As much as I love instrumental music, whether it be contemporary jazz or new age, I sometimes take issue with artists who pour their soul into the music but make their song titles generic afterthoughts. Certainly it’s fine for listeners to draw on their imaginations to form their own interpretations of a tune or a gathering of tracks, but it’s always a beautiful thing when an artist takes the time to share his or her mindset with us. Music is supposed to take us on a journey, after all, and it’s exciting to be invited into their creative process and learn about the flashes of inspiration that led to the work we are enjoying.
Learning of the concept that drives Lisa Swerdlow’s gorgeously composed, emotionally compelling new solo piano collection Voyager inspired some fascinating Google searches. The project was sparked by a story she heard about NASA’s twin Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft. The probes were launched in 1977 to take advantage of a favorable alignment of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Although their original mission was to study only the planetary systems of Jupiter and Saturn, Voyager 2 continued on to the other planets.
Surpassing their projected 15 years of usefulness, the Voyagers are still sending us images from space over 40 years later. They now explore the outer boundary of the heliosphere in interstellar space. Another cool factoid for us astronomy nerds who also happen to love the kind of heartfelt, deeply rhythmic and expressive piano style that artists like Lisa so generously and effortlessly make: In August 2012, data from Voyager 1 indicated that it had become the first human made object to enter interstellar space, traveling further than anyone or anything in history.”
Why is it important to know all that when you’re listening to Voyager? Because these ten tunes are not just about any journey. It’s one that explores and expands the dimension of what’s humanly possible. You certainly don’t need to know this background to enjoy Lisa’s overall warm-hearted flow, dreamy note flurries and artful balance of gossamer graces and emphatic bursts of majestic chords. But it’s cool to ponder just what she was seeing in her mind’s eye when she was first channeling deep space through her intuitive soul and nimble fingers. The following is, of course, my humble and whimsical interpretation only. I hope everyone else feels something unique to their own life experience.
The delicate intro to the title track “Voyager” reflects the awe and wonder in the anticipation of the travels to come. The track has quiet moments of reflection and an intense build-up of emotion, followed by the calm of trusting the journey itself. At some point, Lisa ponders, via playfully hypnotic dancing notes and intense chords, the feeling of being at the “Edge of Tranquility,” where anything can happen. We might expect a song titled “Mindful Moments” to be gently reflective throughout, but instead Lisa’s thoughts take her from peaceful solitude to the explosive energy of deep space, as if peering at a sea of shooting stars and meteors.
Here’s where Voyager takes an interesting turn. Judging by its song titles, it’s not all about the journey into space – but also what Lisa is thinking about back home now that she’s at a safe distance, enlightened and infused with a wider perspective. She first reflects on the changing seasons with a wistful elegance on “Autumn Speaks to Me,” which balances touches of sorrow with bursts of transcendent joy – a reminder of life’s balance of triumphs and hardships. A similar somber meets the sunlight approach infuses Lisa’s reflections of “Sundays in Paris.” The stark and haunting “Gone To Soon” reflects on life’s many losses and how we process what remains in our heart after our loved ones are physically gone, while the multiple moods of “Winter Solstice” pay homage to the darkest of earth’s seasons, when reality and how we perceive it is perhaps at its most crystal clear.
The final three tracks on Voyager start with Lisa snapping out of her reverie and momentarily looking back out “Into the Center,” where she views moments of pure darkness, followed by brightening starlight and then more intense bursts of cosmic activity. The free-flowing, gently swaying “I Saw You Dancing with the Stars,” is perhaps Voyager’s most romantic and passionate piece. It’s no doubt projecting a close earthbound relationship onto the celestial landscape, where the love shared between two people is not as limited by time and space. We can imagine Lisa thinking about splashing back down for a moment to wrap everything with another fond memory of a terrestrial adventure, a lively six and a half minute trip exploring the wonders of our home planet called “Yuba River Journey.”
More than simply another wonderful new age solo piano album, Lisa Swerdlow’s Voyager allows us to travel to delightful places with her. As we enjoy her journey, we can think deeply about our own time on earth and what we would be thinking and dreaming about if we had the chance to travel to interstellar space. Her debut release Equus Rising, reached #1 on the One World Music Radio Top 100 chart and was nominated for that outlet’s Best Solo Piano album of 2017. I expect similar accolades for her latest.