By Kevin Belmonte
I well remember what it was like to listen to the “Songs from Albion” disc the first time when it was released in 1992. I’d read volume one of The Paradise War, by Stephen Lawhead, and this new album from Jeff Johnson and Brian Dunning offered a cycle of songs that was as fully immersive, atmospheric, and beckoning to another world as Lawhead’s novel was, centred in Celtic mythos.
So to one of the telling phrases G.K. Chesterton gave the world. He once described music as “beauty in the abstract, beauty in solution,” likening its beauty to water—flowing, crystalline, and revealing. With subtlety, and phrase, it calls to new places in the listening. Journeys unfold.
Such words, for me, recall the many albums, music, and soundscapes that Jeff Johnson and Brian Dunning evoked in the storied years of their collaboration. Now, in the wake of Dunning’s passing, two retrospective albums, “Coming, Going,” and “Winter Songs,” bestow kindred tableaus: and so gratitude deepens, for each track chosen and given in these recordings.
A glance through the dictionary tells us that a tableau is at once a striking or artistic grouping, an arrangement or scene. The word comes to us from the French phrase tableau vivant, which means, quite literally, “a living picture.”
To hear the woodwind artistry of Irish flutist Brian Dunning, in tandem with the textures on keyboard crafted by Jeff Johnson, is to hear a tableau vivant. So much of life, and meaning, shines in their songs. Wish to feel the wind as it flows over a Celtic landscape, or to see the grey blue of a restive sea? Such are granted in listening to “Coming, Going.” Intervals of contemplation, and the benisons of moving melody unfold. And always, there is a yearning for places of twilight, or the quiet places of reverence, and time enough to walk them in Dunning and Johnson’s company.
Move to the seasons of Advent and Christmastide, and there also, Dunning and Johnson meet us—with the twenty-four tracks of “Winter Songs.”
Of these, their performance of “Auld Lang Syne” is representative. Here we enter a hall, as it were, where pilgrims gather. The welcome scene is hallowed and festive.
Then too, there are “thoughts,” in the poet’s phrase, “that do often lie too deep for tears.” I do not know that I have ever heard a composition more beautiful, or more beautifully performed, than “Strolling Through Star Streets.” There is something mystically winsome, and numinous, in the telling that shapes and carries this song.
Herein lies much of the gift that Dunning and Johnson have given us in the decades of their friendship and collaboration. Faith and artistry mingle in realms of melody where we are taken. We walk a manifold landscape, set with reasons for returning again, and again, to their music.
So much resides there.
Take the journey, and experience the gift of this music.