Free as a Bird
2004 / Real Music
Review by Michael Debbage
Do you remember the first time you heard music on a compact disc? What a transition it was going from the snap, crackle and pop of the vinyl "soundtrack" to the high technology of the crystal clear compact disc. It was like having your ailing eyes corrected back to 20/20 vision. This would accurately describe the transition from the strong Omar's strong debut Opal Fire to the impeccable Free as a Bird. There is certainly no sophomore jinx present here. In fact, Omar has presented strong evidence to suggest that he has not just improved on his personal goals but in reality has become a major player within the Contemporary Instrumental genre.
Much like David Lanz's 2001 release Finding Paradise, Omar has tweaked his melodic knobs and he has geared toward a New Age-Smooth Jazz merger creating music that is immediately accessible. Yet at the same time he retains that certain mystical quality that he possesses making his music always interesting. The initial reaction was to place a lot of credit on the shoulders of producer Greg Karukas who coincidentally was the co producer of the previously mentioned Finding Paradise. Upon further examination, Omar is credited for producing five of the eleven tracks. Of course, it does not hurt to have the world class violinist Charlie Bisharat, well known for his work with John Tesh, Yanni and Bradley Joseph. He brings a tremendous human warmth and emotion to the album. That said, it is a great group effort but always with Omar at the helm.
Now that we have rambled on long enough about the production and cast members what about the music I hear you asking? It is nothing short of breathtaking. At the beginning of the year this reviewer raved about the new Jim Wilson album Sanctuary and stated emphatically that the album was the lead candidate for my album of the year despite reviewing it in January. While that may still be the case at this given time, Free as a Bird is giving Wilson a run for his money. Ask again at the end of the year. Either way these two albums will be lead candidates for such honors.
Most of the album runs at a mid tempo pace, with Bisharat appearing on no less than seven tracks. We even have jazz saxophonist Eric Marienthal appearing on "Trust Unspoken". By the very nature of the instrumentation used, there are heavy jazz influences presenting a very musky and moody attitude. It is not as melodically sensible as the others are. Nevertheless it is a wonderful distraction. Countered with the guitar work of Ramon Stagnaro, the song is a delightful exploration into accessible jazz.
Speaking of Ramon, the man works magic on the opening title track countered with Charlie's tearful violin endeavors. And of course Omar's piano work is nothing short of charismatic, setting the tone and pace of the entire album that simply can do no wrong. The song brings on the vivid images of a graceful bird freely defying gravity while floating effortlessly in the winds of our atmosphere.
How about the eclectic "Falling Through The Rain"? It includes the flute work of Pedro Eustache along with Omar's repeated chord progression bringing to mind David Lanz's collaborations with Paul Speer back in the '80s. Even more eclectic is the Middle Eastern-based "Beauty Unveiled" that pulsates with exoticism and passion featuring Alex Galas on the bouzouki. Comparisons to Yanni are simply unavoidable here, but considering his success this is the ultimate compliment. Such comparisons continue with the uplifting "Dancing With The Wind" as well as "Riding The Current".
Parallels are not just derived courtesy of the more upbeat music. The utterly serene and romantic "Surrender" makes you want to live out the title and submit to the powerful emotion expressed here. Once again Bisharat and Stagnaro are impeccable on violin and guitar respectively. Clocking in close to seven minutes it could have taken even more time. And it is here that Omar is clearly confident in his abilities as he gives up the spotlight to his session players. Meanwhile, reflective moments continue via the mellow madness of "Never Let Go"
So has nearly every song been mentioned? Yes, the album is that outstanding. There is not one weak link to be found. Clearly, the human factor plays a huge role in the success of this project as the label has spared no expense from art work to production to make the music real (pun fully intended). Despite all the support this is still all about the memorable melodies of Omar. If this artist is able to continue the trend set here there is no doubting that Omar will become a major icon in the world of Contemporary Instrumental music. It is this kind of impeccable music that continues to give hope in the survival of this genre.
April 4, 2004
Review by Kathy Parsons