Fresh Aire

Mannheim Steamroller

American Gramaphone Records, 1975

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


If Chip Davis was not the father of new age music, he certainly was one of the genre's forefathers.

In 1975, Davis took a group of his own compositions, which did not fit any neat label that anyone would want to try to put on them, and created his own group, Mannheim Steamroller, as well as his own record label, American Gramaphone. With his six-piece group and a vision in mind, the Fresh Aire series was born. (Thanks to eBay user Jim Schmalz, I was able to get six of the seven albums in the series.)

The first album, Fresh Aire I, was supposed to revolve around the theme of spring, though the narrative poetry on the sleeve suggested that the 12 songs on the disc actually represented not only the passing of the seasons, but the progression of a man's life.

Twenty-four years after this album's release, it still holds up as one of the premier new age albums ever recorded, though there are two flaws with the album. We'll get to those shortly.

The centerpiece of the group is keyboardist Jackson Berkey, who seems to have several sets of hands as you hear everything from electric piano to harpsichord to synthesizers all blending into an harmonious cacaphony of texture. Davis plays a pivotal role in his own group (besides composing all the music), playing drums, recorder and, as he puts it in the liner notes, "other toys". Perhaps underappreciated in this group are the bass work of Eric Hanson and the programming/strings of Don Sears. (Despite being listed, I don't recall hearing the work of Denny Schneider on trumpet or Bill Buntain on trombone on the song "Pass The Keg (Lia)".)my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The biggest complaint I have with Fresh Aire I is simple: it's far too short, clocking in at 33 minutes! Some of the songs on this album seem to fly by, and before you know it, they're over. Both "Sonata" and "Mist" fall into this category; I could have easily kept listening to these tunes for some time.

What makes Mannheim Steamroller a pleasure to listen to is the way they can change gears and make it sound natural. On "Chocolate Fudge," Davis and crew turn the song from a lightly-seasoned jazz/pop beat to a synthesized blues that creates a groove you'd never expect to hear from this type of music. Berkey's keyboard magic is what really helps to push this tune over the top. Likewise, "Saras Band" jumps from what sounds like a Celtic party tune to an almost sci-fi rock piece - with a small pinch of big band thrown in for good measure. If it sounds complicated, it really isn't.

So how can I say there are any mistakes on Fresh Aire I? First, there is the overreliance on interludes. I have no complaints about Berkey's keyboard work, but with the strength of songs like "Rondo" and "Saras Band," I would have liked to have heard more full band pieces, and not just gentle piano melodies that tie the picture together.

Second, there is only one track on Fresh Aire I that misses the mark - and that is the song "Fresh Aire". Written to be almost like a gentle folk lullaby, the song never really seems to get off the ground creatively, and seems to stretch on far too long.

But what makes Fresh Aire I so endearing is that the songs do seem to follow the rise and fall of one's life, in both the peaks ("Saras Band," "Pass The Keg (Lia)") and the valleys ("Interlude II", "Mist"). Bill Fries's poem on the jacket is a piece that perfectly matches the flow of the music. I defy anyone not to be touched by some of the words that Fries wrote.

Even if you don't like new age music, there is something about Fresh Aire I that is magical, and is an album that has become that rare thing in the music industry: timeless. Over the coming months, we'll see if the other volumes in the series are just as timeless.

Rating: B+

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



© 1999 Christopher Thelen and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of American Gramaphone Records, and is used for informational purposes only.