Both musical artists and fans have been lamenting the minimization of album art in this digital age, when covers are often reduced to several inch thumbnails that are a far cry from the glorious, sizeable LP covers of a previous generation. Happily, however, no matter how the music is consumed, album art is still an important aspect of the presentation for most. When artists do take the time to create meaningful sleeves, they usually commission visual and graphic artists to somehow reflect the spirit of the music.
Solo pianist Mary Lydia Ryan flips the script on this practice on her lush, beautiful and deeply expressive new collection Little Red Boat, which was deservedly nominated for Whisperings Solo Piano Radio Album of the Year. The boat with black and red swirls that inspired these masterful songs was the focal point of a painting by artist Steve Jensen that came into her life in 2015 – the same year the versatile singer and pianist released her first solo piano album Moving in Grace. Falling immediately in love with its energy and depth of layers, Ryan connected with its impressionistic subtleties and thematic possibilities – and made the bold decision to write an entire album’s worth of material to capture the imaginative journey sparked by the visuals. All of these images are authentic to the pianist’s day to day experience living on a “floating home” in the Seattle area.
Placing it atop her piano, she began to compose effortlessly, metaphorically connecting the images, the rhythmically varied moods and compositional elegance to her own life experiences and the deeper places in a heart that has known its share of turbulence, struggle, survival and the joy and peace that followed. She lays her foundation for the seafaring adventure with the dreamy, meditational and slightly whimsical “Little Red Boat,” then quickly spots and reflects gracefully and cheerfully upon a “Woman in the Moon” – a spirited feminine twist on the familiar concept of a mythical “man in the moon.” Turning her focus earthbound, Ryan centers herself – and us as listeners – with the hypnotic meditation “Floating on a Gentle Breeze” and a playful and lighthearted, slightly percussive flow expressing “The Joy of Ten Knots.”
Though there are note flurries that express both light rains and more formidable storms, a sense of awe and gratitude infuse Ryan’s mythical landscape, most notably on the soulful, breathtaking ballad “In Wonder” and “Sailing This Sea Alone,” the darker toned, stark meditation on being lonely but content with the Universe as a constant companion. There are prayerful questions along the way like “How Did I End Up Here” – a metaphor for our crazy lives on land if there ever was one – but the key to survival in the world where Ryan meets Jensen is to let little bursts of “Gentle Sunshine” in.
She basks fully in those rays on the swaying gossamer magic of “Waltz Under the Sun (Kevin’s Song),” then imagines - because they are not in the painting itself – some friendly accompanying creatures on the appreciative, deeply hypnotic “A Song about Sea Turtles.” Ryan’s final tracks take her and us from the surface to the depths, starting with a hopeful breakthrough via “Sparkle on the Water” that leads her to a moody, reflective exploration of her life on the contemplative closing track “Ocean of My Soul.”