Frio Suite
(Ark Records)


Sounding at times like a deeply hermetic journey into musical spirituality—as opposed to being just your everyday archetypical modern studio recording masterpiece—the 2009 CD release from guitar icon Phil Keaggy and keyboardist Jeff Johnson makes for a completely lucid listening experience. Meeting up in early 2009 at the Laity Lodge in Texas, these two players set in motion the steps that resulted in the late 2009 CD release of Frio Suite, released through Jeff Johnson’s Ark Records imprint. With one foot in music as therapy style New Age and another in a more structured, serious form of 21st century instrumental, almost neoclassical rock music, there’s plenty of musical light and shade on hand to please long time Keaggy fans, while Johnson’s atmospheric keyboards definitely makes him a musical figure worth watching. Carried onward by Johnson’s meditative electronic keyboards, Keaggy does what he does best, adding in plenty of jazzy, impressionistic acoustic and electric guitar parts that works itself deep into the musical framework, often defying musical genres. There’s a kind of soothing, haunting sadness on Frio Suite that almost serves as a relief coming at the end of a difficult, often disturbing decade. The CD has a deep and wide sound and the music is accompanied in the CD artwork by some prominent painting-like photography by visual artist Kathy Hastings. There’s also a kind of cutting edge ethereal spaciness to this music—not unlike some of Pink Floyd’s mid ‘70s instrumental leanings—that would easily find a home with adventurous rock fans if they get to hear it. The overall meditative mood of Frio Suite makes it one of the most sonically rewarding recordings of this first 2000 era decade. / /



In the following interview from November 17, 2009, keyboardist / vocalist / composer
Jeff Johnson speaks with about working with guitarist Phil Keaggy on their Frio Suite CD

MWE3: Hi Jeff, can you provide a little background into how you and Phil Keaggy arranged to work together on the Frio Suite CD?

JJ: The process of making this record was one of the most unforeseen and satisfying experiences in my career. Phil Keaggy and I had met a couple of times over the years at events that both of us were playing at and had a mutual respect for one another's work. We had even done a piece of music that was to be part of a soundtrack for an audio book project. But we really connected at a retreat in January 2009 that both of us had been invited to attend and do music at in Texas at Laity Lodge on the Frio River with a group of writers that make up the Chrysostom Society. There were a number of opportunities to just hang and it helped that both of our wives, and my daughter, were part of this, too. Before we left, we both expressed our desire with one another to pursue some form of musical collaboration by sending one another some ideas via the internet. I sent Phil the first idea and he responded by playing with that and then adding some of his own things. We didn't set out to make a record, but at a point in the process we both realized that that was indeed what we were doing. The whole thing was so unpretentious and completely without presumptions on anyone's part. Because of that, there's a real genuineness in what each of us brought to this music—we weren't trying to impress or accomplish anything other than to add what fit to the particular track. In the ideal world, that's the best set of circumstances for any artistic collaboration.

MWE3: I describe the Frio Suite CD as the musical equivalent of reincarnation and a kind of spiritual wake-up call. Is that kind of the vibe you and Phil were going for on the Frio Suite CD? What was your thinking process while you and Phil were writing and recording? It sounds very modern yet very classically oriented.

JJ: I think that Frio Suite is a fairly genuine and transparent reflection of where both Phil and I are coming from as individuals and artists. Like I already said above, we didn't really set out to do anything but attempt a musical collaboration with one another on a few songs. At the point in which we realized that we were making a record, we started thinking about the idea of the Frio, it's beauty and the experience of having been there. That influenced the music to a point. But, really it was Phil and I listening to the musical ideas and sensibilities that each of us were presenting to one another that was the impetus for this music.

I've likened the process to two individuals walking down two different paths that suddenly cross. The two meet and decide to carry on with one another for a bit. They arrive at an amazing vista overlooking this incredible river where another artist (Kathy Hastings) is already sitting and viewing. The three sit down and take the whole thing in and share with one another their thoughts and ideas about what they're seeing. Pretty soon, the sun is setting so the three carry on down their different paths, better and blessed from having experienced the view together rather than just individually. That analogy pretty much captures what happened on Frio Suite.

MWE3: How would you compare Frio Suite to your earlier instrumental CD releases?

JJ: Well, none of my earlier releases feature Phil Keaggy! Every record I make is influenced by the musicians that I've been blessed to work with. And, I've been blessed to work with some amazing musicians such as Irish flutist, Brian Dunning; classical singer, Janet Marie Chvatal; Slovakian Cellist, Jozef Lupták and Belfast violinist, John Fitzpatrick, to name a few.

Frio Suite only features Phil and myself rather than a fuller ensemble and, aside from an ambient vocal part, none of us are doing any sort of vocals. Many of my records feature me singing/chanting as well as instrumental pieces. And, of course, my work with Brian Dunning has a very contemporary Celtic sound to it because of who is involved.

MWE3: Can you speak about the recording process used during recording the Frio Suite CD? How was the mastering done especially as it sounds so clean and clear.

