||This is a way overdue review of one of the best instrumental piano recordings of recent years and for that I apologize to Joe Heinemann, the artist, whom I had the pleasure of meeting in New Orleans this year. On the other hand, the kind of music on Gratitude (along with the cover image, which I will bring up later) makes this the perfect time of year to listen to the album. With that preamble out of the way, let me tell you why this album deserves to be in your collection.
Gratitude is a very special piano release. While this may sound like hyperbole, in some ways, it deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as George Winston's classic December. Granted, this is not holiday music at all, but instead features eleven of Heinemann's original compositions. However, whether you take your cue from the gorgeous winterscape picture on the front (of people walking through the snow in Central Park) or the somber, elegance of the music itself, the music on Gratitude fits in perfectly with that time of year (in northern climes) when the world slows down, the earth begins its months' long slumber, and we collectively begin to enter a reflective mood, mirrored by grey skies, brisk cold weather, and, yes, snow on the ground. Coincidentally, in America, we also celebrate Thanksgiving at this time of year, too, and the album is, after all, titled Gratitude.
Heinemann, who carved out a very respectable and successful career in jazz and blues in the '80s and '90s, sought a new direction for his music after moving to New York City in 2012. We can all be ultra-grateful for that decision on his part. After just one playing of Gratitude, I couldn't believe it when I found out this was the pianist's first foray into this style of music. His subtlety, technique, and his compositions were already so refined, as if he was born to create music this introspective and delicately beautiful. This was his debut in this genre, folks! Are you kidding me?
Recorded at Imaginary Road under the guise and guidance of the Ackerman/Eaton production team, I have to think that Will and Tom were as blown away as I was when Joe started to show what he could do with a piano. Accompaniment on the album is sparser than some of the more recent releases from IR Studios, featuring Eugene Friesen (cello) on three tracks, and Jill Haley (English horn), Paul Kochanski (bass), and Tom Eaton (percussion) on the same two tracks ("Sea Dream - Away" and "My Song - Carried Along"). All the other numbers here are solo piano and while there is no denying the valuable assistance from those four musicians when they appear, those solo numbers are the real heart and soul of Gratitude.
From the opening notes of the somber, melancholic "Lenape" to the subtle jazz undertones of the closing "Late At Night," Heinemann simply floored me on every song. Gratitude is undeniably one of the best late night recordings in my collection, but it's also ideal for daydreaming while window-gazing on one of the aforementioned grey autumn days, perhaps with a slow-burning fire in the fireplace, or a soft rain pattering on the window pane. I imagine myself on the sofa, with Mamie, our black lab, cuddled over against her favorite corner, and just feeling all the stress, worry and strife ease out of my body as my mind wanders the back alleys of memory. Yes, some memories will be sad, but like burning embers of a dying fire, there is warmth there as well.
Singling out tracks would be a moot venture as this is one of the rare "perfect" albums where every song - the minimal "For Satie," the soft romanticism of "Longing" (with a trace of classical influence), the gentle rural sway and swing of "My Song - Carried Along, the good-natured cheer of the title track – is sublime and flawless in every aspect.
Do you enjoy contemporary piano music? Do yourself a huge favor and buy a copy of Gratitude, especially now if you live in the north. It could easily become one of your go-to discs for this time of year, because it is definitely one of mine. Joe Heinemann, you have my gratitude for releasing this masterpiece!