The Further Improvisational New Age Piano-Flute Adventures by Longtime Friends and Musical Soulmates Robert Thies and Damjan Krajacic
The success and wide-ranging acceptance in New Age circles of Robert Thies and Damjan Krajacic’s award-winning improvisational duo concept, Blue Landscapes, over the past seven years proves that unexpected, soul-stirring transcendence is possible when musicians are willing to venture outside their longtime areas of discipline/expertise and embrace the unknown.
That’s exactly what happened in 2011 when Robert – an internationally-renowned classical pianist – and Damjan – a Croatian-born jazz and Latin jaz- powered flute master – rented some recording equipment and, eager to further explore a chemistry they fostered via several previous recordings and live performances, recorded 30 hours of totally improvised music over the course of a single week.
At the time, neither had an inkling that this would evolve into a commercially-viable entity that has produced two popular recordings, Blue Landscapes (2012) and Blue Landscapes II: Discoveries (2016), and continues now with the duo’s upcoming collection Blue Landscapes III: Frontiers, due in early 2020.
Discoveries was a Global Music Awards 2018 Bronze Award Winner, and an early submission of Frontiers earned a Silver Award from the GMAs this year.
They have earned the praise of several prominent new age genre tastemakers, including Bill Binkelman of Zone Music Reporter, who called Volume II “one of the best albums I’ve heard in the last year, and quite possibly the last few years”; and Dyan Garris of New Age CD, who wrote, “Blue Landscapes II: Discoveries is without question the best New Age album I’ve heard this year.”
“These initial sessions hanging out and playing music together resulted in some very exciting ideas, perhaps a little motif here and there, which grew into concepts and little seeds we could build on,” says Damjan. “During those five or six days, hanging out morning 'til night, we gave ourselves the opportunity to improvise in the moment as well. Sometimes, things worked out amazingly well, sometimes not, but the key was to just play. Only after recording and listening back did we notice that some of the raw material had a deep sense of color, sound and emotion that would come to define the Blue Landscapes aesthetic.”
Robert adds that during the editing and culling process, they realized they had material that was not only presentable but that could be turned into a full album of music that was ripe for sharing. They were thrilled (and humbly, even a bit surprised) at the reactions they received from friends and colleagues, who remarked especially on the depth and sheer soul- transportive beauty of the music. “Once we had ten or 11 tracks, we started to assign formal titles to them and began thinking about a proper name for the concept of what we were creating,” he says. “For both of us, nature is always a huge inspiration. The idea of 'landscapes' is one that depicts something in the natural world, and 'blue' has the connotation that it’s something unusual and unique. It’s a vista, perhaps, but the sun is at a certain unexpected angle that gives off a different feeling.”
Over the next two albums, the Blue Landscapes concept became so grounded in, and inspired by, this multi-sensory vibe and its connection to larger environmental concerns that the duo began incorporating it into its promotional material. Capturing the essence perfectly, they write: “The music of Blue Landscapes is inspired and grounded by our love for Earth’s beauty and all of her natural wonders. Whether it be the motion of the seas, the majesty of the mountains, the rhythmic flow of the rivers and streams, the migrations of her creatures, or the mysteries of the forests, all feed the imagination. May we cherish and protect our planet for all the generations that follow.”
The chemistry and musical camaraderie that Robert and Damjan share is rooted in a friendship that blossomed not long after they met nearly 15 years ago through Robert’s wife, who happened to be an old college friend of Damjan’s. Despite essential differences in their most notable professional musical expressions, the two discovered they had a lot in common. Though his primary gig is as a classical pianist, Robert began improvising and composing at an early age. Raised in a musical family, he learned the basics of jazz from his father. Inspired by the ECM label’s European Jazz artists as well as the pioneering Windham Hill musical aesthetic, the pianist was eager to continue exploring more spontaneous music.
Robert met his match in Damjan, whose background spans jazz and Latin jazz with a touch of his own central European heritage and classical training. His gravitation towards Latin music was a natural outgrowth of his classical guitarist father’s love for Spanish guitar music – but Damjan never lost touch with the classical traditions of his primary instrument, flute. His debut album featured Latin Jazz improvisations and dynamic grooves. Robert and Damjan first worked together on the flutist’s second collection Differences, where his playing took a more personal approach, reflecting more intimacy and nuance.
