An Album Worthy of Five Stars

A review by Kevin Belmonte

Ravenna – the latest collaboration between Jeff Johnson and Phil Keaggy – is an album that bestows the finest of gifts: a rare and kindred artistry.

Visually and sonically, the album is a fully-realized vision and song-cycle. And it begins with the album’s packaging: a stunning presentation of painted images that evoke the ancient faith, buildings, and culture of Ravenna, Italy. The album’s design is beautiful and stirring in concept.

We are now so used to receiving music via digital platform, and to be sure, there are good things, convenient things, about that. Still, the album design and concept for Ravenna is a very welcome reminder of something we tend to associate much more with vinyl albums now – part of experiencing an album is to engage the craft and concepts that go into an album’s design, quite apart from the tracks etched on vinyl, or digitally transferred to CD. I found myself lingering over the images placed on the CD packaging for Ravenna, especially the golden bird caught in a starfield of blue on the inside fold of the album. So the hues of other album images combine, they work “in concert,” to borrow a metaphor, with an invitation to discover a reverent space and abide as one listens. It’s a gift to do so.

In all there are eight tracks on Ravenna, or, as they’ve been called on the album, “mosaics.” That in itself is telling. For though each mosaic is free-standing expression of music in theme, idea, and form, they have a seamless quality and cohere – as mosaics do, in sequence, within a church.

What appeals most about this approach is that the tracks of the album, or mosaics, bear no title individually. They are simply mosaic 1, mosaic 2, and so on. The effect fostered by this is that of a concert, as though Johnson and Keaggy are performing within a cathedral canopy in Ravenna itself. Seen in this way, the eight mosaics are like movements of a classical piece of music.

This points to both the ambition and achievement of this album. For Johnson and Keaggy have genuinely succeeded in their quest. Johnson’s keys and percussion, with Keaggy’s playing on guitar, mandocello, mandolin, bass, and percussion (along with some shadings of vocals) achieve a true, revealing fusion. By turns, this music is contemplative, purposeful, and quiet, yet there are other moments where elements of jazz, rock, or more orchestral flavored runs emerge.

As an instrumental album of rare skill and concept, Ravenna truly has a voice all its own—

A shimmering, wistful, and ever-yearning quality: seemingly all at once, yet discrete.

Experience something special: experience two greatly gifted artists in concert, at the height of their powers. A host of stirring, memorable moments beckon. Purchase this album.

It will soon win a place of many returnings in your album collection.

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