Piano Album Review - Seth Kinzie, "Brother's Retreat"

There are two ways to read an album review – before or after hearing the album. In this case, please humor me by listening to at least one song before reading – you can preview them at sethkinzie.com.

I request this of you because I'd like to confirm a strong hunch, that even if you don't know anything about the man or his music, you'll concur with the following interpretations - this music simply speaks so directly to the heart that I'd like you to let me know if you don't. 

Now that you've arisen refreshed from the inevitable catharsis of your listening experience, here's my take on this jewel of modern piano art...

From "Trail of two Sunsets" to "Heart Sutra," impressionist pianist Seth Kinzie's new album Brother's Retreat is a heartfelt and deeply hopeful paen to the emotional mystery of human existence. The core of the album consists of Kinzie's piano and Linton Wright's drums recorded in 36 hours over a 4 day period during January 2016 in a secluded Wallowa Mountains studio. Kinzie injected new energy into his piano work by astute collaborations with a gallery of other instrumentalists, including saxophone, banjo, vocalists, guitar, and violin piped in from studios in Portland, Washington, San Francisco, and Chicago.

And since we at Orpheus Piano Co. get especially excited about these kind of details – I excitedly inform you that the piano on all tracks is a 1923 Steinway O.

Despite the absence of a single word (with the exception of some amorphous chanted vocals on the closing track “Heart Sutra”), the album possesses an undeniably existentialist and humanist impact. The infinite shades of Kinzie's nuanced playing imbue compositional sagas which gently implore us to question what is truly important in our lives, while encouraging us to humbly bare our hearts and cherish our fellow humans with loving kindness.

As an old college friend who I befriended through a shared habit of stealing into the university chapel during the wee hours to jam on one of the Lewis & Clark College's best grand pianos, I knew Seth as a deeply gleeful, creative, and fundamentally spiritual person. A dedicated zen Buddhist, Seth consistently brought a spirit of spontaneity and love to the table.

Brothers Retreat is the latest installment in this proud tradition. Kinzie's playing has refined and balanced itself over the years, but an essential vein of undiluted intuitive spontaneity runs through all his work. His songs feel like folk music, with a plethora of jazz and neo-impressionist allusions. His approach can be summed as spare, simple major and minor chord progressions arpeggiated or tossed back and forth between the hands, core themes that gradually evolve dynamically, with tasteful melodic elaborations.

But don't let his generally sparse approach fool you - the album is star studded with moments of melodic intricacy that reveal a formidable technique born of countless hours of sitting with the piano, savoring the texture of the playing experience. In Kinzie's playing there is the unmistakable flavor of a musician who has fused his body with the mechanics of his chosen instrument, speaking through the keys, action, strings and soundboard of the piano as an extension of his nervous system.

With this fundamental language Kinzie's spins mini sagas with an immense emotional ambitus. Although most hover around the 4 minute mark or less, these songs often leave one feeling purged with the catharsis of a good emotional conversation with a friend ending in a deeper kinship, or even reconciliation. Sometimes they read more abstractly, as if looking across an ocean to a sunset on the horizon, or appreciating the simple texture of existence, lost in daydream.

I hope this is enough to entice you to support this artist, support piano music, and invest in a deeper appreciation for the magic in your life. I'll refrain from more track-specific comments, as I feel the album reads as one complete journey, and is transcendental enough to defy further taxonomy – and with that I'll let the music breathe, flying on its own wings. Thanks for another great piano expression of “wild benevolence” Seth.

Learn more, buy the album, and stay abreast of Seth's musical development at sethkinzie.com.