I’ve always loved nature and relaxation-related things. So when I heard some very beautiful background instrumental music during our high school examen (it’s a Jesuit school, so yeah :D), I became intrigued as to who the performer was. I got the examen tracks and asked a teacher or friend (I forgot) about the music, and I was told it was by Kevin Kern. Naturally, these tracks were songs from his highly-acclaimed 1996 debut, In the Enchanted Garden.
That was five years ago. Over the course of time, I grew to learn to love his other music (case in point: my favorite Kevin album is 2003’s healing-journey-through-nature The Winding Path, which I highly recommend for its smooth transition of ten tracks and Guided Visualization included), even sort of unfairly criticizing his best-of More Than Words (2002) simply because some of my most favorite 1996-2002 Kern tracks weren’t on it (“The Enchanted Garden”, “Le Jardin”, and “Another Realm”, anyone?). Like everyone testifies, to me, Kevin’s music is a way for me to sit back and enjoy a period of serenity, even amidst my terribly fast-paced lifestyle. Whether for quiet time with God, or recovery from sickness, or just to calm down at night, his recordings have the ability to send me into far-off places where I can take a stroll through, for instance, an “Enchanted” “Jardin”, or through the mountains and forests from his later songs. And those strolls always leave me refreshed, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
So when I went to Hong Kong last December, where I usually buy his CDs, I was rather surprised to see a new album (there had been no news prior), called Enchanted Piano. Apart from its attractive cover-painting (done by Jane Kiskaddon, says the liner notes), the fact that it was a new album made me quickly pick it up and look at the back.
The cover of Kevin Kern’s 2012 album Enchanted Piano, taken from Amazon.com. It is one of the nicest covers I’ve seen.
Lo and behold, it was what I thought to be a new best-of album, because of Kevin’s message to his fans at the back. But something intrigued me again: One, the album was too short to be, in my opinion, a “legit” compilation (just eleven tracks? More Than Words had fourteen). Two, there were no songs from 2009’s Endless Blue Sky (not even The Winding Path. Imagination’s Light (2005), however, made the cut). Three, the track times were different. Somewhat disappointed, I didn’t buy it at first. But then the next day, after visiting HMV, something compelled me to purchase it, so out of curiosity and my love for Kevin’s music, I bought it.
Imagine my surprise when, after delving in a little into its history with the aid of a little tool known as the Internet, the album was supposedly due to be released on 17 January 2012 – still almost a full week off as I write this. Despite that, it was already available in multitude in Hong Kong! But more importantly, what even surprised me more (and sealed my confidence that I had chosen well in buying the CD) was that, after reading, I found out this album was one of solo piano! Kevin did mention, in the liner notes, that he had always wanted to record an album with only the piano, but nowhere in the album’s notes did it say that these were re-recorded versions, solo piano only, of his older songs. No wonder the track lengths were shorter! And hence the title of the album.
I didn’t have my laptop then, so I began my relationship with this album through speculation. How would the songs sound like? Would they have been given justice by being reduced to just piano? I recall that Kevin Kern’s earlier songs were more piano-filled, with less of other musical instruments being inputted. But as time passed, this sound also evolved; in fact, some tracks’ sounds became quite dependent on having other instruments around (The Winding Path, for instance, has some of those other instruments, especially 2002-played ones, exactly because of its album concept. Perhaps that’s why none of the songs were here.). Not that Kevin’s piano-playing became usurped, but his later compositions were complemented in a nice way that enhanced the melodies. For example, “The Glistening Pond” on Endless Blue Sky is a perfect example of a piano/guitar duet; while “Pan’s Return” (Summer Daydreams, 1998) could never be the same without that French horn.
But the question is, did Kevin Kern want to retain the feeling of the originals when he re-recorded? Or did he intend to transform them into something conceptually new?
He did practically say that this album was his lifetime dream come true. Especially because, seven years ago, he was invited to be a Steinway artist, which could only mean something beyond my capability to explain (artfully, at least). That a Steinway was used, and is the only instrument and sound on this CD, gives Enchanted Piano a feeling of extreme purity, that only the very best was used in recording it. It’s a chance for Kevin to show the true core of his music – his talent and skill as a pianist taken to a whole new level, literally – and it’s something he packaged it in very well. As a gift to his fans, he chose not to create a whole new album of compositions for piano only, but instead chose to re-do his old songs. One, it turns the gift into something a lot sweeter. Two, it is an innovation, a “studio-cum-greatest hits” album of some sort (Faith Hill had considered it for her 2005 hits album The Hits, but turned it down).
As for the songs themselves, given that Kevin’s earlier songs were more piano-filled, it would be understandable that the album is comprised mostly of songs before More Than Words (In the Enchanted Garden gets three, 1997’s Beyond the Sundial gets two, Summer Daydreams gets one, 2001’s Embracing the Wind has two, and Imagination’s Light (which is also mostly piano-filled) has three); only 1999’s In My Life, The Winding Path, and Endless Blue Sky (the latter two of which came after the best-of) are completely skipped over. The choice of tracks themselves from these albums are also good, as those were really the songs that both are talked about and changed lives. However, it could also be a lot better…
The whole CD clocks in at a mere 43:24, which is around the same as In the Enchanted Garden and The Winding Path among others. Even with those albums I express regret that the listening experience had not been longer. Granted, Kevin has a lot more things to do than simply composing and recording – it could be that he himself decided that only these ten songs would define what the “enchanted garden” was. But the feeling of regret lingers. Especially because I don’t think only these eleven tracks (which is also the number of songs on some of his other albums) were the really defining ones of his career. Many songs would also have sounded great on solo piano, such as “Fairy Wings”, “Where Paths Meet”, “Touch the Sky”, “Out of the Darkness Into the Light”, “A Million Stars”, “Keepers of the Flame”, and others. Or yet others could be innovated into sounding refreshingly different with just the piano, such as “Endless Blue Sky” and The Winding Path tracks “The Touch of Love” and “Through the Veil”. But then again, if Kevin chose to record just those eleven because they were the most defining songs…
Okay, so basically my only regret is the lack of more songs, but otherwise I am all praise for this album. Granted, it sounds weird or funny at first, especially after being used to listening to the originals for so long – one might think it was a tribute album to Kevin by a younger, newer pianist – but you just know that it is the real thing, it is pure Kevin Kern bliss. It may have lost that meditative New Age feel so present in his other albums, but then a fresh sound is always delightful. And given that one website close to Kevin said that this was just the first of a series of new albums lined up, it may just be a hint to a potentially new direction his music is taking us to… If that’s so, all I’ll regret is the spirituality aspect from his earlier albums.
Now all we need is a new proper best-of album from Kevin, and I’m content.
Overall Album Grade: B-