Back in the 1980s, there was a thing called “New Age”. It was a not-quite-religion, a mish-mash of spiritual practices and beliefs all broadly rejecting materialism and suggesting people slow down. Sort of Buddhism-lite, for prosperous Californians. It was a bit self-centred – long on attending health spas and short on volunteering at soup kitchens – but basically harmless.
My main objection to New Age stuff was olfactory. New Age markets and shops and such were invariably accompanied by the heating of essential oils and the burning of incense. Fine for those who like it, but incense makes me sneeze and get a sinus headache – it is almost instant. Hard to connect with your previous lives, dude, when you feel like someone is tightening a G-clamp across your temples.
There was also a thing called New Age music. In hip circles, to call music “New Age” was a bit of an insult. There was truth in the caricature: dolphin calls echoing over synth washes, with maybe the odd didgeridoo and Tibetan musical bowl to add street cred. Incense of the ear.
But the best of it what got labelled New Age was worth a listen. The format offered talented musicians an opportunity to break out of the restrictions of commercial music. They could turn the volume down, riff on a theme and see where it led, trusting that listeners would give the sounds a fair go. If this sounds a bit like jazz, it is: a lot of the best practitioners of New Age had some jazz in their past.
One label which did New Age well was Windham Hill Records. They started out in the late 1970s in – you’ll never guess – California. A guitarist, William Ackerman, was asked to record some of his tunes on cassette for friends, and radio stations picked them up and vinyl records followed. Ackerman’s girlfriend, Anne Robinson, was a skilled graphic designer: she created a distinctive minimalist look for the label: avoiding rainbow tie-dye cliches she created restrained images, framed in white.
Windham Hill became underground-popular – initially the records were “distributed in health-food stores and book stores” – then broke into the almost mainstream. Billboard magazine, for well or ill, created a “New Age and Contemporary Jazz” chart, and Windham Hill became its star label for many years.
It all seems long ago and far away. The label was sold, then sold again, then merged, and now exists somewhere in the “legacy” section of the Sony catalogue – which is better than not existing at all.
This LP was a sampler, released in Australia in 1985. I discovered it, a few years later, at a dark time in my life. I was couch surfing, and in a bad place. One of the couches (my eternal thanks to the people who provided it) was in a room with a record player. There were not many records, but this was one, and I played it a lot. It is soothing, relaxing – all that stuff – but I also loved the folky-jazzy-“who cares, really?” style.
It is music which says: “just be”. You can call it “New Age” if you like, or “Contemporary Jazz”, or something else altogether. Okay, not “Easy Listening”. But just listen.
- Artist: William Ackerman
- Album title: An Invitation To Windham Hill (Various Artists)
- Track: B4: “The Bricklayer’s Beautiful Daughter”
- Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, vinyl, stereo
- Label: Windham Hill Records
- Made in: Australia
- Catalogue: WHA 1
- Year: 1985
Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs