Windham Hill Records

Although some of it’s artists also used electronics, the American label Windham Hill pioneered new acoustic music to such an extent that during its peak years the label became a genre in itself. No need, it seems, to use words like folksy, melodic and moody: it’s just Windham Hill.

label:
Windham Hill Records

country of origin:
USA

style(s):
New acoustic, new folk, ambient, jazz, cinematic

decades active:
70's - 00's

essential compilations:

  • Windham Hill: The First 10 Years (1990)
  • Sanctuary: 20 Years Of Windham Hill (1996)

Reviewed by Mike G

Although some of its artists also used electronics, the American label Windham Hill pioneered new acoustic music to such an extent that during its peak years the label became a genre in itself. No need, it seems, to use words like folksy, melodic and moody: it’s just Windham Hill.

Certainly, founder/artist William Ackerman always detested the other tag that became synonymous with his label: new age. But the label's output did have that post-Age Of Aquarius feel about it, appealing as it did to an affluent generation that had left behind joss sticks for child-rearing but still needs something to sooth frazzled nerves in a stressful world. A review in Q Magazine summed it up thus: "As with Mike Oldfield's runaway successes 20 years ago, Windham Hill music is peaceful, folksy, melodic, anti-tech, an evocation of far horizons, untroubled wildlife, ley-lines and log cabins, but this time to cover the sound of your car being broken into outside." Ouch. And that's coming from a fan.

But removed from this questionable cultural context, the best Windham Hill material stands proud on its own terms. During the 70's and 80's the label evolved a quite wonderful brand of pristine, neoclassical impressionism that at best is simultaneously relaxing and engaging. There's the gorgeous pastoral guitar of Ackerman; the thoughtful, melodic piano solos of George Winston and Philip Aeberg; and the ethno-ambient soundscapes of trumpeter and synthesist Mark Isham. The label's jazzier ensemble output (Scott Cossu, Shadowfax) is usually best ignored - jazz channeled via Windham Hill's mannered, restrained sensibilities too often ended up bloodless and bland.

Over three decades the label released over 50 various-artist compilations - an enormous number - yet in truth much of the label’s best output can be found on a handful of original artist albums by Ackerman, Winston, Michael Hedges and a number of others. Regardless, The First 10 Years (1990) and 20 Years of Windham Hill (1996) do make excellent introductions. They score points as much for their enormous coverage as for their consistent quality. They're intelligently compiled with excellent sleeve notes and guaranteed to sort out pretty quickly whether or not Windham Hill has anything for your tastes.

Windham Hill's peak years are now well behind it and no more new material has appeared since 2004. Ackerman and his co-founder sold the label by the mid 90's, and under the watchful eye of corporate daddy BMG/Sony the label rarely came up with anything more than cosy adult-alternative pop and light jazz confections.

Share this:
Share