A breathtaking achievement, Jon Mark's ambient debut The Standing Stones of Callanish (1988) mines its source - the Celtic legacy of Britain - with exceptional sensitivity. His tone is unmistakable: broad, sweeping, multi-layered keyboard harmonies of incredible richness and textural subtlety, underpinned by deep, resonant bass drones

artist:
Jon Mark

country of origin:
New Zealand

style(s):
Ambient, Celtic, environmental, new age, jazz

decades active:
80's - 90's

essential releases:

  • The Standing Stones Of Callanish (Kuckuck, 1988)
  • Alhambra (Kuckuck, 1992)
  • A Sunday In Autumn (White Cloud/Naxos, 1994)
  • Sand [with David Parsons] (White Cloud/Naxos, 2008)

Reviewed by Mike G

Eckart Rahn, founder of pioneering world music/ambient label Celestial Harmonies, had a simple, evocative philosophy: "The art of refinement through expression". It would be hard to a find a better example of that ideal than the music of Jon Mark, who's ambient music captures a sense of time and place with extraordinary sensitivity and feeling.

Mark’s move into the ambient zone came fairly late in a career that started in the 60’s playing session guitar alongside The Rolling Stones, bluesman John Mayall and working as an arranger for singer Marianne Faithful. In 1971 he formed the Mark-Almond Band with saxophonist David Almond, a jazz/rock/folk fusion combo which built a loyal following during the 70’s.

Then, somehow, Jon Mark came into ambient music. His instrumental solo debut, the all-synthesiser Standing Stones Of Callanish (1988), was released following his relocation to New Zealand in the mid-1980’s. A breathtaking achievement, Standing Stones mines its source - the Celtic legacy of Britain - with exceptional sensitivity. Mark’s tone is unmistakable: broad, sweeping, multi-layered keyboard harmonies of incredible richness and textural subtlety, underpinned by deep, resonant bass drones. The album is by turns exhilarating (“Journey Across The Crystal Sea”), romantic (“Choe’s Day”) and darkly foreboding (“Coming Of The North Wind”). The music’s folk connections remain ambiguous. Is that traces of Anglo-Irish folk melodies we hear embedded in the mix? Or has Mark created this pictorial language largely on his own? And what of his jazz roots? It’s all rather difficult to tell, but after years of Celtic-themed ambient and new age releases The Standing Stones Of Callanish still possesses the evocative power of a truly definitive work.

So definitive, in fact, that Mark’s several other Celtic-themed releases like Land Of Merlin (1990) pale in comparison. Far better is Alhambra (1992). Turning from Britain to the heritage and melodies of Moorish Spain he delivers another magnificently evocative set, this time enhancing his trademark keyboard washes with touches of trumpet, classical guitar and a sprinkling of light percussion. Regal, mysterious, and blessed with moments of pure rapture - notably “Glory Of Spain” - you will be moved.

By 1993 Mark had formed his own label White Cloud - since sold to classical label Naxos - as both an outlet for both his own music and a roster of other artists. The pick of the bunch from his fairly prolific 90's period is A Sunday In Autumn (1994) on which he paints fascinatingly vivid pictures of a day spent in New York; firstly upstate in the idyllic countryside of New England, then on the streets of New York City. Piano and brass make a telling impression on tracks like “Sunday Morning” and “The City, the Bag Lady and the Snow”, the latter featuring some exquisitely phrased flugelhorn by local legend Jacki Coon. It exudes a more jazzy ambience than the earlier albums and has with a distinctly urban feel, and like all good impressionists Mark rarely resorts to sugary sentiment to make his point.

Since the 90's, there has only been one more ambient release from Mark but it's a very good one indeed. The Middle Eastern desert exotica of Sand (2008) is a surprising and welcome collaboration with fellow New Zealander David Parsons, a veteran ambient artist whose music, like Mark's, is renown for its exceptional sense of place. Eastern drones and rhythms with electronic production is well-worn territory to be sure, but Mark and Parsons bring a potency and textural richness to Sand that elevates it well above typical exotic chillout fare.

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