For a masterful solo pianist and composer so deeply dedicated to acoustic new age music and the rich expressions he creates on his home instrument, one of the more unique aspects of Stephen Wallack’s eclectic background is the influence of Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready.
While Wallack’s bio states that McCready was his first guitar teacher, the pianist clarifies that when he was 18, McReady – who became friends with Wallack early in the legendary band’s rise to fame – bought him his first axe and told him to learn how to play it. “He provided a couple of lessons for me when I first got it, but that was it. I spent all of my college years learning to play guitar and playing in bands. Obviously seeing him perform would make anyone want to be a rock guitar player. It was really his passion for music that kept my drive for music alive.”
The versatile says that while he hopes to release a solo guitar album in the future, his connection to the piano has always been much stronger and that he’s able to create a much more complex form of expression using piano than guitar. After years of playing in bands, the auspicious launch of his recording career in 2019 with his debut album Chapters brought him back to the passion for piano that was sparked early on by his love of George Winston’s landmark December album and (starting with Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings”) and film music. Wallack has been on a creative roll since then, releasing two albums in 2020 (Stories and the Christmas themed Reflections) leading up to his majestic latest collection, simply and perfectly titled Colors.
From the impressionistic, high and low dynamics filled opener “Birch Lake” through the hauntingly soulful “Brave,” the lively and percussive “Dreams” and the sparkling, star-filled dance of “Midnight,” Colors glides gracefully, melodically and rhythmically along a path of light/enlightenment, hope and a playful spirit of meaningful connection. The colors in this case are all the emotions, from melancholy and reflective to buoyant, joyful and celebratory, Wallack shares based on small but spiritually and emotionally significant and powerful moments in time. As we listen, it becomes clear that his catharsis becomes ours.
Most of the time, even when he’s focused on slightly darker toned moods, Wallach’s sense of rhythm conveys movement towards brighter vistas of the heart – and drawing from, yes, a palette of varied colors to paint signposts along that path. This is by design, as he chose the title of the album as an antidote to the reality that the world has been, in this pandemic era, so grey and sad for so long. While acknowledging this reality, he’s providing a soundtrack that helps take our mindset to more positive places full of gratitude, not regret, possibilities rather than hopelessness.
“I felt like we needed a little color in our lives,” the pianist says. “In many ways, we have lost our way, forgotten how to live with and respect each other. Sometimes the world feels like we are being pushed into an area of gray in the grand spectrum of the color palette and we need to remember that we are all unique colors and all have value to add in this world. Stand out, stand up and appreciate that who are the only one of you in the world and that is what really makes life amazing.”
One of the more interesting aspects of most of Wallack’s original compositions is his tendency towards single word titles – something that happens on every piece on Colors except for the opener, “Birch Lake.” This approach allows him as a composer to leave the visual narrative to the listener’s imagination and allows each person to find a personal connection to the song. As the pianist says, “I let the titles kind of set the table and then what you eat and who you eat with is all up to you. I don’t like giving people too much information about my music because I want them to make it their own.”
Taking this cue, we can dream of and reflect on the “Colors” of our own lives as we are drawn into its sweet, sometimes dramatic free flow and playful, uplifting note flurries. Ponder as to what we find “Stunning” as his hypnotic opening high end motif eases into a gently lilting ballad. Shut everything out and think about our own personal connection to the “Earth” as his blend of whimsical notes and grounded chords swirl around us. And of course, define for ourselves what “Hope” is while listening to one of Wallach’s most heartfelt, hypnotic and uplifting tunes.
Easing off from this own usual parameters, the titles of two of the album’s more breathtaking and inspirational songs, “Josh” and “Marlon,” have very personal meanings to the composer. Josh was a close friend of Wallack’s growing up who took his own life last year. He had battled depression throughout his life, but it finally became too much to take. Wallack says, “I talk about his story because I hope that people can find the strength to get help, especially men who think it’s not ‘manly’ to ask for help. We all carry things in our lives that we need to be able to talk about, and there is no shame in asking for help.”
The poignant “Marlon” is a tribute to his nephew, who created the lovely, impressionistic album cover art with his mother, Wallack’s sister Arika. As he explains in the promotional materials, Marlon suffered a severe brain injury as a baby and has been unable to move or communicate on his own. Painting calms him and he uses his fingers to make his paintings with Arika’s help. Wallack says, “He inspires all of us every day to live our best lives, and I could not love him more for that. Marlon is amazing. His will to keep fighting and the love he creates in everyone around him is inspiring. Without being able to communicate or move much, it is amazing the power that he has to bring love and warmth into every room.”
As grateful listeners and fans, we can happily say the same about Colors, truly one of 2021’s more beautiful, emotionally resonant and magical solo new age piano collections.