In the liner notes, Omar Akram states that he hopes his music can act as an international language that crosses cultural barriers, an admirable goal to be sure. If this CD finds its way into the hands of people who enjoy an assortment of uptempo and relaxed music, blending ethnic (primarily Mediterranean and Middle Eastern) influences with contemporary jazz, electronica, and new age elements, then Akram’s hopes will almost certainly be fulfilled.
Comparing favorably to such well-regarded works as Chris Spheeris’ Culture and Eros or Shahin and Sepehr’s, Secret Journey features pianist and keyboard player Akram joined by acoustic guitarists Ardeshir Farah and Ramon Stagnaro, as well as Gregg Karukas (keyboards, drum and percussion programming), Pedro Eustache (flute, duduke, Persian ney flute), Ron Wagner (ethnic percussion), and the always-in-demand violinist Charlie Bisharat (who graces nearly every song). The CD’s twelve tracks are all ensemble pieces, the musicians either playing together in harmony, or taking turns soloing and providing skillful back-up. The mix and production of the CD (by Karukas) are textbook, especially where the drums, beats and percussion are placed in the mix. It’s this stressing of the lead melody (whoever is playing it) over rhythm and accompaniment that gives the album its perfect sense of balance. While Akram’s piano playing dominates the recording, he’s never overbearing or in your face, instead sharing the spotlight repeatedly with other musicians repeatedly.
As stated earlier, the music integrates world fusion elements (rhythms and musical signatures) with the jazz, new age and even electronica genres. If you are familiar with the artists mentioned earlier, or perhaps pianist Armen Chakmakian, they are good reference points. While I think the album is generally uptempo, some cuts are laid-back or gentle, such as the closing “Angel of Hope” (a tender and romantic, yet slightly mournful track featuring only Akram’s piano and Bisharat’s violin and some modest synth strings). The majority of songs on the CD will put a smile on your face and set your feet a tapping or, if you listen while driving, may inspire you to nudge that speedometer up a bit. “Run Away With Me,” the opening cut, starts off slowly with jazzy piano and muted hand drums, before cranking it up a notch with some subdued techno-ish dance beats and an elevated piano tempo along with some swaying violin from Bisharat and some tasty licks from Stagnaro’s guitar. “Secret Journey” begins with haunting duduke, and mysterious piano and guitar (all sounding solidly Mediterranean). Like the first track, things kick into a higher gear with hand percussion and some electronica rhythms, along with an infusion of additional drama and passion from piano and violin. This song evokes the same sexy liveliness that the previously mentioned e (from Shahin and Sepehr) has in abundance. Another song I particularly enjoyed was “Caravan,” one of the higher energy tunes here and featuring great integration of contemporary electronica and jazz fusion elements with more traditional instrumentation and rhythms.
What it all comes down to is that this CD celebrates music in its many forms, regardless of culture, ethnicity, or locale. Whether the sweeping drama of the ballad “Shimmering Star,” the bubbly effervescence of “Gypsy Spirit” or the sultry sensuality of “Whispers in the Moonlight,” Secret Journey is your ticket to almost an hour of expertly crafted music by musicians at their artistic peak, led by pianist/keyboardist Akram. I recommend the recording to musically-inclined travelers, armchair, virtual, or real, everywhere.