Release Date:
June 17, 2008

Reviewed by:
Shannon West
"This new music opens up a whole new world for me and as my friend and musical compatriot Jay Rowe said - 'this is a life changing album.' Well, it is for me and I hope the impact of what I am composing and playing on "The Grace of Summer Light" is felt by anyone who hears it."  - Ken Navarro from his blog after finishing the recording sessions for The Grace of Summer Light

Because so many, including me, have said that if you hear this you will simply have to own it, Ken is streaming the CD in its entirety on his website. Just listen.

I call them pivotal albums. They are the ones that become part of your ongoing soundtrack, benchmarks with continuity because you remember where you were when you first heard them, you play them over and over. They tend to be timeless, music that will evoke the same reaction years from now as it does when you first hear it. What makes them different from the rest of the favorites in your collection is that when you first hear them something shifts, it could be a little change in the way you feel or some motion in the way you see yourself or feel about your surroundings. Dylan's Bringin' It All Back Home did it for me when I was an alienated kid, Led Zeppelin I cranked loud when I was in high school surrounded by girls who liked The Association. I spent a summer working Top 40 radio in a beachside resort where the bars stayed open all night. Stumbling in near dawn I put on Jarreau's This Time before falling onto the bed, couch, or floor. Patti Smith's Horses when I was trying to reconcile a daytime office job with night gigs in a rock band. Metheny's The Way Up on breaks at the stifling job that pays the bills.

So now to last December. I hit a hard patch last fall, death of a parent, loss of a job and I had to move 10 years of accumulated stuff quickly due to structural damage in the house where I was living. Sitting in the back room at my new place surrounded by unpacked boxes and overwhelmed by lists of errands and obligations I opened the sound file Ken had sent me of the demo from the first track of the album he was going to begin recording in a few months. It was this beautiful melody steeped in both complexity and serenity that actually seemed to shimmer. At least for the duration of the song the chaos that surrounded me seemed to subside. At the time I didn't know the title. It may not have even had one yet.
Grace. Summer. Light.

Listening to this music is like taking a running leap off the dock on the CD cover into a glistening pool of sound. The Grace of Summer Light. The perfect title. One of those soft early evenings on the edge of summer before the humidity sets in and the mosquitoes come out. Putting in the new garden, pulling weeds and hitting replay on any given track because there are so many things to hear, then you go back and hear even more. Navarro said there were up to 10 guitar parts in some of the songs. Add to that keyboards, bass, drums and percussion. Layers of sound, melodies that shape-shift from sparse to dense, from bright to dark, from soft to hard, serene to urgent. Often in the same song and sometimes even at the same time, It's hard to believe that only four or five musicians were playing on any given track. They all have multiple parts and at times the songs sound orchestral, but without becoming ponderous or overproduced, The group of musicians is consistent throughout: Navarro on guitar, keyboards and percussion, Jay Rowe - one of the most underrated keyboard artists out there, who gets a chance to stretch beyond the range of his own smooth jazz recordings, Joel Rosenblatt - one of the most versatile and respected session drummers out there best known for his stint with Spyro Gyra, bassist Tom Kennedy - a current member of Dave Weckl's band who has played with everyone from Al DiMeola and David Sanborn to Rosemary Clooney, and Navarro's long time percussionist Kevin Prince.

It would take several pages to describe each song on the album. These are not three minute tracks with a verse, chorus and bridge. They are compositions that go through numerous changes throughout. What makes this different from most progressive leaning music is that the changes are never jarring, they are built around melodic themes and flow perfectly within the songs. The reason a group of songs with this level of complexity can be so accessible and commercial is because they are so beautiful, diverse, and there isn't any of the dissonance that is often the hallmark of progressive and fusion projects.  Complex solos, arrangements and rhythms. Yes. Self serving edginess? No. The title track was inspired by a composition that avant-garde composer Steve Reich did with Pat Metheny with a tricky 26/4 time signature. When he put the demo on his website for people to preview they heard the beauty of the track and loved the rhythmic shifts. It wasn't "too complicated" at all. The whole album feels like it was built around a series of melodic themes, many of which feel immediately familiar even though they are all completely original.
"Blue Skies, Bright Dreams," the first full length track, sets the tone for the album.  A lyrical guitar melody leads into a bass solo from Kennedy as the original theme shifts to the background, then returns in a joyous burst of acoustic chording and subtle string synths. This builds then breaks into a sparser arrangement and a guitar solo over a lyrical piano line, nuanced percussion and fretless bass work that just flows. Then the original melody returns, this time with the bass upfront and a synth line that sounds like a horn section. The whole piece radiates this feeling of bright, open space. That's just the highlights. Every song has numerous moments of magic: the rapidfire electric and acoustic soloing that doesn't sound as fast on first hearing because of the musical settings, then you realize what he is doing and are stunned. Rowe's all encompassing keyboard and piano shadings, and drums and bass that have so much presence that people who generally don't notice drum and bass work will perk up their ears. Listen to the sitar sound of the guitars and cascades of strings over a darker synth lead on "On My Way To Somewhere," or the trippy chill influences on "Daddy-O" that ebb, flow and break around one short, irresistible melody line and what seems to be a whispered voice in the background. The harmonica effect in "Nomad" that evokes the isolation of a desert landscape wrapping up with a speedy acoustic solo at the end.  “We Might As Well Dance” wraps around some searing electric guitar licks and a churning Allman Bros. flavored rhythm section arrangement complete with B3 shadings.

This is not just a pivotal album for me, or for anyone else who discovers it now and ends up adopting it as the defining sound of summer 2008. This is a pivotal album for the genre and the fans. An album where a group of musicians completely shed the intent of making music that fit a corporate construct and became completely themselves, challenging themselves to reach further as they created this music and always coming in completely up to the challenge. In the years since we shifted from "genre" to "format" we've been told that that's a dangerous place to go and too challenging and scary for an audience to follow. Then someone gets brave enough to fully (flesh out) the hints he has been dropping throughout his body of work and what we have is not scary. It's transcendent. It feels like grace, summer, and light.

The Grace of Summer Light will be officially released on June 17, just in time for the first day of summer, but it is available now from Ken's website: