Echoes CD of the Month: Jeff Johnson & Phil Keaggy’s Frio Suite

Keyboardist Jeff Johnson and Guitarist Phil Keaggy converge on a CD of Pastoral Chamber Ambiences

You can hear an Audio Review of Frio Suite, with Music here.

51rcYZ66ACL._SL500_AA240_Jeff Johnson and Phil Keaggy are musicians from different musical worlds. Jeff Johnson is best known for his many Celtic and Persian inflected albums, draped with lush keyboards, sensual rhythms and his melodic writing.  Phil Keaggy is known to a bigger slice of the world as a veteran of the psychedelic rock era with the group Glass Harp and a solo career that has embraced rock, country and new age.  Among guitarists, especially finger-style acoustic players, he’s a legend.

But both musicians are united by their born-again Christian backgrounds and that’s how they got together at a Laity Lodge meeting on the Frio River in Texas.  They’ve combined to make an album unlike anything either has done, yet it draws from the core of their music. Composed in their separate studios in Nashville and Washington state, Frio Suite is a CD of intricately painted landscapes, much of it inspired by the Frio River and the photography of Kathy Hastings, which adorns the album. She takes macro photos that have a painterly look, making for often surreal, abstract images of real life objects and settings.  Johnson and Keaggy create the same sort of detailed, close-up music that draws you into its patterns.

“Of Time & Frio,” a precisely arrayed, almost folk-jazz track opens the CD with its light, gentle airs.  But that’s a deceptive beginning for an album of deep moods and exploratory themes.  Johnson and Keaggy’s compositions could be reflecting the landscape of the Frio River in Texas or Hastings’ detailed macro-photos, but they play less as environmental ambiences and more as interior journeys.  Take “Ride the Stone Waves.” Johnson orchestrates a shifting, textured backdrop that includes gamelan sounds, ghost synthesizers and plaintive piano while Keaggy plays acoustic and electric guitars, deploying his intricate melodies while dropping Pink Floyd-like echoes, fuzz chord punctuations and some sinewy fretless bass.

Jeff Johnson’s sound design has never been more inventive, with often minimalist loops, Balinese cycles and ephemeral synthesizer scrims.  He remains a font of pensive, turning-to-dusk melodies. Within Johnson’s ambiences Phil Keaggy sounds like twenty different guitar players, offering country twang, folky picking, spacey ambiences and jazz-inflected changes. But it all coheres into a chamber orchestra of the imagination.

From the first piano notes to last guitar strum, Jeff Johnson and Phil Keaggy have created a nearly perfect album of deeply moving chamber music on Frio Suite.  It’s our CD of the Month for October.

John Diliberto ((( echoes )))

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