Saturday, November 24, 2007

Dreams of a Christmas Night captures the beauty and wonder of the season

Dreams of a Christmas Night EP
Artist: Jeff Johnson & Brian Dunning
Label: ArkMusic (
Length: 4 tracks/14:57 minutes

Imagine making your way through snowdrifts to a tiny concert hall. Among flickering candles, you listen closely to a small ensemble performing songs that sound contemporary but recall Christmas songs rooted in another time. The proficiency of the musicians and the intricacy of the pieces warm your heart despite the chill that lingers over your tired frame. There’s magic in the air as piano, flute, acoustic guitar, violin and cello seamlessly weave a pattern befitting a Celtic knot.

Jeff Johnson and Brian Dunning’s music have a way of transporting you to another time and place. Their Christmas offerings are always enchanting. I would be glad if they did one every year, even if it was only a few songs, like this four song EP.

This is an excellent companion to the earlier Stars in the Morning East: A Christmas Meditation (2005) and A Quiet Knowing Christmas (2001)—both full-length recordings. You could liken them all to chamber music with a Celtic and contemporary flair. Johnson’s website contains even more quality Christmas music, but these three are the best.

This EP continues the trend begun on Stars in the Morning East of a more organic, less is better approach. Piano and keys, flute and accordion set the stage for a supporting cast that for the most part is found on the previous releases.

Unlike the two other recordings, which are all instrumental, this EP includes a song in which Johnson delivers a beautiful vocal. "Walking in the Air" was written by Howard Blake and was inspired by The Snowman, a children’s book that was made into a popular animated movie. Johnson’s vocal takes flight over keys, flute and viola.

As on previous outings, Johnson and Dunning resurrect and provide fresh arrangements to lesser-known carols. In this case it’s "The Waits Song" and "Noel, Noel, Voice L’Enfant." The latter includes some ethereal sounds that are like an angelic chorus. They follow Dunning’s booming bodhran.

"Down the Chimney" is an original song, and the most Celtic-sounding. It includes a couple of Johnson’s favorite collaborators: Derry Daughtery on acoustic guitar and Greg Williams on percussion.

The songs on this EP glide and weave intricately like a sled making its way through trees on snow-covered hillsides. Once again Jeff Johnson & Brian Dunning have given us a recording that captures the beauty and wonder of the season. Their music is conducive to recapturing that childlike sense of awe that often eludes us as we grow older.

Monday, November 19, 2007

This is not a book about how to pray. It’s about living the Christian life.

Ain’t Too Proud to Beg (Living through the Lord’s Prayer)
Author: Telford Work
Publisher: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
Pages: 252

In Ain’t Too Proud to Beg, Telford Work shows how the Lord’s prayer relates to our living as Christians. He writes, "First, we ‘live through’ the Lord’s Prayer in the same sense that, say, America lives by the American Way. The Lord’s Prayer is the Lord’s way; its agenda is the right agenda for the Father’s children. When we pray it, it trains us in the way of the Lord Jesus, which of course is the only true way to live (John 14:6)."

The author continually looks through this prayer as a means of grappling with current moral dilemmas. Chapter one seeks to answer the question, "What is the character of the God that we worship?" In the wake of 9/11, Work is troubled by the thought that the God of biblical faith bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the God of Wahhabi Islam. This God of judgment may not be the kindred spirit and soulmate that we imagine. Witness the language of many of the Psalms, which record the struggle of people trying to come to grips with what God does and what He doesn’t do.

One of the highlights is that the author often resorts to God’s triune nature in his search for answers. He likens it to a rule of the Christian faith: "Every good answer to every question about God’s character appeals to God as Triune." The Trinity reminds us that God is not far off. We can address God as Father because the same relationship that Jesus enjoyed with the Father is now ours through the Son. Jesus not only prays for us, He prays with us as we say, "Our Father." His frequent insights about the Trinity are delightful and provide welcome perspective on a neglected subject.

The book is also a valuable addition to existing literature on the Kingdom of God. The book is divided into two halves: the first dealing with the coming of the kingdom and the second focusing on the righteousness of the kingdom. Underneath these broad headings, the author tackles all the subjects raised in the prayer. He takes a philosophical essay approach rather than being strictly expository or devotional.

Every page is packed with information and insights. This is not Christianity light. I found myself getting a little lost at times through the inclusion of contemporary studies that provide background and perspective. But this is the work of an associate professor of theology at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California. Even if at times I found myself in unfamiliar territory, it’s what one would expect from someone who has the experience of years of academic study. He does a fine job of showing the implications of this prayer in our contemporary setting.

Every Christian could benefit from considering the generosity of spirit advocated in "Generosity Under Pressure: or, How to Win in November No Matter What," which is one of the three sermons found in the concluding "Amen" section of the book. It’s profoundly helpful and relevant as we head into another election. Work writes, "Our task is a kind of inaction: not to backslide into our old lives of frenzy, anxiety, alienation and resignation." He’s not saying that we shouldn’t work for change as the Spirit leads; only that we should not lose our focus. Christ has freed us so that we don’t have to be dragged back into the world’s way of living.

