Stay Classy, Mark Isham

Mark Isham Self Titled

The 1991 Grammy Award for Best New Age Performance went to the man of the movies, Mark Isham!

Mark Isham’s just a guy who can’t say no. He’s recorded a number of superb ambient jazz albums. By 1991, two of these had already been nominated for New Age Grammy awards: 1988’s Castalia and 1990’s Tibet. But he’s mainly known for his soundtrack work.

Since 1983, he’s been involved in at least 137 soundtrack recordings. And looking at his CV, I have to wonder: Has he ever turned any work down?

He’s not just prolific. He’s a machine. And the sheer diversity of the projects he’s taken on suggests that he has no filter. He’s scored trashy action flicks (Point Break, Timecop)slick horror (Blade, The Crazies); kids’ films (Thumbelina, Duck Duck Go); a surprising number of animal adventures (Racing Stripes, Fly Away Home); and enough thrillers and dramas to fill the recent releases racks at your nearest Pick a Flick.

I haven’t seen many of the films he’s scored. And for those I have seen, I can’t really remember the music. Maybe seasoned Mark fans can detect “the Isham touch” in everything he does. But I wonder just how much of himself he puts into his film work.

When scoring a film, I suppose it makes sense to serve the scene, rather than yourself. And it seems that when Mark does add a personal touch to his soundtrack work, he has limited success. For example, his score for Waterworld was rejected for being “too ethnic and bleak”. All that remains from his contribution to the film is that haunting music box melody. The rest is all generic action film bombast.

While I wouldn’t use such adjectives myself to describe what I’ve heard of his solo work, I can understand how someone might listen to Tibet and describe it as “ethnic and bleak”. So perhaps there are two sides to Mr. Isham. The film stuff? That’s his day job. That’s bacon. But his solo work? That’s the real Mr. Isham. That’s where he bares his soul and dares you to look.

Today we’re looking at Mark’s 1990 album, Mark Isham. It’s so personal that Mark saw no alternative but to name it after himself. No worldly concepts or distant lands to hide behind here. It’s like he’s saying: This is me. Hear me. Judge me. Love me. And for this he won the 1991 Grammy Award for Best New Age Performance.

A worthy win? Or should Mark have stuck to the day job? Let’s find out!

Mark Isham

Writing this thing, it’s occurred to me that, when used in certain contexts, the word “trumpet” can seem very rude indeed. You’ll see what I mean in a minute. Maybe.

So I’m operating on the assumption that this album’s self-titled to suggest total honesty. No surface and all feeling. All heart with no conceit. Mark’s cut deep into the cake that is him, and offered the world a bite.

If that’s the case, then when baring his soul, Mark plays his cards very close to his chest. He communicates entirely through his trumpet. Almost every track is a classy vamp over which he improvises. His playing is expansive, melodic, and stirring. He doesn’t have the same fiery intensity, but at times you could swear you’re listening to Miles. Mark’s trumpet ensures that, even at its most insipid, this album remains an engaging listen.

And it does get insipid. At its best its light and airy, evocative of a vast open space full of beautiful buildings. At its worst it sounds like one of the demo tracks on a Casio keyboard.

We’ll get the worst out of the way first. There’s a cover of Blue Moon that goes out of its way to strip the song of all its wonder. Tanita Tikaram’s vocals are pleasant enough. And Mark’s trumpet is as inspired as ever. The whole thing has a laid-back, almost trip hop feel. But it’s entirely let down by a flat and lifeless production, and some dated keyboard sounds.

The same can be said of An Eye to the World. It’s the sound of a missed opportunity: Alex Acuña’s drumming is playful and energetic, but the bland production makes him sound like a drum machine. David Torn’s there too, wresting some sick sounds out of his guitar like he’s Robert Fripp on holiday. But again, he’s let down by the production. It makes something that could sound thrillingly atonal sound grating.

There’s another track with vocals, again provided by Tanita Tikaram. I really didn’t like I Never Will Know at first. It sounded far too much like the sort of artificial music you might hear one desperately boring afternoon on Smooth FM. But it’s grown on me! It’s got the same feel as Beth Hirsch’s contributions to Air’s Moon Safari. But as wonderful as You Make it Easy is, it’s lacking Mark’s soulful trumpet to take things to the stratosphere. It saves the day every day.

The opening track sounds exactly like you’d expect a song called Honeymoon Nights to sound. It’s a song for cocktails at sunset, as pushed upon you by a grinning Lothario in a stained leisure suit. It could make your skin crawl. But once again, that trumpet sound. Marks’ playing can make any song magnificent.

So the first half of the album is patchy. Bear with it. The second half’s much better.

Ashes and Diamonds is the closest this album comes to the sublime ambient jazz of Castalia and Tibet. It’s sparse – a heartbroken trumpet solo over a backing of synth strings, with a glorious midnight piano contribution from the mighty Chick Corea. Dig the spaces yawning between the notes. Bask in the silence, and the notes they’re not playing. It’s over all too quickly.

They save the best for last. With its almost industrial sounding drums and airy synths, Turkish Delight makes me think of the CD-ROMs that came bundled with our first PC. I can’t help but picture a tech-demo from the early 90s, showing off the capabilities of a new graphic engine. It was cutting edge then, but it’s pleasingly quaint now. Dated, yet still evocative of optimistic visions of the future, like something from Beyond the Mind’s Eye. Imagine a pristine ancient city under a light blue sky filled with wispy clouds. The camera drifts through its streets, its squares, its courtyards and its museums. The artificial sun renders vast expanses of stone dazzling. Its devoid of people but full of possibility.

