Jeff Johnson & Brian Dunning Bring Christmas Under the Wonder Sky

Echoes December CD of the Month
Jeff Johnson,  Brian Dunning & Wendy Goodwin: Under The Wonder Sky

Your Christmas CD for 2010 has slipped down the chimney.

It’s been seven years since we had a seasonal album as our Echoes December CD of the Month.  That was A Windham Hill Christmas, Vol. 2. Not coincidentally, two of the artists on that album were Jeff Johnson and Brian Dunning.

Like Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Jeff Johnson and Brian Dunning have forged an enduring, if not nearly as tumultuous or lucrative, relationship.  They’ve been together for more than 20 years, since they met in Portland, Oregon.  At that time, Johnson was a rising Christian artist while Dunning was in the popular Windham Hill Celtic fusion group, Nightnoise.  Despite the fact that Dunning now lives in his native Ireland and Johnson has moved to Camano Island in Washington, they continue to work and record together.  On Under the Wonder Sky they’re joined by violinist Wendy Goodwin.

Hear “Come Thou, Long Expected Jesus”

The duo has made some of my favorite Christmas music over the years, beginning with several tracks on Windham Hill Winter Solstice and Christmas samplers to their own albums like the haunting A Quiet Knowing Christmas.  With Under the Wonder Sky, they’ve thrown the log on the fire of yet another near perfect seasonal recording.

Johnson, Dunning and Goodwin take the schlock out of Christmas, with inventive song selection and arrangements that fall between the moody and the pastoral.  You won’t find any sleigh bells on this CD.  Although a bouncy rendition of “Greensleeves” opens the album, it’s the second track, “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus” that sets the tone.  A traditional Christmas hymn based on “Gloria In Excelsis Deo,” Brian Dunning trades off the melody with violinist Wendy Goodwin in a song that is at once yearning and wistful.

Many of the songs here are lesser known carols and hymns like “As With Gladness, Men of Old” and “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silent.”  But even when they play a chestnut like “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” Johnson & Dunning shear it of the corny sentimentality usually associated with that melody and turn it into a quietly classical chamber work full of atmosphere that seems to literally emerge out of a crystal night sky, wafting in luminous hues.

Hear “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear”

Although “Away in a Manger” resists their attempts to turn it into a pastoral meditation, it’s hard to go wrong with “Wexford Carol.”  They give the Irish tune a deceptive opening with Dunning stating the theme on a deep bass flute over an ominous drone but then it breaks into a lively rhythm suitable for wassailing.

Jeff Johnson & Brian Dunning-Echoes Concert 2004

Jeff Johnson and Brian Dunning are wonderful composers and if this album has a flaw, it’s that there aren’t more of their  original compositions on it.  That’s borne out by Johnson’s lone contribution of the title track.  Loosely based on “I Wonder as I Wander,” Johnson opens with a solo piano prelude then shifts into a pensive two-note piano bass line  with Goodwin creating a gentle violin arc while he assembles sparse, echoing sampled and electronic percussion, followed by Dunning’s percussive flute.  A slow build crests the hill and opens up on a rolling panorama of strummed guitar and Dunning’s flute interweaving again with Goodwin’s lilting violin.

Hear “Under the Wonder Sky”

Brian Dunning’s “As the Child Sleeps” uses a rapid arpeggio guitar riff from Tim Ellis to set the mood before it slips into a wistful ballad with Dunning playing low whistle.

The album ends on a parlor music note in a trio as Johnson sits at an acoustic piano with Dunning and Goodwin on flute and violin.  But even here, Johnson can’t resist some electronic keyboard harmonizing of the sacred melody.

Whether you celebrate Christmas with spiritual intent or just love the quiet mood and reflective atmosphere of the winter season, Under the Wonder Sky is a perfect soundtrack.

John Diliberto ((( echoes )))

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  3 comments for “Jeff Johnson & Brian Dunning Bring Christmas Under the Wonder Sky

  1. This works evokes the positive “presence” of Christmas…friends, family, the sky and stars at twilight, the Winter to come and a wish for Good Health to all.

  2. This CD is a beautiful collection of music that not only can be listened to at Christmas time but any time of the year. A definite for my wishlist!

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