For several weeks now, I have struggled with indecision over the matter of my first post on this blog. After all, first impressions are undoubtedly of paramount importance in this world of high-speed media. So it was with great deliberation that I finally decided on Tribute, the live album recorded and released by Greek musical sensation Yanni back in 1997. Although he was frequently labeled as “New Age” (much to his chagrin) back in the day, he is now seen as the visionary and boundary-breaking contemporary instrumentalist and composer that he is.
I selected this album by Yanni for a couple of reasons. It came to my mind as a result of childhood memories; one of the first musical experiences in my life that I can remember is watching the VHS recording of this concert with my father. Back then, I had yet to receive any musical training, and the extent of my musical knowledge was meager at best (think *NSYNC and the Backstreet Boys). Nonetheless, I was enraptured by it almost immediately. Tribute is the amalgamation of two separate concerts – one performed at the Forbidden City in Beijing, China, and the other at the Taj Mahal in India. Even today, the sheer amount of effort required to put on a full-scale concert in front of either of these iconic landmarks is enough to deter just about everyone. Everyone but Yanni, that is. And he certainly put on a show that lived up to its high expectations while strongly defied all its opposing skepticism.
Although the memory of this concert slowly faded over the course of a decade, I was blown away yet again when I happened to stumble upon it again in recent years. Having matured a great deal, both as a musician and as a human being in general, I can now say without a doubt that this album, despite being fifteen years old, still brings more to the table than much of the music released today. It is an incredibly rich listening experience for anyone from the casual listener to the most advanced musician. What enables Yanni to ascend to a level above many other musicians is his ability to truly convey the passion that goes into all of his work. Every melody is well thought out, every solo is highly original and brings something new to the table, every additional “scene” in this majestic production is allowed to develop to its full capacity.
In an effort to put into words the true energy of this creative masterpiece, I would describe it as “an endeavor in celebration of the pure emotional power and beauty of music.” Yanni does an excellent job of creating imaginative moods and intimate soundscapes, and the story that unfolds throughout the album rapturously speaks of a single, unified world playing host to a medley of diverse yet harmonious cultures. We have all heard that music is the universal language. If anyone is unconvinced of this, I challenge them to listen to Tribute and still hold such an opinion. The traditions of classical, rock, jazz, Latin, Middle Eastern, and Asian music are all featured prominently throughout the album. As the action-packed opening piece, “Deliverance,” fades into existence, an enthralling element of mystery is immediately established, and it remains present until the last rousing chorus of “Niki Nana (We’re One).” This is not the kind of mystery that sows seeds of anxiety, this is the kind of spiritual mystery that makes one believe in a power greater than themselves. Music has been an integral part of human spirituality since the dawn of mankind, and Yanni continues this revered tradition with a refreshing blend of ethnically infused instrumentation and masterful orchestration.
Although I will not go into a track-by-track analysis (I prefer to leave such a journey to you, the reader), I will say that each song is strong in its own right. Each time that final chord is struck, you are left desperately wanting to hear more and intrigued as to what the next song has in store. I find that it is often the seemingly insignificant details, such as that one harp arpeggio, or that faint contrapuntal melody played by the French horns, that make me smile. These Easter eggs can be found in every song, and they work well to bring the overall vision together. Tribute is more rewarding upon each additional listen; there is always something more to be found in its fertile depths. The entire performance is incredibly tight; the bass, drums, and percussion work extremely well to fill up the rear of the sound field, but they still allow the soloists room to breathe. Each musician’s individual energies are captured magnificently in what is arguably Yanni’s most creative album to date.
Whether it’s the operatic vocals of Vann Johnson on “Tribute,” the awe-inspiring rock organ solo of Ming Freeman on “Renegade,” or the nylon string guitar of Ramón Stagnaro that transports you to a foreign land on “Love Is All,” the collaborative efforts of all the musicians feature on Tribute come together to form one of the most memorable albums of recent years, a personal favorite of mine, and certainly an excellent launchpad for Audio Intimacy. I hope that you will consider investigating Yanni and his work for yourself, and that it brings you as much joy as it has to myself and millions of listeners across the globe.
(Note: Out of respect for Yanni, I am classifying this post as “contemporary instrumental” rather than simply New Age. While I understand that this label may seem rather vague, the truth of the matter is that there is no suitable label for Yanni. His music is such a unique fusion of different influences that it might even be more accurate to assign him his own genre. Perhaps we’ll call it “Yanni-Soul.”)