JJ: Well, as I've already implied above, Phil and I sent tracks back and forth via the internet. We were never in the same room making this music. One of the reasons that worked was because Phil and I are used to doing this already. But, equally important, we trusted each other. It's not easy to make music like this with many musicians—you have some specific ideas of what the other person might do and when you're with one another, you can work those ideas out. It became really apparent early on that each of us were thinking very much along the same lines musically, creatively and sonically. That's what made the whole thing such a surprise to both of us—it was so effortless.

Typically, I would come up with a track that had a melody idea with some chord progression and rhythm. I would create a very rough arrangement of that and then extend it for Phil to take the piece in another direction. I would send this to him and then he would add his bits—acoustic, electric and bass. We may have gone back and forth like this three or four times on one particular piece but never more than that. I would be responsible for putting things together and then doing the mix which Phil would add his opinions and suggestions to further down the road.

The mixes were done in my studio in my house, The Ark, and are pretty much what you hear on the record. Yet, I always use John Golden for my mastering and he did a stellar job in balancing and making sure that the EQ of each piece had a proper compatibility.

MWE3: Can you add describe your keyboard set up for recording the Frio Suite CD? How about special effects or overdubs or overdubs or tweaking after the recordings sessions?

JJ: Most everything I do these days is done in the computer (Mac G5 dual) using Logic Pro (Phil uses ProTools). Some of my plug-ins include Spectrasonics Omnisphere and Stylus RMX, Korg's Legacy Wavestation, NI's Absynth, and Ivory from Synthogy. I use the full compliment of effects found in Logic as well as Audio Ease's Altiverb. There was plenty of tweaking in the entire process of making this record!

MWE3: Who are your big keyboard influences among your other musical influences? How about the most influential albums in any genre you can think of at this moment?

JJ: This is always a difficult question for me to answer since I've had so many influences from so many areas of music. That's because I had such a rich musical experience in my home, school and church beginning at a very early age. But I'll give you a few names...

As a contemporary songwriter, The Beatles, Blue Nile, James Taylor, Carole King, Elton John, Alan Parson's Project, Peter Gabriel, Harry Nilsson. As a composer of sacred work, Arvo Pärt, Gregorian Chant, John Tavener, Jacques Bertier (Taizé), Rachmoninoff, Chopin. As an instrumentalist, Pat Metheny, Yann Tiersen, Windham Hill, Brian Eno, Harold Budd, Vangelis.

MWE3: How and when did you become interested in religion and how do you apply your extensive religious philosophy in your everyday life and also how it applies to your musical train of thought?

Well, I don't know how extensive my "religious philosophy" is, but simply put, I'm a follower of Jesus Christ and have been for many years. I currently attend a small Episcopalian church but I grew up in a large Baptist church in Portland, Oregon which didn't guarantee me having Christian faith since many of my friends there ended up chucking everything once they were older. For me, I just always "believed" and had a constant sense that God was there and the stories and ideas that I read in the Bible were true. I had some tremendous mentors at crucial times early in my life who really didn't tell me what to believe but pointed me in the right direction.

I've written music since I was a child. Music was always an important means for me to deal with what I was going through in my life. So, it has been quite natural for me to write music and songs that reflect my Christian world view and faith. It's never been an intentional process but rather a very natural one and I feel very comfortable performing my more "sacred" material in both church settings and concert settings because of that.

As far as the daily experiences of integrating my faith into my life, I'm really just like anyone else who is interested in seeking that which is true in that I try to allow a certain part of my daily routine to include silence, prayer, reading the scripture, etc. Yet the older I get, the more surprised and impressed I am with how the sacred can be found in all matters of the typical tasks we all experience in daily life. This is what I admire about the Christian Celtic prayers that I've read—they, like the Psalms, seek God and his blessing and protection in the simple tasks of working, cooking, sleeping, love making, friendship, etc. With God's help, I hope my faith permeates all that I do, say and think.

MWE3: How about your upcoming recording or performance plans for the rest of ’09 and beyond?

JJ: I'll be doing another Celtic Christmas tour with Brian Dunning and a new violinist, Wendy Goodwin this Winter. I've also completed a compilation CD for a concept/group that will tour in Germany next year entitled, Coram Deo. Phil and I have talked about doing a few gigs in 2010, too. I also have several ideas piling up for a solo project along the lines of my recent Journey Prayers album.

MWE3: Can you say something about living on Camano Island? I’ve never been to Washington State but I’ve heard good things about it and my uncle lives near Seattle!

JJ: Camano is a very large island that one could construe to be, along with Whidbey Island, the southern part of the San Juan islands. We're supposedly in a rain shadow created by the Olympics that are actually west of Seattle, yet you would not have known this by the lashing of wind and rain we had last night!

We've been here 11 years having moved from Portland, OR. It's been a great place to live and work.

Thanks to Phil Keaggy and Jeff Johnson and Ark Music @


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