / Spout/MWM
40 minutes
Review by Kathy Parsons
Michael Whalen refers to his new album, Watercolor Sky, as one of the most important recordings of his career, which should be a real "heads up" for anyone familiar with Whalen's long and very illustrious history in the music world. The Emmy® Award-winning composer (twice!) and his group of five Grammy® Award-winning musicians came together to "capture the spirit and musical soul of Windham Hill in 2024." This super-group consists of Mark Isham (trumpet and flugelhorn), Michael Manring (bass), Will Ackerman (guitar), Nancy Rumbel (English horn and oboe), and Charlie Bisharat (violin) in addition to Whalen on piano, electronics and percussion - all very prominent artists in the development of so-called "new age" music. Windham Hill Records (along with Narada and Private Music) was one of the original "new age" music labels and had a distinctive sound (and very recognizable album covers!). Founded in 1976 by Will Ackerman and Anne Robinson, the label was very popular in the 1980s and early 1990s before being bought out by BMG in 1996. I think it's really interesting that rather than trying to imitate the "Windham Hill sound" from 30-40 years ago, this album hints at what new releases from the label might sound like now.

Michael Whalen's primary role on this album was as composer and arranger, and he also recorded and mixed the album. Tom Eaton (also a longtime collaborator) mastered it. The sound quality is amazing and all of the musicians are given plenty of time to shine in their own distinct ways while keeping a very cohesive ensemble sound. Quoting Michael Whalen: "Watercolor Sky was inspired by the seasons I have witnessed from my home on the island of Broad Channel located in the middle of Jamaica Bay, Queens. About 80% of the island is a Federal wildlife preserve—a gorgeous natural oasis located inside the five boroughs of New York City - one of the biggest cities on Earth. The contrasts are amazing." The music expresses very strong feelings of optimism and grace as well as reflecting on how the change from living in the middle of a metropolis to living in the midst of nature has affected Michael and his music. I have been a fan of Michael Whalen and his music for a lot of years and I have to agree that Watercolor Sky is one of his best albums to date.

The album begins with "The Endless Summer," a gentle piece that overflows with peace and contentment. Violin, bass, oboe, percussion and keyboard set the colorful but relaxed tone for the album - a great start! "Ode To a Perfect Sunset" begins as a guitar and piano duet that soon becomes a quintet by adding violin, oboe and bass - magical and refreshing! "The Road Not Taken" includes trumpet, guitar, bass, percussion and keyboard and is a bit on the dreamy, more mysterious side - very smooth! The title track begins with a bright and lively rhythm along with piano, violin, guitar, bass and percussion. Some of the piano in this one feels very free and is possibly improvised - a favorite! As light-hearted and playful as its title, "Dancing In the Wind" will put a smile on your face and a tap in your toes! "The First Frost" slows things down considerably, describing (without words) the magic of light reflecting off an icy surface. Keyboard, guitar percussion, bass and oboe come together to paint a very tranquil and uplifting picture. "Winter Beach" includes the sound of waves on the shoreline as trumpet, piano and electronic orchestration bring the album to a gorgeous, soothing close - very peaceful and relaxing.

Watercolor Sky will be released in several formats on May 24, 2024. More links will be added as they become available. Very highly recommended!
May 2, 2024
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Contributing artists:
Will Ackerman
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