“Unlike many classical musicians who don’t venture outside that zone, Robert was always interested in improvisation,” says Damjan. “Working on that record, touched something in him again and he started writing his own music and we began recording it. We also began playing his music live in concert.” The Southern California-based duo performed a number of times at the Boston Court Pasadena performing arts center; one of their programs highlighted Robert’s crossover sensibilities. They played classical music, followed by some of his jazz compositions.
“When we started improvising together,” Robert says, “we started to find some strong common ground between the two of us. I come from a background of Western Classical art music and Damjan grew up influenced by Eastern European music and a love for Latin jazz and Cuban styles. In some ways, our styles don’t intersect, but through this incredible friendship and a mutual desire to improvise, we started discovering a fresh sound together. After a couple of years, we felt it was time to document what we were doing – and this led to those sessions that became Blue Landscapes.”
Not surprisingly, considering their individual and collective restless musical spirits, Robert and Damjan remained committed to their goal of putting no limitations on the music when it came time to creating a follow-up to the first Blue Landscapes album. Discoveries wasn’t simply a clever esoteric title, it really defined their ability to maintain their trademark improvisational flow while exploring new sonic territory. They set the tone for non-mainstream thinking on the debut album with “Purity,” which found Robert playing strings inside the piano. Blue Landscapes II: Discovery included “Evolution,” which features Damjan’s fast, energetic dual flute textures over Robert’s dramatic piano – a contrast from the more relaxed flow of the rest of the set.
Likewise, Blue Landscapes III: Frontiers has a few colorful outliers that stretch their artistry, most notably, “The Abandoned Monastery,” which features Robert’s four-voice chord progression and an eight-bar chorale-type phrase he visualized Damjan doing; Damjan in turn recorded each voice on bass flute. Another track that sets itself apart is the hypnotic “Forest Path,” whose main structure is a loop that Robert created on the piano using puttied strings. He used the sound those strings created to form a rhythmic and harmonic structure to the piece.
While most of the 15 tracks were improvised over the course of five days, the set includes two previously composed, more conventionally structured compositions that, in Robert’s mind, provide a solid balance: Robert’s “Le Muscien,” which has a strong French/Parisian vibe, and Damjan’s graceful ballad “Goodbye.”
“To use the title of one of our pieces, I see the three albums as showcasing an evolution of our sound rather than any attempt on our part to consciously create something different each time out,” says Damjan. “The next one will have some of these previous sounds and other ideas that will emerge from those sessions. The key is to keep the heart of everything there, so we stay true to the essence of Blue Landscapes while engaging in fresh explorations. It’s no surprise that we’re using subtitles like 'Discovery' and 'Frontiers', because there’s a common theme of Robert and I exploring and discovering fresh frontiers within the music.
"As the creators," he adds, "we’re focused on finding previously undiscovered ideas and creating something new that people haven’t heard from us before. The concept of Frontiers touches on a lot of different realms – it’s music that is approached with fresh ears, that takes the listener to special places outside themselves, as in nature, and also, hopefully, inspires them to take a spiritual look inward.”
Robert takes the frontiers/discovery motif even further with pieces that find him contemplating mankind’s humble, awe-filled place in the universe on tracks like “Dawning of New Worlds” on the second volume, and “Infinity” on the new collection.
“When people ask me what my passions are in life,” he says, “I say, besides music, it’s being out in nature, in my own spiritual space where I am content to be alone. I find nature calming, grounding and beautiful, while reminding me how little and unimportant I am, and we are, in the vast scheme of things. That extends naturally to my love of astronomy, and the idea that there might be life out there beyond what we can truly imagine. All of this helps us stay aware of what is important in life. Beyond our personal achievements, what really matters are human relationships, the people we’ve loved who have loved us back.”
For more information on Blue Landscapes, please visit: http://www.bluelandscapesmusic.com/
For more information on Robert and Damjan, please visit:
Photo of Blue Landscapes sitting on the rocks by Anna Webber