One of the keys to writing thoughtful pieces on new age solo piano recordings is understanding the artist’s mindset, intention and inspiration. So with Michael Whalen’s stunning, thoughtfully rendered new collection Cupid Blindfolded: Solo Piano – his first solo piano outing in 20 years – I was excited to learn that the prolific recording artist and two time Emmy winning TV composer posted an insightful “making of video” on his home page.
Yet I have to disagree strongly with something Whalen says in a voiceover as we see him walking through a snowy forest area on the property around Will Ackerman’s legendary Imaginary Road Studios, where the project was recorded. Comparing himself to others who dedicate tens of thousands of hours to mastering the mechanical aspects of playing the instrument, he says, “The funny thing is, I don’t think I’m a pianist.”
Perhaps that’s true if we’re comparing an expressive melodic artist like him to classical geniuses focused on precision and thousands of notes. Earnest as it is, though, Whalen’s over the top humility seems limiting and self-deprecating in light of the visceral yet transcendent experience he is presenting in this this ten-track collection. Those cats he refers to may play 20 hours a day, but they can’t create the kind of romantic magic he renders on these ten tracks – an achievement rendered all the more remarkable by the fact that the album was recorded live in the studio with six video cameras surrounding him and presented to us with out piano edits. Helping Whalen (who produced the project) is another remarkable artist and engineer, Imaginary Road mainstay Tom Eaton.
Cupid Blindfolded is a special release in Whalen’s 25 year-plus catalog for another reason besides the uniqueness of his return to solo piano recordings. It marks his first venture on his own label Solace Records, his own label under Real Music, a newly acquired division of Cutting Edge Group. This follows an incredible history of being on a multitude of classic new age labels, starting with Phantom of the Forest and Great African Moments in the mid-90s on Narada Cinema’s Nature series.
Whalen’s return to heartfelt soul truth telling via acoustic piano is driven by the Shakespearean title concept. In Act 1, Scene 1 of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” we hear, “Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind, and therefore is a winged Cupid painted blind.” The Bard found a deeply thoughtful and poetic way to say, through his character Helena, that love is a matter of the heart – more dependent on an emotional bond rather than a physical attraction. In all the ways that matter, Whalen’s Cupid Blindfolded is the musical equivalent of a passionate Shakespearean sonnet, with emotions rendered directly from the heart, without words getting in the way.
Whalen reflects this emotional bond from the graceful meditative opening chords of the opening title track, whose delicate balance of tender passion and whimsy sets the tone for the entire album. And we travel on from there, feeling the gentle seduction of “All of My Heart, All of My Soul,” a bright and lively “Reflection of My Affection” and the stark, deep emotions that come gently (sometimes after a split second of hesitation) in that moment of connection “At The Touch of a Lover.” Whalen’s beautiful journey includes a powerful, darkness meets light ode to “The Muse,” which comes on the wings of angels as easily as it rides on pure visceral energy; and an introspective acknowledgement that sometimes love happens out of pure magical moments of unfettered serendipity.
The pianist (yes, Michael, I’m calling you that!) also takes us on spiritual journeys to feel the subtle joys of “Sunrise in the Desert” (inspired by a trip to Arizona a few years ago) and the gorgeous natural charms of the “Isle of Skye,” which inspires some of Whalen’s most intense, percussive and expansively cinematic playing. It’s also fun getting caught with him “Standing in the Rain,” as he creatively uses the ivories to convey alternately convey drizzling and cloudbursts.