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  • Jonathan Widran

JILL HALEY, The Winds of Badlands

An extraordinarily melodic, intuitive and impressionistic composer, multi-instrumentalist Jill Haley’s immersion in the landscape and music of America’s National Parks this past decade has inspired transcendent, landscape and natural element inspired works showcasing the sweeping majesty, fragile ecosystems and intricate details of Glacier National Park (twice!), Utah’s Zion and Bryce NPs and Mesa Verde. Her rich discography harkens back to the exuberant expressions of previous New Age greats who have done projects or full series of albums inspired by National Parks, most notably Nicholas Gunn, Mars Lasar, Jim Chappell and Peter Kater.

Though many of Jill’s most lush and compelling works are piano driven, her artful texturing of oboe and English horn with David Cullen’s acoustic guitar on her latest album The Winds of Badlands brings to mind the many exquisite dual albums by Eric Tingstad and Nancy Rumbel. While Jill brings echoes of all those glorious paths of the past, her soul-conscious texturing of fresh, poetic whimsy and reflective grace takes us forward into this era where the battle for the soul of these places, and the earth itself, is a sociopolitical reality. She uses music as a vehicle to remind us of what’s at stake, breathing fresh light onto landscapes too many in our modern world seem to take for granted.

In 2016, Jill defied the usual self imposed creative limitations by releasing National Park Soundscapes, a collection of reflections on 12 NPs celebrating the centennial year. One of its pieces “Prairie Grass Dance,” was written during her 2nd residency at Badlands National Park. Evolving from a stark, thoughtful ballad into a spirited, dancing romp, the oboe, guitar and bass driven song was inspired by the wind fueled moving grass and the dynamic sight of deer and elk running through the grasses. Though Jill chose to close The Winds of Badlands with that song, it is in many ways one of the emotional centerpieces of the multi-faceted 12 track collection. That’s because it’s one of the few compositions which find Jill reacting to and interacting with wildlife in a place where bison, bighorn sheep and prairie dogs run rampant through its sprawling grasslands.

Along her journey, she also encounters some glorious birds, using oboe and guitar on the dreamy, free-floating “Western Meadowlark Call” to approximate their voices. Birds also enter the musical picture on “Upward,” where Jill’s passionate piano chords progressions and wafting English horn track them in flight.

True to its title concept, many of the songs are Jill’s expressions of the wind as it darts and dashes along, rushing through and whispering to the dramatic landscapes and their layered rock formations, steep canyons and towering spires. The most heartrending and spirit shifting of these are the dramatic, folkloric dance of Whirlwind” (guitar, bass, oboe) and the sacred, classical flavored piano, oboe and cello ballad “Wind Hymn” featuring cellist Graham Cullen. Jill paints another beautiful color of the wind via the hypnotic, meditative piano/oboe duet “Cliff Shelf Breeze.”

She spent a lot of time trying to capture the phases of the moon with her camera, and creates a stunning musical snapshot of the activity with the haunting piano, English horn and cello meditation “Moon Over Badlands.” Likewise, her stunning photograph of the outline of the buttes and spires against the glow of a setting sun translates magically to the fanciful, dreamlike “Silhouettes at Dusk.”

Now a bit about National Park residencies, which makes her unique among her new age peers. Several of our National Parks have an Artist in Residency Program which means that the Park invites an artist to live in the Park for an extended amount of time (often around a month) while creating their art. The intent is to give the artist the gift of plenty of time to spend in the Park creating their art, and then the artist “gives back” in some way. Jill usually spends the first couple of weeks exploring the Park and composing music on a portable keyboard. She then finalizes the tunes into complete works that can be performed in a concert at the Park towards the end of the residency. After returning home, she records and releases the new music as a new CD. She creates YouTube videos featuring images that inspired each tune, which she incorporates into the full concert program.

For those who haven’t been to Badlands, or any of the National Parks on the radar of Jill’s muse, these collections are exquisite introductions not only these sacred lands, but also to an artist who chronicles living history while creating living, breathing  musical history of her own.

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