25 Days of Christmas Records – Day 7

Windham Hill Artists – A Winter’s Solstice II [Windham Hill Records WH-1077, 12″ LP, 1988.]

(Click on an image to enlarge it.)

(Click on an image to enlarge it.)

I’ve always liked the notion of “Sunday morning music.” You know, something you can play on a Sunday morning that’s on the quieter side – contemplative, mellow, meditative. For many of us, Sundays may be one of the only times we consciously slow down, relax, take it easy – or at least try to. On those Sunday mornings when it’s possible, I like to put on this kind of music to help me ease into the day. (And it really can be experienced any morning of the week; it just seems especially conducive to Sunday mornings.) During the Christmas season, there are a handful of albums I turn to for this kind of vibe.

I had actually planned on talking about A Winter’s Solstice, the Windham Hill seasonal compilation released in 1985; it was the first of eight albums in the Winter’s Solstice series that Windham Hill Records produced over a 15 year span. I could’ve sworn I had a copy of this on vinyl, but I can’t find it anywhere. It may have been something that was damaged at some point or maybe lost in one of the many moves my collection has made during the past 29 years since I remember buying the album. I do have this second album in the series, A Winter’s Solstice II, which is excellent in its own right, but the first one has always been my favorite.

Winter's Solstice II backI’ve been fan of Windham Hill Records since the early 1980s. Most people probably think of them as a New Age record label, but they’ve always been much more than that, and especially during their first 10 years. Folk music mixed with high art is the best way I can think of to describe it. The albums they put out in the early years were primarily recordings with acoustic instruments, very often performed by solo artists, or maybe some duos and trios with a few full bands and some carefully selected electronic sounds mixed in. The artistry on these albums is exceptional. Some of the early recordings by label founder Will Ackerman, Alex DeGrassi, the inimitable Michael Hedges, Ira Stein & Russel Walder, David Qualey, Darol Anger & Barbara Higbie and Mark Isham among others, are still some of my favorite instrumental albums. George Winston, despite all the flak he might take because he became so ubiquitously popular, made some really wonderful albums. December, his Christmas themed album of piano solos, is still a beautiful listen and is another one of my favorite Christmas-time “Sunday morning music” albums.

Windham Hill always produced extremely high quality recordings, paying meticulous attention to the sound they wanted to capture in the studio. Hearing their albums is a real treat for the listener. When I started my first record store job around 1984, at the Record Factory on Lighthouse Avenue in Monterey, California, compact discs were still brand new and we only had a few dozen titles in stock on CD. Probably half of those were Windham Hill recordings because they were early adopters of the format, their recordings were so good and their higher price could be paid by the audiophiles who made up most of the label’s audience at that time.

By the time A Winter’s Solstice appeared in 1985, I was still in the early days of my Christmas music collecting, but throughout the 80s I would add more and more titles, especially since I worked in record stores and hosted radio shows on public radio stations for most of that time. A Winter’s Solstice II has much of the same quietly joyful and contemplative qualities that the first album has. These are both really lovely albums to listen to if you want to tap into the more meditative and even spiritual aspects of the Christmas season. The album is excellent all the way through, but this is one of my favorites from it: “This Rush of Wings” by Metamora, a trio comprised of Malcolm Dalglish on hammer dulcimer, Grey Larsen on flute and Pete Sutherland on guitar.

And because I had to share something from the first album, for which I have a deep fondness, here’s “Engravings II” by the duo of Ira Stein & Russel Walder, on piano and oboe respectively.

Peace…

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4 comments

  1. It’d be interesting to learn whether or how the people who created the Windham Hill label originally based their “sound” on what ECM Records puts out there. I think the first ECM record came out in like 1969…and Windham Hill dates from, I dunno, the early 1980s…?

    1. Scott, you know that same thought crossed my mind as I was writing this! (Windham Hill started in 1976.) There’s a similar attention to high quality recording, a certain “sound” that is associated with the label and a similar aesthetic in its artwork. For many years, Windham Hill albums were all white with an artful photograph in the middle of the cover and often the same font was used for the text. While Windham Hill was not as diverse in its recordings as ECM, they do share many of the same qualities. After you posted this, I did a quick search, and lo and behold, I found this. It’s a quote from a 1989 article in the Philadelphia Inquirer by good ol’ Tom Moon about ECM’s 20th anniversary:

      “There is nothing particularly fancy about ECM’s approach to production, or the plain, very contemporary look of its album covers – and as a result, both have been widely copied. William Ackerman, president of Windham Hill Records, has said that the quality of ECM products from start to finish has been a direct influence on his label’s work. Others have been less honest about the ECM influence.”

      I knew it! I’m glad you asked about this because I didn’t pursue that line of thought while writing, and now I’m glad I did. Thanks for reading…and commenting…

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