Multifaceted compositions played with passion, finesse and undeniable chops – a mosaic for your ears.
Artist: Jeff Johnson and Phil Keaggy
8 tracks / 56:05
There are times when it’s best to throw out the idea of definitions - this might be one of them. As I try to find the right category, definition or genre to describe Ravenna, the new instrumental project by Jeff Johnson and Phil Keaggy, I come up empty. On the other hand, the more I think about this music, the categories start to overflow to the point of being meaningless. Still, let’s try some: acoustic jazz, world music, New Age, contemplative art rock, soaking music, ambient music... It could be argued that all of these music forms are included in Ravenna, but there’s really so much more there. Let me try to explain...
Yes, the eight songs on this project - which are titled simply by number (Mosaic 1, Mosaic 2, etc.) - are inspired by fifth and sixth century mosaics of Ravenna, Italy, no doubt a transcendent viewing experience. Still, the listener isn’t in Ravenna, the mosaics aren’t hovering magically before us, so we’re left with the music. Regardless of what inspired Johnson and Keaggy, it’s now the work that they, working remotely with one another, have created that produces a fresh inspiration for us. Jeff Johnson’s atmospheric keyboards and Keaggy’s masterful fretwork (this time including mandolin and mandocello!) transport us to exotic places where we’ve never been before but perhaps can imagine - but still they manage to anchor us by retaining a very modern musical link to the here and now.
Even in his early albums, Johnson would incorporate recorded sounds, both natural and man-made, into his compositions, and the very first things we hear on Ravenna are birds and a distant tolling bell, which subtly gives way to bell-like piano chords against a drone-like bass tone. The sound swells and falls into a rhythm as Keaggy guitars - acoustic and electric - join in. Rhythms shift, piano and guitar lines offer melodic passages, and hand-produced percussion indeed become a mosaic of sound and ideas, but one that’s more than just ‘ambient,’ or for the moment, and that’s one of the things that sets this project apart and cause it to be so genre-defying. There’s none of the pretention that often accompanies instrumental work, but almost a subtly-implied sense of worship to a lot of what we hear. These two artists certainly impress but they’re not out to impress.
As I go through the eight tracks I’m reminded in subtle ways of some of Johnson’s earlier work, certainly of Keaggy’s The Master and the Musician and The Wind and the Wheat, but also - curiously - a bit of George Harrison’s experimental Wonderwall Music album in a couple of spots (I know that comes out of left field - I think it was certain combinations of piano tone, melody, tabla-like percussion, and Phil’s mandolin)! Johnson contributes some very ethereal textures and melodic ideas with a variety of synth sounds and what certainly sounds like ‘real’ acoustic piano. Ravenna is a real treat for fans of Mr. Keaggy’s work, since it seems like Phil dove head-first into the project with lots of signature acoustic and electric work, as well as bass, percussion, and some wordless vocals. Even though we all love to be all heady and esoteric in our musical tastes, I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t say that “Mosaic 5” made my Classic Rock-sense tingle like Spiderman walking down a dark alley in New York City. The last section of the seven minute-plus song gets pretty funky, with Johnson on some earthy organ under Keaggy’s guitar, bass and (pretty tasty) drums!
Ravenna is nearly an hour of multifaceted compositions, most of which average about seven minutes in length, played with passion and impeccable chops - if we’re allowed to say ‘chops’ in a review of an album inspired by sixth century mosaics ...yeah, why not?! Close your eyes and let your ears enjoy hearing how Johnson and Keaggy make all of the pieces fit..
- Bert Saraco