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Bill Binkelman : Reviews
A source for reviews of ambient, new age, world, electronic, and acoustic music since 1997.
What a great recording this is! So few artists record music that attempts to evoke the moods of winter (except for holiday carols). However, keyboard player Shirley Cason has done just that - composed an entire album of serene, peaceful, evocative electronic keyboard and piano instrumentals, tinted with a superb combination of somberness and gentility. As a result, these eight musical soundscapes properly reflect winter's emotional resonance on the land and on people. Being from Minnesota, the land where winter lasts from November through March, I know what I'm talkin' about, Willis!
Winter Mornings is full of lovely music. Throughout the album, Cason shows her ability to mix her assorted keyboards and synths (strings, bells, textures, piano) in songs that are accessible yet (at times) free-flowing enough to be quasi-ambient. This is especially true on the eight-minute "Winter Skies," which mixes softly swelling strings, twinkling bell tones, gentle plucked guitar, and subtle background spacy synthesizer textures. For comparison's sake, imagine a blend of Jon Mark's melancholy beauty with Kevin Kendle's wonderful melodic sensibility. I hold Messrs Mark and Kendle in the highest regard so this comparison is rare praise indeed. And, while Cason is not quite at their level, she is getting close with this recording. Besides the beautiful
"Winter Skies," there are also the shiny bright bell tones, hushed synth chorales and gentle electronica rhythms of "Icicle Melt,"
the somber and darker "10 Degrees"
(sounding a little like Tim Story, with repeating piano refrains and shadowy synthesizer shadings, and then moving slowly into a warmer romantic sound, a la Ciani or Yanni at their best). In addition, there is the plaintive minimal piano and synth title track and the light-as-a-feather bells and chimes of "Snow Dance"
(Cason plays this one smart by opening with the chimes and bells played arrhythmically, thereby creating a musical illusion of randomly falling snowflakes). This last piece also features well-executed flute samples and slowly building momentum over a bed of what sounds like sampled kalimba (African thumb piano).
The opening track, "Beauty of the Earth," features delicate synth strings and gently strummed/picked guitar (sampled) while
"Children and Snowmen," yet another peaceful mixture of assorted keyboards, once again reminded me of Kevin Kendle, but this time with a dash of playfulness and innocence added to the other elements.
Finally, for a touch of whimsy and humor, the artist closes with "Gulf of Florida," a short piano and minimal synth number which features parts of the refrain from the traditional folk song "Oh Susanna," leaving the listener with the notion that, while winter has its charms and its beauty, one does need a little warmth and sunshine too (again, as a Minnesotan,
I heartily agree!).
When I reviewed A Summer Dream (2002)
a few years ago, I knew Shirley Cason was talented, but I admit to being surprised at how fully realized a musical statement "Winter Mornings" is. While there are no tracks that will remind you of blizzards, these beautiful, somewhat minimal, relatively subdued songs are evocative of that season which is normally ignored by artists.
Fans of warm melodic electronic keyboard music (mostly without overt rhythms, though) will almost certainly enjoy this CD, and if you miss the days of classic new age music (lots of bell tones and twinkling chimes), then you're in for a big treat as Cason has plenty of them throughout the album.
especially for romantics (like me).
The warmth and friendliness of keyboard player Shirley Cason s new album, "Inner Peace", While I have little doubt that Cason believes her music belongs under the new age genre tent (the cover itself describes her as a new age keyboardist ), her talent is in crafting simple, unassuming and flowing melodic music, music which is less pretentious than some other artists entries can wind up being.
