For a brief while in the 1980s, I was sampling some of the Windham Hill recordings. I admit that some of what I’d heard wasn’t all that exciting to me (some of it could be too “new-agey” or precious), but a few artists and groups stood out. I liked the freshened-up fusion approach of Shadowfax, and was amazed at how Michael Hedges could manipulate his way around a guitar.
One that flew under the radar of most folks was the duo of Ira Stein and Russel Walder. I had first purchased their second album, Transit, thanks to one of the tracks being on a Windham Hill sampler I owned. (A feature will be forthcoming on this album.) That album featured the duo, but with a little extra instrumentation (and some vocals) for sweetening. A few months later, I picked up a copy of their first album, Elements, which is strictly the duo of oboe and piano…a 1932 Baldwin, no less. Just a few weeks ago, I found a mint copy via Discogs and have been rediscovering this album again.
This evening while filing away albums and inspecting others, I remembered that this album was pressed on premium vinyl. KC-600, if I recall. This one has the dark purple translucent glow to it. This in itself is a good sign. It was while looking at the dead wax that I noticed a familiar inscription: “JH/2”. Turns out this album was half-speed mastered at JVC in Japan, where all of those early-era Mobile Fidelity LPs were mastered. The mastering engineer was none other than Jack Hunt. In addition, the album was pressed back here in the U.S. at Record Technology, Inc. (RTI). Other than a bit of flotsam and jetsam (the record still needs a good cleaning), it plays back nicely.
The oboe and piano were both recorded with Crown PZM microphones, and the whole chain was “audiophile” with no compression or limiting, so this is a very nice sounding album. The tones of the oboe and piano are indeed very natural. As an LP, this is nearly demo material, provided you can find one that is in excellent condition.
Musically, I will be the first to admit that it is not everyone’s cup of tea. The album consists of only four lengthy songs, plus a very brief fifth. And yes, it is strictly oboe and piano. Yet it is not sappy or precious like much of the new age genre was. What I notice are elements of both classical and jazz here. Classically, some of the works remind me of a theme and variations. Yet once the theme is established, either Stein (piano) or Walder (oboe) is improvising, building upon the original theme. Stein, especially, reminds me a bit of the style of Lyle Mays, where he can just take off and soar, building the original song into something completely different. Very spontaneous and free-form at times, yet they never fail to bring a song back to earth by its end.
Definitely recommended if you can find a nice clean copy on vinyl, or seek out the CD. It’s enjoyable if you prefer something quieter and out of the ordinary.