During a recording career that spans more than 40 years, acoustic guitarist Will Ackerman has enjoyed tremendous success. As founder of—and the original artist on—the highly influential Windham Hill label (Alex de Grassi, Michael Hedges, Shadowfax, George Winston, et al), he has played on and produced Gold, Platinum, and Grammy-winning albums. As owner and creative head of Imaginary Roads Studio in rural Vermont, he has produced literally hundreds of albums—more than 80 in the past decade alone—many in the sort of modern acoustic chamber-music style that Windham Hill pioneered in its glory days (Ackerman sold his interest in the company 25 years ago). But through all those years Ackerman had never really played in a group. That has now changed with a group and album called FLOW—the name is an acronym from the names of the members: pianist/vocalist Fiona Joy, guitarist Lawrence Blatt, flugelhorn master Jeff Oster, and Ackerman.
It started as a trio record with Joy, Blatt, and Oster, with Ackerman producing (he had previously produced projects with each of them), and the guitarist’s studio partner, Tom Eaton, engineering, but it soon evolved into an actual group, with all four members contributing ideas to compositions they each brought in to record. The resulting album is a gorgeous and deeply affecting collection of sonically egalitarian instrumentals (Joy adds breathy, atmospheric vocal textures here and there) that live up to the group name—they flowbeautifully, with parts rising and falling and blending and disappearing. I’ve never cared for the “new age” label, but this music certainly qualifies, with its subtly uplifting sonorities and gently meandering musical streams. I spoke with Ackerman by phone from his studio.
It’s interesting hearing you in the context of the group. On some tracks you’re prominent, on others you’re not—the piano or flugelhorn dominate the soundscape. How did the first concerts go?
Well, it was a bit odd for me, because of course I’ve played music with other people but it’s always been my music, so all I had to do was play what I knew how to play. So it was really incredibly nerve-racking for me to be in a position where I had to fit in to something else; like, where’s my cue, what’s the key, where is this progression going? I kind of freaked out, to be honest, but I got through it fine and now I’m feeling more confident about it.
It sounds on the surface like some of it is improvised.
The basic parts are written and its got form, but then we can go far and wide with it. We all know each other and I’ve worked with them all individually. We know the skeleton, but after that it’s all very creative.
Whoever brought in the basic track is credited as the writer, so Lawrence has some pieces, Jeff has some pieces, Fiona certainly, and I do, too. Originally I thought, “OK, people are going to bring these things in and the other three of us are are going to sort of sprinkle some fairy dust over it.” And there was a point where I felt a little uneasy that my pieces were being modified as much as they were. But somewhere in there it occurred to me: “Wait a minute, you’re just going through what you put everyone else through as a producer.” These guys weren’t just sprinkling fairy dust—they were going into the DNA of the piece and fundamentally changing it. It was the first time in my entire career where anybody was going in and messing with my stuff. But after a point I was able to say, “OK, this actually is a collaboration; this isn’t fairy dust.” These things really did change in the recording, and they all became group compositions to a degree.
What do you see as the guitar’s role in this quartet?
We have two very different guitar players. Lawrence is all about rhythm, and he’s really, really good at it, and that’s not my forte; at least it’s not what I’m noted for. But Lawrence has a great locked rhythm, so that gave us something solid to hang a lot of playing on.
And I’ve gotten to the point where I’m enjoying playing lead. I think I’m getting more nuanced at it. I’ve been doing a fair amount of lead-playing on the records we produce here, and it has been fun for me. It was nice having two different guitar styles for the record, and there are a couple of pieces on there, like “Rosita and Giovanni” and “A Night in Nocelle,” that are more Will Ackerman. [Both are tunes he brought to the project.]
What guitars do we hear on the album?
My [Steve] Klein is on there, and I think a lot of the basics were done with one of my Froggy Bottom K-models that Michael Millard built for me that I call FB-3. I can’t remember exactly when it dates from but it must be 15 years old by now. He also had one that just popped out and was one of those magic guitars where everything happened right, and he brought me that one as well. So I’ve kind of got competing Froggy Bottoms—one of which I’ve lowered the action on, so I can be a little more inclined to go faster and play more lead-like stuff. I still regard the Froggy K-models as my principal recording instruments.
There’s a long history of Michael making something that works for me sonically and in terms of everything about it. He keeps fine-tuning that, and when he finds one that he thinks is an improvement over the one that existed previously, he brings it to me. But they’re all similar, so making a transition to a new instrument is often determined by what it offers sound-wise: a little more bass on this one, a little more high-end on that one. I can audition a new piece on the different guitars and figure out which one I like best for it, so it gives me a lot of flexibility and range.
How about the Klein?
I have a Steve Klein from way back—I think it was Michael Hedges who turned me on to Steve. I’ve got one of his jumbos that I use a lot for lead that is a big part of what I do when I play live now, too. If I’m doing lead, I pretty much always pick up the Klein; I see it as a lead instrument.
Just last week, though, I had one of my Froggys modified further by Tucker Barrett, a world-class guy who happens to be in town. He’s brought one of my Froggy’s down to pretty much the same action that the Klein has. There’s a rounder bottom sound to the Froggy—I’m not saying the Klein doesn’t have a good bottom end, but I don’t think it goes as deep as the Froggy—so now I’ve modified one of the Froggys to have both the bottom end and that quick lead possibility, too.
The other thing in my arsenal, though I don’t think I played it on FLOW, is a little Martin parlor guitar—I’m not even sure what model it is—that Michael Hedges gave to me. It was something he had in his studio in Mendocino when I was up there working with him on something. I saw this guitar leaning against a wall, picked it up, and started fooling around on it, and Michael said, “Oh, God, I haven’t been able to figure out what to do with that”—which was obviously the biggest pile of rubbish in the world! [Laughs]. A little later, he came out here to Vermont to do some promotional stuff for BMG [who had bought Windham Hill], and I can remember sitting out on a pine knoll with him one afternoon and him saying to me, “I know you’ve always wanted to do Aerial Boundaries II[Aerial Boundaries was Hedges’ best-known album], and I’m ready to do it.” I was so happy, I couldn’t wait to do it! Then he left for the Boston airport very early one morning, and when I woke up, the little parlor guitar was sitting on the front porch of the house. It was typical of him. He didn’t make a big deal of it; he had had it with him the whole time he was here but didn’t tell me. And he just left it here for me. When Michael passed away two weeks later, his gift became incredibly meaningful to me. To this day I never know which night I’ll break into tears playing his parlor guitar in concert.
What were you playing on the early Windham Hill albums?
The very early records were on my Kelly Johnson. To my knowledge, that was the only guitar he ever made. He was sort of in the community that was populated by a lot of the guys who were in the theater department at Stanford, where I was writing music for theater productions. I think he just got it into his head to make a guitar for me. I think he had some woodworking experience, so he delivered this guitar. I think the first two records were heavily on his instruments. I still have it in the back room here. It’s hilarious—there are places on the guitar where he literally forgot there was supposed to be a binding there. But it was a great-sounding instrument. The instrument standing upright on It Takes a Year was Kelly’s guitar.
Listen to Flow play Will Ackerman’s “A Night In Nocelle”: