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Music Review: Phoenix Rising – Ascension

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I’ve got a confession to make: before writing this review, I hadn’t heard any music by Phoenix Rising. Their work isn’t the sort that I tend to play on a regular basis. That being said, I’m thoroughly impressed with what I’ve heard, and I’ve enjoyed getting a feel for their style over the past several days. They sound like classical music if a hippy jazz musician got his hands on it. Phoenix Rising primarily plays new-age and ambient, but also throws in bits of classical, jazz, and world music.

San Francisco-based group Phoenix Rising is composed of flutist Monica Williams, pianist Wendy Loomis, and a revolving guest artist. Though they’ve been performing as an ensemble since 2002, the individual backgrounds of both members are impressive. Monica Williams studied at the Eastman School of Music, one of the most prestigious music conservatories in the United States, and has played for orchestras in Chicago, Rochester, and Cincinnati. Wendy Loomis is an accomplished composer, has an extensive discography, and recently received the ASACPlus award for her work.

Before beginning work on upcoming album Ascension, Loomis and Williams performed both locally in the San Francisco Bay area and in other major cities such as Los Angeles, Austin, and Atlanta. Their debut album, Whispers, was released in 2005. Since then, the track “Improvisation for Film” was nominated for best new age/ambient song by the Hollywood Music Awards.

Ascension, which Phoenix Rising was kind enough to let me preview, is a little different from their previous efforts. It was designed to be used in meditation, and is stylistically based on the seven chakras, or energy centers believed to be positioned through the human body. I don’t meditate, at least not in the traditional sense, but I can appreciate the spirit of their endeavor while listening in a typical fashion. The music is quite enjoyable without meditating, and I think I probably picked up on more of the detail and nuance than I would have otherwise.

The album opens with “Seed,” a light-hearted improvisation which includes use of the guzheng, a traditional Chinese stringed instrument. Accordingly, the song has a distinctly Asian flare, with nicely done technique and pacing. The combination of piano, flute, and guzheng is well balanced, with none overwhelming the others. I particularly enjoyed some of the guzheng improvisation; it made me want to find some guzheng instrumental music. The theme introduced at the beginning of the song was suitably explored, with several variations coming up at various points.

In “Heartstrings,” Phoenix Rising takes on an entirely different tone. Wendy Loomis opens on the piano with a gentle, almost hesitant melody. Further into the song, she adds strong supporting chords and great thought progression. The addition of the string harmony is excellent; I thought it gave depth and added emotion, especially when the flute enters. Monica Williams on flute and guest performer Suellen Primrose on cello engage in a sort of ebb and flow on top of the piano part. I would have perhaps liked to have heard a little more exposition from the cello, but overall I loved this song.

My favorite songs on the album were “Insight,” which opens with a great guitar part and moves to an optimistic piano melody, and “Ascension,” which seemed to blend some of the themes from other songs in the album. The feel of “Ascension” is very poignant, with the music building and building, almost teasing as you wait for the song’s climax, then dropping away and building again. This song also showcases Williams' musical skill on flute in a way that the other songs do not, allowing her to take more of a lead role. It would have been great to hear more of that in other songs.

After listening to Ascension several times through, I feel as though both musicians may have restrained themselves in the creation of this album for the sake of its purpose as a meditation aid. I’m willing to bet that an album not intended for such specific use would allow for an even greater performance from both Loomis and Williams.

Phoenix Rising is an accomplished ensemble, and I’d love to hear more out of them. Pianist and flutist complement each other’s style quite well, though overall the piano felt dominant in this album. They’ve got a great take on a traditional instrumentation, and I would really enjoy hearing some jazz from them. Ascension is scheduled for release in February 2009, and I highly recommend you check it out. In the mean time, listen to a sampling of their work at MySpace.

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