If the Windham Hill label was still alive and well and adding new artists, I have no doubt Josh Johnston’s new release, The Shape of Things, would be on it. The disc is apparently a departure for Johnston, who notes on his web site that this is his first instrumental album. May I say: nice departure, sir. The Shape of Things is a calmly beautiful wine-and-candles collection of solo piano works, mostly ballads with an occasional uptempo piece tucked in for good measure. Johnston’s usual avocation as a songwriter peeks through the structure of his lovely piano musings; in tracks like “Nightsong 2” and “FVX,” you can almost see the hollows that are carved out of the sound, pools waiting to be filled with lyrics. The space is there and the piano takes its role as singer. And you get the feeling you’d sing along, the lyrics hitting you right in the heart, if they were there. Other tracks are solid, emotional instrumentals with no lyric aspirations, like “Atlantic” and “Cimiez,” both of which I find very moving and carrying a real sense of narrative. And right when you think he’s just another romantic balladeer, Johnston hits you with the jazzy stride of “The Late Train,” written by fellow Irishman and songwriter Roesy. This song finds the pianist getting a little flashy, packing the tune with stop-and-start flourishes and twinkling runs up and down the keys. He’s clearly making the most of his friend’s composition and having a ball doing it. Across the course of The Shape of Things Johnston plays with intensity and a surplus of feeling; there’s a story in every piece, and if they sound a little familiar it’s only because Johnston is leaving his own footprint on the well-traveled path of solo New Age piano. Pick your three favorite artists in the genre; now set Josh Johnston’s name next to theirs–because before too long it’s going to belong there. This disc is going to catch a lot of airplay on New Age radio shows and podcasts, and with any luck it’s not the last time Johnston decides to go instrumental.
One thing I find a little amusing, now that the meat of the review is done… In much of the publicity I received for The Shape of Things, it was often mentioned that some of the songs were played in the dark during recording, or that Johnston sometimes rehearses in the dark. To me, this is not a selling point. In fact, it made me hesitate to delve into the disc because it put in my head images of off-kilter, improvisational and avant-garde meanderings wherever whatever comes out goes on the record. So, quite honestly, I back-burnered the disc for a while. Which meant I unnecessarily delayed experiencing a very nice album. And I defy anyone to tell me which songs are played in the dark here. They’re all played beautifully, regardless of the ambient lighting. The focus here is the playing, the depth of feeling, the honesty that rings out of each piece.
When you’re ready to wind down, pour yourself a glass, get comfy and give The Shape of Things a listen. Josh Johnston is here, friends.
Available from Josh Johnston’s web site.