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The Wisdom of My Shadow
By Lisa Downing
Label: Vision Quest Entertainment
Released 7/24/2016
The Wisdom of My Shadow tracks
1. Forbidden Dance
2. Tragic Dream
3. Black Wedding
4. Mischief
5. Mad World
6. Postludium
7. Cloudwalker
8. The Torii Gates
9. Harlem Nocturne
10. One More Day
11. Moonrise
12. Sad Lisa [Cat Stevens]
13. The Dragon Within
14. Diaphanous Breeze
Lisa Downing - The Wisdom of My Shadow
Lisa Downing's The Wisdom of My Shadow is one of those deeply personal albums that come my way now and then which are particularly difficult to review because of how intimate a glance they are into the musician's personality. I can sometimes find it difficult to wear a "reviewer's" hat when confronted by a work that is tied so inexorably to who the artist is as a person. Luckily, the music on The Wisdom of My Shadow is so good that I don't have to worry about criticizing it, although I do admit that the sheer passion and drama that Downing unleashes at times catches me off guard. Like another pianist, Michele McLaughlin, Downing can start off in a sparse minimal vein and with nary the blink of an eye, explode in a flurry of power and intensity, pounding away at the ivories, only to subside once more into a reflective mood. Not all of the recording's thirteen selections are like this, so when it does happen, trust me, you will notice.

The album starts off with three originals, "The Shadow Trilogy." You can well imagine this will not be "let's take a walk on a sunny day" music. It's here that some transitions between a reflective mood and a burst of drama are first heard, on both track 1, "Forbidden Dance," and track 2, "Tragic Dream." Downing's liner notes (which are the epitome of extensive, to say the least) detail what the trilogy is about (it tells a story in music). The third track, "Black Wedding," well, you can kinda tell where that song is headed. "Black Wedding" is grim, fatalistic, and carries an air of resignation to an unwanted fate with it (the liner notes help understanding where that comes from). On all three of these first tracks, Downing gives the mid and lower registers quite the workout! Under close listening, you will easily appreciate the mastering job done by Andy Mitran and Al Jewer (who also appear later on the album). The piano (a Yamaha C7 on all but two tracks) sounds gloriously clear on each song.

Six of the remaining ten tracks are either covers or feature Downing as the co-composer. As mentioned above, Mitran and Jewer are featured on "Cloudwalker," on which Downing's piano melds with Native flute and subtle electronic effects and an assortment of beats and rhythms. It's a great slice of chill-out and Downing holds her own with the two musicians who excel at this type of music, even introducing some subtle jazz elements into the music. "Moonrise" is the other collaborative composition on the album, co-written by Downing, Gunnar Spardel and Amethyste, the former on electronics and keyboards and the latter on wordless vocals and her trademark theremin. Again, Downing shows she can slide comfortably alongside other players with ease and grace (something I was, frankly, a bit surprised at since I always considered her a solo pianist). The song itself blends an ambient sensibility with new age mysticism. The cover tunes run the gamut: Tears for Fears' "Mad World," to which Downing gives a particularly plaintive, sensitive, and sorrowful treatment, the Earle Hagen/Dick Rogers classic "Harlem Nocturne" (read the liner notes to read the especially poignant reason for its inclusion here), a song with which Downing obviously resonates deeply, Cat Steven's "Sad Lisa," where she shows she can take the root of a well-known pop/folk song and make it her own while still retaining what makes it the song it is, and finally, an early 20th century classical piece, "Postludium," composed by the Hungarian Ernö Von Dohnányi (again the liner notes detail why this piece is included on the album).

Downing's originals cover an equally wide range of styles, from the sprightly, sly, uptempo fun of "Mischief" (one of my favorites here), to the sweeping power of the rapidly-paced "The Torii Gates," to the relatively soft-spoken nature and somberness of "One More Day," to the escalating power and drama of "The Dragon Within" (another example of how Downing can work all the piano's registers with finesse and a "take no prisoners" attitude"). The album concludes with a bonus previously-released track, "Diaphanous Breeze" from Downing's earlier album, A Delicate Balance.

In an email exchange with Downing's husband Pete Foster, I admitted that I didn't always connect as well with powerful, dramatic piano music, as I preferred a more minimalist, or smoothly flowing style. However, I have to admit to being won over by The Wisdom of My Shadow. Part of that is Downing's stunning display of technical artistry. I imagine watching her play the more powerful pieces on this album would be something special to witness ("Mischief" must be a blast to see live as her fingers flit so quickly all over the 88 keys). The other factor that impressed me was how fearless she was from an emotional standpoint, willing to empty her veins onto the ivories, as it were. That level of commitment and vulnerability would, I think, make even the harshest critic nod her/his head as if to say "Yes, that's it!" Every artist with this much talent has a landmark recording inside of her or him, just waiting to get out to the world and be appreciated. For Lisa Downing, with the release of The Wisdom of My Shadow, the wait is over.
- reviewed by Bill Binkelman on 6/15/2016
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