Essential albums: J. D. Emmanuel

Texan musician J.D. Emmanuel's career story is, in a way, a story about how the passion of fans can make a difference; about a gifted e-musician whose music may have been lost to the ages had it not been for the efforts of a new generation of vintage electronic and new age music enthusiasts and collectors.

J.D. Emmanuel

country of origin:

New age, minimalism, meditation, psychedelic ambient, spacemusic

decades active:
80's - 10's

essential releases:

  • Echoes from Ancient Caves (1981, North Star/Sun Ark Records)
  • Rain Forest Music (1981/86, North Star)
  • Wizards (1982, North Star)
  • Trance-Formations I: Ancient Minimal Meditations (1986, North Star)
  • Trance-Formations II: Into Separate Realities (1999, Deep Distance/North Star)
  • Time Traveler (2013, Aguirre/North Star)
  • Inter-Dimensional Time Traveling (2014, North Star)

Reviewed by Mike G

Texan musician J.D. Emmanuel's career story is, in a way, a story about how the passion of fans can make a difference; about a gifted e-musician whose music may have been lost to the ages had it not been for the efforts of a new generation of vintage electronic and new age music enthusiasts and collectors.

The tale begins in 2005 when young music journalist, collector and record label owner Douglas Mcgowan stumbled on several dusty boxes of two J D Emmanuel vinyl albums - several hundred of them, all still sealed - at a discount book and record store in North Dallas, Texas. (The composer explains: "When we moved back to Houston in 1988, I left several cartons of them in my attic because I could not even give them away. The new house owner apparently found them and sold them to the bookstore.") The vintage of both albums - early 1980's - immediately caught Mcgowan's attention, as he was a big fan of early private issue new age music. He purchased 50 copies and took them back to the West Coast where they found eager buyers via a local collector's email newsletter. This discovery set in motion a chain of events that led to a series of critically acclaimed album re-issues and, in 2010, J D Emmanuel's return to recording and performing again.

The majority of JD's Emmanuel's studio recordings date from the 1980's, when new age music in America was still an indie scene and corporate interests were yet to hijack the genre. Whether you call his albums new age or not, the meditative vibe, spiritual underpinnings and self-releasing are all hallmarks of the genre in its original form. Yet his cyclic, organ-based music is so very different from most of his contemporaries of that era. Back in 1970 he was was deeply impressed by his first taste of classical minimalism when he heard American minimalist composers Terry Riley and Steve Reich. As he recently told e-zine Ricochet: "Terry Riley's 'A Rainbow in Curved Air' and Steve Reich's 'Violin Phase' totally defined where I wanted to go in music. But it took me another ten years to discover how to develop my own style." Prior to creating his own work, he was also immersed in modern jazz and long-form rock jams, attracted to their improvisational basis and ability to lull the listener into deeper states of consciousness.

Minimalism and improvisation, then, became the foundations of his art, and the evocation of trance-like states his goal. In 1980, with his newly acquired Crumar Traveler-1 organ, analog synths, guitar and various effects, he began building a body of warm, melodic, usually stripped-back ambient trance with a certain mystical vibe that's difficult to put into words.

Early albums

Of his earliest releases, three of them are must-haves: Echoes From Ancient Caves (1981), Rain Forest Music (1981) and Wizards (1982). On the first two of these albums he builds gentle, short cycles of notes into floating clouds of sound, mostly improvising around single chords. The "minimalism" in his music lies not in repetitive patterns that barely change - the extreme end of classical minimalism - but more in the spare arrangements of pieces like "Rings Of Saturn" - a warm, disarming track that hypnotises with a very simple synth pulse and organ improvisations. There's also an open, loving optimism to the melodies on these early releases that has obvious appeal to new age listeners. The composer's love of jazz is often evident; on several guitar-based tracks, for example, the jazzy chord changes and improvs are quite complex but - like the keyboard pieces - always restrained.

Newcomers to JD Emmanuel's music should look to Wizards, an album regarded by many fans and the composer himself as his finest. Here the backdrop of nature sounds from previous albums has receded and the music becomes more reverent, more evocative of church music and sacred rituals. Organ sounds often dominate but never with the pronounced heaviness of tone with which the instrument is so often associated (again, differentiating his music some of from Riley's). His spiritual concerns are obvious from the track names: "Attaining Peace", "Prayer" and so on. Two long tracks "Focusing Within" and "Expanding Into The Universe" reach ecstatic heights, with sequenced cycles of notes providing a bed for sustained synth and organ chords and some amazing improvisational work. Psychedelic - it's the only word for it.

Later works

Wizards is a brilliant release, but to over-praise it is to risk downplaying other, more recent achievements. An unusually long gap of 13 years separates Trance-Formations I (1986) and Trance-Formations II (1999), these albums being the highlights from a much less prolific period which ended with his (now premature) retirement from music.

Trance-Formations I: Ancient Minimal Meditations has only 4 tracks and continues pretty much in the devotional style of Wizards. "Morning Worship" is a signature J D Emmanuel tune with a gorgeous spinning melody played against sustained organ phrases; analog machine music has rarely sounded more human. By contrast "Evening Devotional" is driven by a squelchy, surreal oscillation that's darker than anything done previously, and "Midnight Meditation" is similarly strange, its eerie, warbling synth figures only barely audible.

Trance-Formations II: Into Separate Realities is a double length album and was composed mostly in hotel rooms during the 90's when he was frequently traveling for work. In stark contrast to the murky sonics of its predecessor, here he incorporates digital synths into his setup and the resulting shinier textures mark a significant shift from his earlier sound. There's not much organ to speak of, either, but his modus operandi remains intact: minimal, simple structures and lots of improvisation, a combo of cyclic patterns on sequencers with rich drones and melodic invention. Soaring cosmic tracks like "Red Rocket Glare" echo the very best of Schmoelling-era Tangerine Dream, the distinct melodic lines interlocking with hypnotic perfection. Analog purists may frown, but Trance-Formations II remains one of his best albums even though its an exception to his signature sound.

Out of retirement

Since his return to recording and performing in 2010, several of his new recordings have scaled the same heights as the best of his earlier work.

The double-length live album Time Traveler (2013) features a mix of new and old pieces performed on a European tour. Using a mostly-analog setup of tools designed by the legendary Dave Smith - such as the Prophet and Evolver synths - we get to hear Emmanuel's classic sound recorded in pristine fidelity. The album is a joy from start to finish, traversing most of his range from the pretty, nature-inspired noodling of "Rain Forest" to beautiful oscillating weirdness like "Deep Trance States" and "Inside A Tesla Generator".

The studio album Inter-Dimensional Time Traveling (2014) is another rich slice of analog psychedelia that captures his late career renaissance in full bloom. It's drone music of sorts, insomuch as it's based on improvisations around single chords. The album's gently throbbing, oscillating creations glide on richly textured major or minor chords with trippy melodies that spiral in and out of the mix. It's tremendous float music, and a perfect example of psychedelic ambient that hypnotises and calms.

Today most of his back-catalogue is available  in one or more formats: vinyl, cassette, CD and/or digital download. As a new generation of fans embraces his work he's also been releasing unheard archival recordings and continuing to play live shows. If you're into metaphysics you'll find plenty of info on about the spiritual philosophies that inspire his art.

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