The whole album’s chilled, and it might help a stressed new age type to unwind after a hard day arranging crystals on a log in the forest. But during my first couple of listens, I found myself wondering: Is this even new age music? Or is it just a collection classy, worldly jazz workouts for the new decade?

My mission, you might remember, is to discover the core of new age music. I want to understand, once and for all, just what gives it its innate new ageness. Over the past few weeks I’ve started to shape my definition.

If this album’s intended to be a rare slice of pure Mark Isham, then it’s new age in the same way that Yusuf Lateef’s Little Symphony is new age. It’s worldly and cosmopolitan, yet deeply personal and intimate. It’s music that seeks to bridge that gap between the inner world, and the whole world that’s out there. And whether he intended to or not, Mark helped me hear a new world. An artificial world, granted, but a new world nonetheless. Even a lungful of digital air can be refreshing.

I can’t embed this album, as it’s not on Spotify. Sorry. But here’s a 15 minute video of Mark explaining how he composes music for films:

He seems lovely, doesn’t he? Also, it seems his name’s pronounced EYE-SHAM. Up until now I’ve been pronouncing it ISH-HAM. How embarrassing.

Other Nominations for the 1991 Grammy Award for Best New Age Recording

In 1992, the name of the New Age Grammy award changed. It became The Grammy Award for Best New Age Album. Emphasis mine. So 1991 was the last year that individual songs could be nominated for awards. And the last song to ever get a New Age Grammy nomination? Caravan of Dreams by Acoustic Alchemy:

Well that’s nice, isn’t it? A gentle acoustic duet. Virtuoso, but not showy. Good music for scrapbooking, or for gazing out the window at the drizzle in your favourite jumper with a cup of something warming. There’s not much to it. But maybe that’s the point.

In all the years that individual songs were eligible for the New Age Grammy, the award always went to albums. Perhaps that’s why they decided to change the focus of the award. So 1991 was the end of an era. Thank you, Acoustic Alchemy, for playing us out. You can go back to sleep now.

Taproot by Michael Hedges is this year’s offering from the Windham Hill roster. And like everything I’ve heard from my new favourite label, it’s completely wonderful. Peaceful yet restlessly creative. Michael’s a guitarist, and on many of these songs he plays unaccompanied. He’s a one man orchestra, capable of layering multiple rhythms and harmonies with just 10 fingers and two hands. It’s hypnotic. But the best tracks are those where he’s accompanied by other musicians playing other instruments. Mike Moore’s clarinet on The Jade Stalk is sonic hope. Nothing is wrong for as long as that song’s playing. And on the closing I Carry Your Heart, Graham Nash and David Crosby contribute harmony vocals, creating a sound as instantly comforting as a pair of old shoes. This album should have won.

I couldn’t find Balkan by The Mysterious Voices of Bulgaria anywhere, so here’s some footage of them performing on American TV. Astounding what some people can do with their voices. It’s an incredible sound. Devastatingly powerful. But come on. This isn’t new age music. It’s folk music! Traditional music! Is there a Grammy Award for Best Anthropological Recording? That’s where this belongs. And it should have won.

Oh, speaking of music that isn’t new age music. Here’s Yellowstone: The Music of Nature by Mannheim Steamroller. Yep, some of this music qualifies. Return to Earth could soundtrack a motivational video. Picture a man turning towards the camera, saying things like “love” and “fear” and “sacrifice”. Dolphins and Whales is probably the sort of thing most people think of when they think (unfavourably) of new age music: The sound of waves, the sound of dolphins, a plaintive panpipe melody – it’s supremely naff and absolutely brilliant. But mostly, this is classical music. Fully orchestrated pieces from composers such as Debussy, Vivaldi, Respighi, and Grofé. Not bad at all. Just not new age. Some parts of it, though, are pure Disneyland. Play it loud and you’ll lose all credibility, but you just might feel overwhelmingly happy.

Finally, the album that really, really should have won. It’s Earth: Voices of a Planetyet another miraculous masterpiece from our old friend Paul Winter. Not only is this album considerably better than Mark Isham. It also could well be the most new age-y new age album ever recorded. It was put together to mark the 20th anniversary of Earth Day, and it features at least one instrument or voice from every continent, plus lots of animal calls. It’s hard to imagine anything more new age than that.

I had so much fun with this one. Every track is outstanding in its own way. Call of the Elephant contains recordings of elephant basso-rumbles. They’re apparently too low for the human ear to detect. But the combination of deep rumblings and sparse flute feels therapeutic. Listen and heal. Russian Girls reunites Paul with the stirring vocals of the Dmitri Pokrovsky Ensemble. And the proggy organ on Antarctica evokes a vast frozen landscape full of life and adventure.

Once again, Paul’s soprano sax leaves me speechless. It’s a wonderful feeling to find something you’ve been looking for for years without even realising it. The space between my ears is flooded with colour and vitality, every note sparking a fresh reminder that life is for living – and he plays a lot of notes.

The closing song, And The Earth Spins, has one of the most moving piano parts I’ve heard in a very long time. Considering some of the stunning compositions I’ve heard over the past few weeks, that’s really saying something. And when Paul Halley’s piano harmonises with Paul Winter’s soprano sax, well. I need to remind myself to keep breathing. Music doesn’t get any better than that.

NEXT TIME ON NAGCHAMPA – A breath of Fresh Aire!

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