I appreciate the broad perspective and the unconventional analysis of this familiar passage of Scripture (Matthew 6:9-13, Luke 11:2-4). It’s a book that is better read slowly or repeatedly. It will be helpful to anyone who is serious about living the Christian life.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Steve Bell’s new backup band is an orchestra.

Symphony Sessions
Artist: Steve Bell
Label: Signpost Music (
Length: 14 tracks/59:13 minutes

In June of 2006, Canadian artist Steve Bell received a call that would take his music in an unexpected direction. The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra (WSO) wanted to know if Bell would perform with them in the fall of that year.

On November 17, 2006 Bell performed a concert of his music with the WSO at Winnipeg’s Centennial Concert Hall. The CD liner notes tell the story: "The combination of Steve’s lyrical style, a world-class orchestra, Mike Janzen’s imaginative, textural orchestra scores and a sold out, enraptured house made for an evening none of us in attendance will soon forget."

This studio recording captures the freshness of a live performance. The same players perform the same songs in an effort to bring this special experience to a broader audience.

Mike Janzen has done a superb job of writing the orchestration, which includes creative introductions to each song. He also excels in his piano playing.

The song selection includes some of Bell’s best songs. They alternately showcase the depth of Steve’s writing and highlight his worshipful side.

One wonderful example of the latter is "The Wellspring," which combines a baroque sound with words of adoration to God. It’s on par with what you would hear in Handel’s Messiah.

The violin adds to the beautiful poignancy of the instrumental "Moon Over Birkenau," inspired by a visit to a former Nazi death camp.

Cello and sweeping strings are such a pleasant addition to the light pop of "This Is Love," a paraphrase of the prayer of Jesus recorded in the seventeenth chapter of John’s gospel.

There is a yearning and tenderness in the quiet "Even So Lord Jesus Come."

The orchestra adds to the drama of Bruce Cockburn’s "Lord of the Starfields." It helps the song reach new highs and adds subtlety to the quieter moments as it does throughout this CD.

It’s not all orchestra. The core group of musicians consists of: Steve Bell – guitar, mandolin and vocals, Gilles Fournier – bass, Mike Janzen – piano, and Daniel Roy – drums and percussion.

This is a first class performance. If you ever get the chance to see one of Canada’s finest perform live, don’t miss the opportunity … even if he is without his new backup band.

This is worth getting just for the lengthy interview

Open House Christmas EP Limited Edition
Artist: Jaci Velasquez (
Label: A’postrophe Records/Word Distribution
Length: 4 tracks/42:00 minutes

For those who enjoy interviews, Jaci Velasquez’s honest reflections on her life the past two years may be the biggest reason for getting this. Musically, we haven’t heard from her since 2005’s Beauty Has Grace.

After going through a divorce, Velasquez has spent the last two years lying low and seeking to discover who she was apart from her music. In an interview that lasts for just over 29 minutes she describes what she went through after the breakup with her first husband: the response from the CCM industry, her depression and counseling, and a brief move to London where she attended school for a semester.

On the brighter side, she communicates the grace of God as she tells of the new things that God is doing in her life. This includes meeting her new husband (Nic Gonzales of Salvador), their decision to start a family (she’s expecting!), the healing she experienced in her relationship with God and her earthly father, and her excitement over a new record due for release in the Spring of 2008.

Having been through one of the toughest experiences that anyone could ever go through, her desire is that the new record would bring hope and healing to those who are going through hard times. "You can be happy," she would say to those who feel like they will never see better days.

She goes into great detail about the meaning behind several of the tracks on her 2008 release. The producer is Mark Heimmerman, the man behind her first three recordings and some of her most popular songs.

Chris Bevins who plays keyboards and adds programming produced this three song EP. Nic Gonzales makes his presence felt on acoustic and electric guitars and BGV’s.

It starts off lively, with a piano-driven pop rendition of "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear." This is followed by the dramatic "Quiet Christmas Night (Gloria)" an original Christmas song. A razor-edged guitar propels an anthem-like chorus on which Jaci’s voice soars. This is the best song, but Velasquez sounds as good as ever on each track.

The last song, "Auld Lang Syne," has programming at the core, which gives it a more modern sound. I give her credit for recording verses that are normally only heard on New Year’s Eve and at the end of the movie, "It’s A Wonderful Life." This Scottish song credited to Robert Burns reminisces about friendships and fond memories. I’m glad to finally have a recorded version.

If you are a fan of Jaci Velasquez, you will want to add this to your music collection. The interview whets your appetite for her next release, which sounds like a must-have for those looking for solace in their suffering.

Image: Nic and Jaci - God heals the brokenhearted.

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