I have to make a disclaimer before sharing the fascinating story of how Los Angeles based veteran flautist Joanne Lazzaro and her ensemble Dreamcatcher came to be the first artists to record – and brilliantly so - composer Katherine Hoover’s highly evocative Canyon Shadows for Native Flute in G minor, concert C flute and percussion. The work was originally commissioned by the Grand Canyon Music Festival and premiered in September 1999 by the legendary R. Carlos Nakai, Clare Hoffman and percussionist Gordon Gottlieb.
The Southwest is one of my favorite regions of the United States, and three of my most treasured instrumental albums of all time are works inspired by its vast landscapes and Native American energy: Michael Gettel’s Skywatching, Nicholas Gunn’s Afternoon in Sedona and the more obscure Larry Cansler’s Indian Paintbrush: Sketches of the Southwest. Many years after those recordings first swept away my imagination, Lazzaro’s powerful rendering of Hoover’s tribute to the Grand Canyon is likely to join that list.
Interestingly, of all of Hoover’s pieces for flute, Canyon Shadows remained (until now) the only unpublished and unrecorded of her many award winning compositions. Lazzaro traces her evolving passion for native flute back to the 90s when she heard Nakai’s Canyon Trilogy album, so for her, recording a piece first associated with him completes a serendipitous full circle. The idea for her Dreamcatcher trio – featuring her on world flutes, Native American flutes and whistles, Terry Wolff on jazz and alto flutes and Dean Hinkley on world percussion – emerged from performances of a few movements of the Canyon Shadows suites on Pipe Dreams concerts. Hoover gave her enthusiastic permission.
Lazzaro, currently the principal flute with the Beach Cities Symphony Orchestra and numerous other Southern California ensembles, admits the recording was a challenge because “anytime you bring Native American flutes into the picture, you’re going to be dealing with personalization and interpretation. In the NAF community, there is a tradition called ‘playing from the heart’ (i.e. without written music) that is a hybrid of improvisation and meditation music. So for us, the challenge was to adhere faithfully to the written notes of the composition while still adding their own style.”
Even without all that backstory, Lazzaro & Dreamcatcher’s stroll through these Canyon Shadows is infused with true atmospheric beauty that makes you feel the call of ancient winds and eternal, echoing voices even as you’re immersed in the immediacy of the nature surrounding your senses. The instrumentation combines several overlapping spheres: native flute/silver flute, native and classical music and nature sounds/notated music. Three of the five principal tracks have corresponding mixes featuring sounds of morning (the “Desert Dawn Mix” of “Searching”), daytime (the “Canyon Mix” of “Echo”) and approaching evening (the “Desert Nightfall” mix of “Dusk”). Eagles and other birds are captured in free flight, creating a magical score only nature could have designed. There’s also a moment of true thunder!
The journey begins with a stark whistle and wind followed by a summoning bell which brings on Lazzaro’s curiosity filled lead melody, offset by Wolff’s wistful harmony lines and Hinkely’s gently percussive soundscaping. “Moving In” is a playful, dual flute call and response, driven long by the shake of a tambourine. It’s fashioned as the soundtrack to the physical exertion of trudging up and down a canyon with supplies, climbing and even slipping precariously at times. Who says every Southwest adventure must be 24/7 relaxation? “Echo” brings a few moments of that long-needed rest, with the two flutes in a spirited rapport, bouncing off the canyon walls.
The odd metered percussion fill in the middle is thunder interrupting the respite, which is followed by more delightful flute dancing. Listeners waiting for a true Native vibe are quickly rewarded with “Celebration,” featuring hypnotic tribal beats underscoring interacting flute footsteps that combine to create a gorgeous tandem melody. The percussion jam in the middle is followed by more dynamic fancy flute footwork. The day, and the album, end with the main flute created a percussive call, mixed with mystical soundscaping, announcing the multi-hued sunset. The Desert Nightfall mix showcases nature at its most eclectic, with Lazzaro’s flute offering chirps, squawks, thunder and rain and the cry of coyotes, mixed with real nature sounds that dare us to distinguish the difference.