Passing Frames, a new CD by Joel Helander, Happy, Gentle Experiments


Let me first acknowledge that I am running behind on my reviews but one of the reasons I have been slow about this one is that I have had great difficulty trying to characterize this music in a meaningful way for readers of this blog.  And by that I don’t mean to imply that this music makes for a difficult listening experience, it doesn’t.

Passing Frames (2014)

Passing Frames (2014)

Passing Frames is the second CD by composer/pianist Joel Helander whose previous release, Flood (2012) is a solo piano effort.  These two CDs published on Bandcamp earned Mr. Helander mention in Forbes magazine in an article about the self-marketing that is available to musicians who are trying to establish themselves in the music business.

Joel Helander

Joel Helander

Helander is a student in theory and composition at Clark University where this very project is featured on their website.  I conducted a sort of interview with Mr. Helander via e-mail exchanges and learned that he has been playing piano for about 10 years including classical training and a more recent interest in jazz performance. He said that this project began as a sort of follow-up or perhaps a natural progression to his previous release.  His earlier album has much in common with this one in terms of atmosphere. Passing Frames is a set of ensemble pieces with the assistance of friends and classmates all drawn from the Worcester area.

His brother Karl Helander, a singer and song writer in his own right, who studied studio drumming at the University of Miami plays drums and percussion.  String and wind players were enlisted from the Worcester Chamber Music Society, fellow Clark students and other friends. He cites Mike Tierney (guitar, engineer, co-producer) as being essential to the creation of the overall sound of the album as well as being an effective instrumentalist in selected tracks.  All in all it sounds like this was a very close creative collaboration which was rewarding for all involved.

When I first received the CD in the mail I was immediately struck by the lovely cover art and overall design which led me to comment to Mr. Helander of the nostalgia for the larger cover art one used to get with vinyl LPs.  He commented that he had looked into this possibility but found it economically prohibitive.  The photo and overall design was by the same artist, Paul Puiia, who had designed his previous release. There are 11 tracks on this CD all with poetic titles that tell you little about the music itself but no doubt have some meaning for the composer and perhaps his collaborators.  That is not intended as a criticism, rather it is a reflection of music that is less concerned with form than expression.  Not program music but little poetic statements.  And given that Mr. Helander aspires to writing film music this sort of focus seems quite appropriate.

On my first few listens to this disc I was reminded in ways of Ludovico Einaudi, The Penguin Cafe Orchestra and perhaps some of the chamber music of Peter Schickele.  Mr. Helander said he was comfortable with those comparisons.  I did ask him to list some of the music he listens to and he provided me with a pretty eclectic list including:

-Debussy’s String Quartet
-Chopin’s Nocturnes
-Beethoven’s “Archduke”
-Satie’s “Gymnopedies”
-Bill Evans’ “Portrait in Jazz”
Randy Newman‘s “Sail Away”
-Rufus Wainwright’s “Want”
-Nina Simone’s “Little Girl Blue”
-Jon Brion’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Soundtrack”
Van Dyke Parks‘ “Song Cycle”
-John Coltrane’s “Blue Train”
-The Bad Plus’ “Never Stop”
-Fleet Foxes’ “Helplessness Blues”
-Tom Waits’ “Orphans: Bawlers”
-Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush”
Belle and Sebastien‘s “The Life Pursuit,”
-Chet Baker’s “Chet Baker Sings,”
Chilly Gonzales “Solo Piano I and II”
Brad Mehldau‘s “Highway Rider”
-Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bookends.”
This is an interesting and varied list.  I didn’t include this list to give prospective listeners and idea of what the music sounds like but I think it does reveal something about the aspirations and inspirations of the composer’s intent.
I had given some thought to trying to describe each of the tracks on the disc and give my analysis and impressions but finally decided to leave my readers with more general impressions.  Each of the tracks is a self-contained musical statement though three of the tracks are identified as being parts of a suite.  As I said, the poetic titles may have meaning for the composer and may invoke ideas in the listener as well but in the end I perceived the entire disc as a sort of unified whole in that the disc appears to be a musical statement which stands as a reflection of the composer’s ideas at the time of this release much as his first disc does.
Further listenings suggested a sort of sophisticated melancholy lounge music born both of the composer’s aesthetic and those of his collaborators (the production and recording certainly add to this effect).  There appears to be more of a classical influence with a jazz ambiance added.  This is an interesting disc which manages to be both gently experimental as well as eminently listenable.  It is a snapshot of this young man’s best efforts at composition and each can be listened to as a potential sound track to a yet to be made film sequence or simply as a pleasant musical statement on it’s own.
With the perspective of the first disc in mind one can see a progression and integration of nascent ideas evolving as the composer works to develop a more integrated and clear statement of his ideas.  He achieves exactly what he intended I think.  That being said I will be interested to see what he does next as I enjoy the work he has done so far.  If you are interested in new music this disc is worth a listen.  If you are just looking for something different to add to your listening selections you would not be disappointed either.
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