Featuring a blend of electronic keyboards and piano played in a gentle, romantic and reflective style "Inner Peace" is, simply put, an easy album to like from the start, as has been the case with every CD I ve reviewed from this artist. ----
"Waiting For You" features a pleasing bell tone refrain as the main ingredient, echoed to just the right degree. As the refrain fades, the bell tones become sparser in nature, yet they retain a graceful warmth and friendliness. "Come, Into My Room" brings piano to the forefront (heavily echoed), with bowed strings (sampled cello and violin, I think) and an occasional gentle rush of cymbal. "Sharing Auras" has a haunting quality to it at first with pipe-like keys and chorals but the early minimal rhythms eventually coalesce into a steady cadence and the tune turns into a gently loping piece with a sensation of walking along a path. There is a vague hint of Africa in whatever Cason sampled to play the rhythm track on. "You Are Beautiful Music" rolls along nicely via piano, guitar, and slow tempo beats as well as synth textures deep in the mix. "Follow The Teacher" has a playful air to it with plucked orchestral strings, solo flute, chimes, and the same kind of rhythmic effect previously heard on Sharing Auras. " Missing You When it Rains" is appropriately somber with only minimal synth embellishment to the lead piano melody. Likewise " I Shouldn t Care, But I Do" on which the piano is even more minimal and the mood is sadder than on the previous track. "Peace For The Moments Of Your Life" (a short minute and a half) closes out the CD with a classic keyboard sound harkening back to the early days of the genre casting a nostalgic glow on the musical landscape. The album's only misstep is the equally short (under two minutes) "Midnight Dancing With You", a semi-abstract ambient-ish piece that suffers by comparison to the simpler fare heard throughout the rest of the CD. ----
The song titles on "Inner Peace" seem to indicate that this music is highly personal to Shirley Cason, perhaps inspired by someone close to her. However, the music itself holds universal appeal; its innate likeability and simple unpretentious charm (no overly glitzy production here, the lack of which may be a turn off for some) are the main reasons I like the CD.
Sometimes, I simply want to hear nice music. I won't try to convince you that "Inner Peace" is startlingly original or has production values that will dazzle you (truthfully, some of her keyboard samples could be tweaked). This is a recording to put on when you simply want to drift along on pleasant melodies tinted with romance and, occasionally, sadness. The two rhythmic pieces are not distractingly different but do offer a counterpoint to the more dominant mood so there is diversity here as well.
There are plenty of only average new age keyboard players out there, but Shirley Cason rises above them (as she has done on her other albums) with grace and sincere emotion.
A SUMMER DREAM
Reviewing a CD that is obviously quite personal and openly emotional for the artist, as is the case with Shirley Cason's A Summer Dream, is difficult because, frankly, it's impossible to be as objective as a critic should be (provided one has any feelings, that is). A Summer Dream is dedicated to (and more or less themed around) Shirley's sister, Carol, who passed away in the summer of 1998. Having lost both my parents, the loss of family members certainly hits a chord with me.
However, as a music critic, it's necessary to do one's best to strip all the "interference" away to some degree, lest one is accused of partiality. Even when I discard any personal memories, though, I can still recommend A Summer Dream as a well-performed and gently evocative collection of piano and synth pieces that are sometimes warm and soft and other times sad and nearly always genuinely touching. The thing that I'm most impressed with on this album is Cason's willingness to use a lot of different synth sounds. So many pianists (when they use synths at all) just use string fills (and that can certainly be enough). How refreshing, then, to hear all manner of electronic keyboards, yet always in the service of melodic, accessible adult contemporary/new age music.
There are extensive liner notes (sometimes in the form of poems/lyrics, even though the album is wholly instrumental) that paint a picture of love and loss and growth through pain.
The CD begins with the playful and sprightly "Springtime" (lilting flutes, bells, bass, and guitar-like keyboards, along with piano) and begins its voyage through different moods, tempos, and melodic approaches.
"Come Out and Play", is a Kevin Kendle-like track with flute and lovely synth bells. "Summer of '98" opens with bluesy piano (by the way, if it matters to you, the piano on the album sounds like a digital, although a pretty good one to my ears), and the cut soon becomes a reflective piano and strings tune - wistful yet not somber.
"Lost," one of the more overtly new agey cuts on the CD, is sadder, as Fender Rhodes-like keys ride on top of swirling synths ( I could've done without the wind effects on this track, though).
One of the best selections is the next one. "Last Walk" has a unqiuely juxtaposed lively rhythm with quasi-mournful synths (consisting of nicely flowing keyboards and some plucked note sounds). It's my favorite track on the CD, I think.
