Hearts of Space,
label website, artist website
Bill Douglas was bassoonist with the Toronto Symphony for years and played Jazz piano gigs on the side. He's taught bassoon at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia for seven years and at Boulder's Naropa since 1977. He's much in demand as commissioned composer and famous for ethereal, heavenly melodies as well as very earthy percussion-driven tunes and sophisticated, neoclassical chamber music pieces. For his own albums, he venerates the lyrical qualities of bella voce, bel canto, cantilena above all others - performances riding on the breath, enlivened by the subtle inflections that come from singing one's instrument rather than merely fingering it.

At one time or another, I've owned all of his prior eight releases. What they have in common with each other and parallel efforts by Tim Wheater, David Darling, James Galway, Pierre Rampal and others is an unapologetic celebration of beauty - in harmony, melody and delivery. It's challenging to tread these fragile grounds lightly enough. Too heavy a touch and you sag into the saccharine morass of much New Age vaporware. Douglas has the wit and compositional sophistication to walk this precarious balance with blithe confidence and nary a misstep.

One of his friends and frequent collaborators is classical clarinetist Richard Stoltzman who is engaged on a parallel crossover career that I've followed devoutly. As a practicing concert musician, Stoltzman favors more Jazz-tinged exploits for this fence hopping than Douglas.

Glance at the cover art of his latest release. The intended mood is crystal clear: Slightly soft-focus dreamy journeys into aural scapes glistening with morning dew, saturated late-afternoon lighting. Visions of pastoral lakes, Scottish highland coves, or a boat ride to the secret Isle of Avalon perhaps. These are no mere figments of the imagination. Take the Yeats lyrics to "The Lake Isle of Innisfree": "... I will arise and go now, for always night and day I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore, there's midnight all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow, and evening full of the linnet's wings..."

As on his last three efforts for Hearts of Space, the interspersed choral works are once again tethered to the Ars Nova Singers. If the twilight grace of wafting voices makes you flinch in their purity, consider it a sad reminder. Exposure to violence and edginess in our lives has rendered us thick-skinned. We relate to unrepenting beauty by shrugging it off as a faint echo of carefree youth or, worse yet, dreams that are proudly banished upon waking. Why blame artists like Douglas for reminding us of the flawless diamonds hiding encrusted inside what we have deliberately discarded as rocks?

Douglas once again surrounds himself with those instruments most conducive to cantilena delivery -- all the classical woodwinds (clarinet, flute and oboe) and the bowed strings of the violin and cello. For rhythmic accents, tabla sensation Ty Burhoe steps in also with frame drum, and then there are Bill's pianos, synthesizers and occasional bassoon solos.

The only criticism an audiophile might level against Morning is the aural equivalent of soft-focus lighting. You know the kind. Camera men to this day deploy it to render the leading lady's skin as poreless porcelain while the intermittent pans to the leading man display all his crow's feet, spider wrinkles, ant dung and warts in high resolution.

If the latter's your poison, you won't find it here. And while you might long for the edgier reunion afterwards, I strongly recommend you give Morning its due time in your rig. It'll serve as necessary time-out from the game of hardball many of us call life. You can always brush the sugar off your teeth with a double shot of Bourbon afterwards.