Pianist Liz Story is one of those artists who shows both the need for and limitations of the so-called “new age” tag. Her music is difficult, if not impossible, to categorize. It’s not quite jazz. It’s not quite classical. It’s not pop standards. The music’s often meditative nature causes her to be placed in the new age or adult alternative category. With Night Sky Essays, her first release of new material in seven years, Story reinforces both her artistry and ability to blend styles.
Story was one of the artists who helped make Windham Hill Records a pre-eminent label in the new age field. Over the course of the relationship, she incorporated elements of myriad styles. She issued releases ranging from solo piano originals to solo covers of jazz and pop standards to separate collaborations with synthesist Mark Isham and jazz bassist Joel DiBartolo. Night Sky Essays, her first with record label Digital Musicworks, takes her back to solo piano originals that typify her lyrical and light approach.
Night Sky Essays contains 12 original compositions, each named for one of the constellations making up the zodiac. As has usually been the case with her recordings, none of the pieces is an extended one; the longest clocks in at five minutes. But Story says plenty in short amounts of time. She seems to excel at using a phrase or two (not hooks, mind you) that grab you intellectually or emotionally. As has been true in her past work, these phrases aren’t frequently repeated but are strong enough to reach out and draw you in.
While Night Sky Essays is predicated on the zodiac, Story still leaves the listener wondering. Are these compositions intended to reflect the particular zodiac sign or do they seek to capture a feeling or mood which arises from gazing up at the constellation in the night sky? She further confounds with subtitles that appear on the inside of the CD insert but not the exterior.
For example, “Leo” is subtitled “Hearth Beat” and contains a steady, underlying beat in the lower register. If you weren’t aware of the subtitle, the beat is slightly reminiscent of the music from a jungle documentary or movie, indicative of the lion representing this constellation. But once you see the subtitle, you start wondering what the beat represents. Is it both?
Other pieces appear more readily assignable. For example, “Gemini” seems to have subtle doubling and use of octaves, fitting for the twins the sign represents. Likewise, “Virgo” is subtitled “Playground Meeting Minutes” and has a lighthearted feel while “Sagittarius” is subtitled “aimful aimlessness” and intermingles the feel of wandering the keyboard with a resolute approach and destination. On the other hand, you would anticipate “Taurus” to be somewhat imposing and assertive given it is the sign of the bull. But Story subtitles it “After the Rain,” dedicates it to her brother and it comes off as a tender piece.
And maybe this is where a listener can raise impediments to full enjoyment. Why overanalyze or try to force music into a pigeonhole such as jazz, pop, adult alternative, new age or some other label? The best advice for Night Sky Essays — as with virtually all of Story’s releases — is to just sit back, listen, and let her talent take you wherever it strikes you at the time.