Check into Pandora’s Indian Flute Radio any time of day, flip from track to track, and you’ll be met with some lovely sparsely arranged meditational music – with not much more going on besides the primary instrument and some nature sounds. It’s relaxing and mediational, sure, but those passionate about these instruments – and as Monica Williams’ lengthy career and impressive collection testifies, there are quite a few variations – deserve something deeper, more emotional and musical than just the same simple soft blowing wind all the time.
On her long-awaited solo debut Journey of Tears, Williams – an Eastman School of Music alum and longtime half of the popular flute/piano duo Phoenix Rising with Wendy Loomis – transcends the usual genre fare with a keen sense of harmonics, subtle and dramatic atmospheres and brilliant ensemble work with various musical guests, including fingerstyle guitarist Darin Mahoney, New Age flutist Sherry Finzer and vocalist Alexa Nodromia.
Despite its title, which implies sadness, melancholy and may provoke thoughts about America’s dark “Trail of Tears” period from 1831-1850, this powerful 10-track collection includes many uplifting, aspirational moments, the sense that the artist – and the collective “we” along with her – are on a road fraught with ups and downs, but on a quest for something more, something transcendent.
In a bit of irony, the liner notes to Ascension, the second of five acclaimed Phoenix Rising albums, begin, “We are living in a time of stress and struggle. There’s still hunger, hatred and sickness in the world that is also filled with such beauty, generosity and harmony.” Sounds like it’s speaking to our moment a decade later, doesn’t it?
It’s clear that as she embarks on what promises to be an exciting solo career, William is still on the journey, keeping it real by lamenting and feeling helpless over loss but also full of unbridled optimism that as long as she has breath to animate her flutes, all is not lost. She has a great arsenal to draw from, including the C flute, bamboo, Native American, pan, alto and bass. Her newest addition, prominently featured on Journey of Tears, is a hybrid flute extension called the “Zi Fi,” which is a fusion between a traditional flute and a Chinese Dizi and a reed like instrument.
Perhaps only listeners who have mastered the possibilities of flute like Williams will be able to pick out what she’s playing where, but the key here is not to dwell on the technical brilliance of the production, but the emotional storytelling going on. She starts the journey in the midst of a storm (literally, with thunder and rain in the hypnotic ambience) as she laments on “Raining Tears” but it’s clear she knows where the answer lies. It’s there if you just engage in some “Conversations Within” – a lighthearted meditational tune that conveys a joyful spirit through a higher range flute melody interacting with Mahoney’s lush string harmony. Mahoney also appears, with a more subtle, hypnotic harmony line on “New Horizons,” a song whose haunting moods remind us that seeking out a new place in life can sometimes be a struggle.
Williams uses different flutes and lead melodic tones to convey different frames of mind along the journey, from the wistful sorrow on the symphonic “Unconditional Love” and the cautious, tribal percussion enhanced venture “On the Edge” to her mystical declaration (with dark piano undercurrents) that we should always expect “Constant Change.” After a bit more “Wandering,” Williams learns to appreciate “Love From a Distance” (essentially a solo meditation) and ascends into “The Great Beyond,” called by the angelic voice of Nodromia as she emotes powerfully over an intense mystical synth wash.
Many new age artists just use pretty titles as afterthoughts but Williams blissfully blends her gorgeous flute melodies and deeply textured production with compelling storytelling throughout. It’s called Journey of Tears, but you will feel cleansed, no more crying to be done after you listen.