Serenity in New Orleans at Zone Music Awards.
This weekend I was in New Orleans where I visited the studios of WWOZ, the home of New Orleans’ music heritage, a station that plays traditional jazz, blues, Cajun, zydeco, old time, country, bluegrass, Gospel, Celtic, and World music. It’s a sound that is at the polar opposite of the reason for my presence in New Orleans, The ZMR Awards. There you would find serene solo pianists, electronic fantasists, Celtic harpists, Enya acolytes and quiet, classically-derived, finger-style guitarists.
The awards are produced by the Zone Music Reporter, an industry trade site for radio programmers of New Age, ambient, electronic and neo-classical music, among a few other genres. The annual event is a gathering of tribes for people in these scenes, although this year’s event appeared to fall a little short in attendance compared to last year’s.
Many better-known exponents of the genre were there: Windham Hill Records founder and guitarist, Will Ackerman; New Age pioneer Deuter; cellist/world fusionist Hans Christian; and this year’s and last year’s New Age Grammy Award winners, White Sun and Paul Avgerinos, respectively.
The voting membership of the awards, radio programmers, largely seemed to get it right this year. Most categories had a strong slate of nominees and some of the best actually won.
Topping the night was the Album of the Year. In a competitive slate that included impressive albums like Jeff Pearce’s Follow the River Home, Fiona Joy’s Signature-Synchronicity and Grammy winners White Sun’s latest release, the award went to bassist Erik Scott. Scott has been a music professional for the better part of 50 years playing with Alice Cooper, Flo & Eddie, Pops Staples and Sonia Dada. But he’s been exploring the introspective side of his music in the last decade or so. His album, In the Company of Clouds, was a CD of the Month on Echoes last year, was #3 of our top 25 for 2016, and it deserved the award. Scott’s album also won in the Best Contemporary Instrumental category against an equally strong slate that included albums by Lawrence Blatt, Jill Haley, David Arkenstone and Al Jewer & Andy Mitran.
Scott also joined Jewer and Mitran in their opening performance of world music excursions, one of three exceptional performances of the evening.The other two were Vin Downes’ restrained, but detailed solo guitar performance and the duet of Jill Haley & David Cullen.
Winning Best New Artist was Tom Eaton, a musician who, like Scott, has been around for a while, producing on the Boston area folk scene, producing with Will Ackerman and also releasing a couple of obscure albums. But in the last year he’s put out two new recordings, Abendromen and Indesterren, that revealed an introspective, ambient side to this musician. Abendromen earned him the Best New Artist award.
The Best Instrumental Category is an amorphous one, ranging from guitar-centric releases like Robert Linton’s Beyond the Clearing, to the world fusion sound of South Africa’s Guy Buttery. Toddy Mosby has a post-modern approach to extended guitar arrangements while Tom Kilgore with the Bear has a more folk-like sound. Winning the category was the moody chamber folk of Trialogue, featuring Sherry Finzer, Darin Mahoney and Will Clipman. I think this is the only category where every nominee was played a lot on Echoes.
Best Neo-Classical Album is a category you’ll only find at ZMR. It also tends to house the blandest, most sentimental and soporific music. But Helen Jane Long rose above it with her album of chamber music, Identity.
The Best Relaxation and Meditation Album category also has its share of sweet melodies, however, this year’s nominees were stronger, including Tom Moore & Sherry Finzer’s deeply meditative Whispers from Silence and Ann Licater’s Beyond the Waves. It would have been nice to see the award go to Deuter for his album, Immortelle. He received the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2016 and couldn’t attend due to illness. But this year, although the 72-year old musician was present the award went to Hennie Bekker for his deep space float, Beyond Dreams – Pathways to Relaxation.
Some categories are a little interchangeable, including Best Chill/Groove Album, Best Electronic Album and Best Ambient Album. Almost all those albums are electronic. They could all fall under the broader ambient umbrella and per force, that makes them all chill.
Nevertheless, there is some distinction. In the Chill/Groove category, Uwe Gronau’s Paradise Painting topped the big name and commercial calculation of Yanni’s Sensuous Chill and the wonderful expanses of Matthew Stewart’s A World Bathed in Sunlight.
I was the presenter for the awards in the Best Electronic and Ambient album categories, both with extremely strong slates. Beating-out albums by Vangelis and Erik Wøllo & Byron Metcalf was Ghost Stations, an edgy ambient dub release from England’s Marconi Union.
Marconi Union wasn’t present to accept, and neither was the winner of Best Ambient Album, Jeff Pearce. His guitar spacescapes on Follow the River Home bested strong contenders like Best New Artist winner Tom Eaton and Jim Ottaway’s Southern Cross. He sent his promoter, flutist Sherry Finzer, up to accept. Pearce had given her two sealed envelopes if he won in any of his two nominated categories. Ready for anything from the prankster Pearce, Finzer still wasn’t prepared for what she got. For some reason I had thought it was a black piece of paper because Pearce didn’t think his album would win. It was actually a note that said he knew his album wouldn’t win, so instead he wrote her a personal note, which she read a few lines of before losing it. I wondered what the envelope for his Best Album nomination had, or didn’t. You can find out. Pearce has since posted it all on his Facebook page.
Another surprise to me was the award of Best Piano Album – Solo, to Starr Parodi. Her album, The Heart of Frida is excellent, but I don’t think of this former member of Arsenio Hall’s Posse as a member of the New Age scene.
The Best Piano Album with Instrumentation was the hardest to pick because, except for the winner, they all sound like the same album, different name. Fiona Joy’s Signature – Synchronicity, marked by her more trenchant compositions and inventive arrangements, rose above the pack, but the award went to Kathryn Kaye’s There Was A Time.
The two most disappointing categories were Best Vocal Album and Best World Album.
In the vocal category were artists who were echoes of Loreena McKennitt and Enya. Rebekkah Eden and Candice Night of Blackmore’s Night held up the McKennitt side, while 2002 and Seay were the children of Enya. Then, there was Enya herself, nominated for her Dark Sky Island album, also an Echoes CD of the Month. By some logic that eludes me, Seay took away the award for her In the Garden CD. Think Enya but with more cloying lyrics. She also gave a live performance that was ambitious in its aspirations with multiple keyboards, a string quartet and Seay herself looking like a more full-figured iteration of Angelina Jolie’s Malificent, sans the horned helmet.
Best World Music Album was also perplexing. The nominees included two 2017 Grammy Award winners, Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble and White Sun Two! The Yo-Yo Ma recording is one of his strongest Silk Road albums and it’s Yo-Yo Fucking Ma! But the award went to the clichéd eastern fusion of Al Conti’s Mystic.
Finally, the Lifetime Achievement Award was given to Michael Diamond: guitarist, reviewer and promoter. Diamond passed away earlier this year. Michael Diamond was under-the-radar as a musician, even though he did good work with Steven Halpern and on several solo albums that should have always been mentioned in the same breath as other ambient guitarists. He wrote sensitive reviews of contemporary and New Age albums and promoted a lot of that music. He also played some nice ambient guitar on a live Echoes session with Bodhi many years ago. Will Ackerman read a heartfelt tribute to this musician alongside a nicely-produced video homage with memories from many who worked with Diamond, including a gracious farewell from Steven Halpern along with promoter Ed Bonk and new age veteran Suzanne Doucet.
Aside from a few missteps, the ZMR Awards mostly zoned in on the right choices this year.