"Last Breath" is almost unrelentingly morose at the start (as the title would suggest, although once again I think the wind sounds are misplaced) but evolves into something quite different via a Constance Demby-ish crescendo (signifying "passing over" I would imagine although I don't want to appear presumptuous). My interpretation is based on the spacemusic and celestial textures during the latter stages of the track.
The album closes with the title song, and it's another highlight. Gentle bells, lush strings, and hushed cymbals open the song which eventually becomes a piano-led number that speaks of acceptance and the strength that flows from the knowledge that our loved ones never truly leave us.
As you can tell from some of my comments above, I resonated with what (in my opinion) Shirley Cason was intending on A Summer Dream. So, take some of my praise with a grain of salt if you're cynical or tend to like music that is more subtle about its emotional intent. This album is not ashamed to wear its sorrowful yet ultimately hopeful heart on its sleeve. From a purely analytical standpoint, it's nice background music for light activity (I think the emotional highs and lows, however, may make it difficult to concentrate or read during playback).
I recommend the CD, though, especially to die-hard romantics and those who enjoy electronic keyboards mixed with piano.
BEST OF CASON
Shirley Cason, one of my favorite new age music keyboardists, has culled the most popular tracks from four of her previous releases (Forever In Bloom, A Summer Dream, Winter Mornings, and Inner Peace) for The Crossing, a career retrospective that clearly shows why her web site is filled with praise from fans all over the world. As I have mentioned in my reviews of her albums, what sets Cason apart from many other keyboard artists is how her music is deceptively simple on the surface (piano accented by assorted orchestral and new age keyboards) but suffused with genuine warmth, like the comforting presence of a good friend, as well as a heartfelt sincerity that is refreshingly straightforward and not muddied by over-production or unnecessary glitz. She seems to be the kind of person you want to have offer for coffee or a glass of wine, the opposite of a "star," so to speak.
The Crossing contains a good sampling of the various styles Cason is capable of playing, but it contains only previously recorded work, so fans who already own those albums previously mentioned above need to be aware of this fact. On the other hand, the track selection (these are all very good choices by the artist) presents enough allure that even completists will enjoy this disc. I personally think this is one "best of" from an artist that actually merits the title.
The first song on the album, Journey, illustrates what I described as Cason's strengths right away: flowing warm piano in the lead with lightly applied synth strings and a draping of light electronic textures. Cason is particularly good at painting in muted shades, mixing an evocation of remembrance with regret so that fondness and sadness intermix. However, as the next song, Seabreeze, shows, she can also lighten the mood and spice things up with added instrumentation. A jaunty assemblage of piano, xylophone, flute and electronics, the song conjures the titular reference of a sailboat carried along by soft but insistent winds. Next, Cason lets the romantic in her musical persona shine through on Forever in Bloom with its gentle guitar and serene orchestral strings. The forlorn lead melody on Last Walk is juxtaposed by the track's somewhat lively bass rhythms and accented by occasional injection of lighter melodic components. This song is one of the better examples of Cason's skills at exploring an assortment of electronic keyboard sounds within an accessible framework.
Other songs on the CD include one of my favorites from her discography, the eight and half minute Winter Skies. With twinkling synths that sonically mirror ice crystals, smooth synth strings that fall like a gentle snow, as well as muted bell tones and delicately plucked guitar strings, the song perfectly captures the beauty and solemnity of the season. The next track, Icicle Melt, emphasizes Cason's talent across a wide spectrum of electronics and keyboards, including some subtle chill-out beats. Shirley Cason is no one trick pony, merely layering in some strings now and then. The eleven songs here aptly demonstrate just how broad her "music palette" truly is. Yet no matter the song's style, each piece is easily identifiable as "Shirley," due to her music's warmth, her uncomplicated way with the lead melody, and her heart-on-her-sleeve straightforward sincerity.
If you haven't yet heard this wonderful artist's music, The Crossing would make the perfect introduction. Even if you already own several of her previous releases, this is still a recommendable CD because it showcases her best, and her best is, as we say in Minnesota, pretty darn terrific. You betcha! Highly recommended.
Rating: Very Good +
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