Alexander Turnquist: Flying Fantasy
Western Vinyl

More than anything, Flying Fantasy heralds Alexander Turnquist's ongoing maturation as a composer. We've always known him to possess exceptional talent as a player but the new eight-song collection stands out as much for his arranging and composing as his twelve-string guitar playing. Put simply, technical virtuosity isn't the release's number one selling-point but rather the compositional vision exemplified by the material.

Flying Fantasy didn't come into being easily, however. Serious health issues preceded the album's creation when the ulnar nerve in Turnquist's left hand seized up in 2013, an alarming development that required him to undergo surgery and then learn to play the guitar all over again. As if that event weren't debilitating enough, he subsequently was forced to re-enter the hospital after contracting meningitis. It's easy to forget that dramatic life changes might occur in the period between albums in an artist's life; Turnquist's case clearly reminds us that such changes can sometimes be of the most life-altering kind. If there's a silver lining, it's that personal hardship often translates into a crystallization of artistic purpose, and that might very well be the case here. And if his material sounds especially expansive on the latest collection, it's undoubtedly due in part to the contributions Christopher Tignor (violin), Matthew O'Koren (vibes, marimba), Pamela Stein (vocals), Jeremy Thal (French horn), Marian Berry (cello), and Andrew Hiller (snare drum) brought to the sessions (Turnquist himself, incidentally, supplements his own guitar playing with grand piano, Hammond organ, and steel drums).

When “House of Insomniacs” opens with sparse brush strokes of guitar harmonics, one might begin to think that the piece will be a solo guitar exercise. But that introductory episode eventually blossoms out into an ensemble arrangement featuring vibes, cello, and wordless vocals that's more representative of the album's entrancing soundworld. As he's done in the past, specifically on the VHF albums As The Twilight Crane Dreams In Color (2009) and Hallway Of Mirrors (2011), Turnquist once again utilizes the guitar's raga-like fingerpicking patterns as a structural foundation over top of which a given track's haunting themes appear, the combination of which produces an effect that's dazzling and dynamic.

Quintessential Turnquist, “Wildflower” derives its animating force from cyclical repetitions of guitar picking that move so fast they seem veritably time-lapsed; an interesting contrast develops between the velocity of the guitar patterns and the stately lilt of the piano and vibes themes that surface alongside them. “Wildflower” ends up identifying itself as the kind of track that encourages listeners to draw comparisons between Turnquist and fellow guitar masters such as James Blackshaw and Jack Rose.

Elsewhere, Tignor's presence elevates “Finding the Butterfly” with the violinist's lyrical melodic lines gliding across a guitar-and-vibes base fraught with anxiety and yearning. Turnquist appears to make an overt nod to Steve Reich (and Music for 18 Musicians, specifically) in the repeating piano accents that appear near the beginning of “Red Carousel,” but, in the richness of its arrangement and compositional design, the piece ultimately proves itself to be something considerably more than a mere classical minimalism homage. Recalling the character of Turnquist's 2012 Like Sunburned Snowflakes release, the meditative title track deviates from the album's overall sound in arming its arrangement with nothing more than four open-strummed guitars and ambient textures evocative of the harbour and seaside. Refreshingly concise, to-the-point, and free of excess, the intoxicating Flying Fantasy, as multi-hued and intricate as its cover image, vibrates with life, and the listener leaves the thirty-eight-minute album wanting more.

June 2014