In my review of Stephen Wallack’s masterful 2021 album Colors, I mentioned one of the more interesting musical influences in his life – Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready. The solo pianist’s bio continues with the admittedly cooler narrative that McCready was his first guitar teacher, but the truth (as shared by Wallack himself) is that when Wallack was 18, McCready bought him his first axe and told him to learn how to play it, then provided a few lessons. As obsessed as Wallack had been with the music of George Winston since his adolescence, this anointing by one of rock’s true guitar gods led Wallack all throughout his college years to focus on playing guitars in bands.
While Wallack is quick to credit McCready’s passion for music as the catalyst that kept his own drive for music alive, career wise the Winston influence – to the delight of new age piano fans everywhere – has thus far won out and led the pianist over the past few years to become a major force in the genre. He has long felt that he’s able to create a much more complex form of expression using piano than guitar – and this has manifested powerfully in his four albums (including one holiday collection) starting with the debut collection Chapters in 2019 and continuing now with his latest emotionally impactful collection Wondering. .
Aside from his sparkling way with piano impressionism and the unique array of moods and rhythmic vibes/energies, one of the more interesting elements of Wallack’s artistry is the way he weaves his multi-faceted melodies in the service of mostly single word titles. This allows the listener to take his basic concept and use their own imagination to create visual narratives in their minds as Wallack takes them on his exciting, freewheeling emotional journeys. True to the title of Wondering, beyond the individual song names he also offers some basic themes related to the collective anxiety we all felt during the pandemic. It’s worth noting that Wondering is a standalone title; there is no song on the collection with that name! That’s an interesting and thought provoking statement in itself.
Unusually titled for this genre, “Wolves” is a dreamy, fast paced tune full of the strength and resolve we need, and Wallack graciously provides, to cross confidently into these higher realms. We’re perhaps freer to dig into our own life experiences as we’re drawn into the intimacy of “Remember” and the sweet melancholy of “Goodbye,” although the pianist’s dedication to his family and “those we have lost too soon” are worthwhile starting points. As with all of Wallack’s works, we can certainly listen to Wondering for sheer enjoyment and a daily soundtrack of motivation and relaxation without all the thematic exploration and mental and spiritual gymnastics. It’s just so lovely of him to give us both options during this time of recovery and renewal.