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‘Winter’s Solstice’ on Holiday Calendar

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Will Ackerman didn’t intend to found a new genre of music when he started Windham Hill Records in 1976--least of all music that became known as “New Age,” with its spacey, flaky connotations of Shirley MacLaine, crystals and pyramids.

“I think my most-quoted response to that whole concept of ‘New Age’ was, ‘If I ever found the guy who coined it, I’d nail his head to the wall,’ ” laughed Ackerman, whose label has since grown to include more than 100 titles, ranging from the ethereal instrumental music known as “New Age” to alternative rock and jazz.

Though he doesn’t subscribe to any New Age philosophies or wisdom, Ackerman, 42, seems to have an unintentional wish to prolong his own agony. Why else would he select the name “Winter’s Solstice” for Windham Hill’s recorded collections of holiday music and related tours--the latest of which stops at Copley Symphony Hall on Thursday.

“I take credit for the concept,” Ackerman confessed. “At home at Christmas, I listen to my high school Christmas vespers record, Gregorian chants, John Fahey’s ‘New Possibility.’ I got to thinking, each year I’d like another record, not playing ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ but capturing the mood of the season.”

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The result is three volumes of “Winter’s Solstice” music and accompanying tours featuring Windham Hill artists.

This year’s five-week “Winter’s Solstice Tour"--which opened in Mobile, Ala., on Nov. 19--features three acts that all contributed to “A Winter’s Solstice III,” released last year. Much as Ackerman may resent the “New Age” tag, all three artists are lumped together under that heading in music stores, despite the musicians’ protests that their music is more varied.

Violinist Billy Oskay, 44, co-founder of the group Nightnoise, says the group plays “Irish-flavored jazz chamber music.” Singer-pianist Barbara Higbie’s melancholy warbling calls to mind Joni Mitchell. Pianist Philip Aaberg, who has backed Peter Gabriel, John Hiatt and Maria Muldaur, ambles easily from slow, dreamy mood pieces to up-tempo boogie woogie.

One attraction of the “Winter’s Solstice” show is that it breaks with the usual concert format. Instead of each group just doing its own set, the musicians also come together in various combinations. The groups team up to open the show with an Irish Christmas carol and three or four other tunes before breaking into a series of duos and trios.

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“It’s definitely a celebratory kind of a show,” Higbie said. “I really enjoy it for that reason. The audiences seem to be in a very up mood. About a third of the music is oriented toward the holiday season.”

Higbie, 33, was a well-known Windham Hill artist as a member of the group Montreux before she made her solo debut with the release of “Signs of Life” last year. Moving into the spotlight, she entered unfamiliar territory.

“It was terrifying,” Higbie said. “I think I put off doing it for a long time, especially singing, because I find it very revealing, and I felt very exposed. The last year has been really exciting. Every show I do, I learn so much. I have a theory in life that you should do the things you’re most afraid of.”

On this tour, Higbie sings and plays piano and synthesizer, as well as making a cameo appearance on penny whistle with Nightnoise.

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She was trained as a classical pianist in Speedway, Ind., but, when she was 13, her family moved to Ghana for two years. She returned to Africa on an academic fellowship in 1979 and counts the communal African musical spirit and American bluegrass as influences.

During the 1980s, she emerged as a leading Bay Area musician as a member of Montreux, which earned a Grammy nomination for its 1987 album “Sign Language.”

Higbie’s songs function as a sort of musical therapy, frankly airing her innermost thoughts and emotions on relationships, also expressing her sincere commitment to ecology and peace through songs such as “Someday,” inspired by a 1988 visit to El Salvador. Higbie expects her next album, to be recorded next year, to head in a jazzier direction.

Nightnoise is a cross-cultural collaboration started in 1984 by violinist Billy Oskay and Dublin guitarist Micheal O Domhnaill. The two made a studio album in 1984, and, when they decided to tour, found the music too complex for two. So they added Domhnaill’s sister, Triona, on keyboards, whistle, accordion and vocals, and another Irish musician, Brian Dunning, on flute.

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Oskay has a master’s degree in violin and chamber music from Ball State University in Indiana, but he draws on a range of resources.

“I was very influenced, as a teen-ager, by the Beatles, and I was moonlighting playing folk music, American Appalachian fiddle, and some blues while I was in music school. I probably listened equally to classical, jazz and rock. I was blown away by (violinist) Jean Luc Ponty, and I played in a band that was emulating the quintet of the Hot Club of France, imitating (violinist) Stephane Grappelli with Django Reinhardt.”

Aaberg continues the Windham Hill tradition of warm, melodic piano albums that began with George Winston, who remains the label’s best-selling artist. But Aaberg’s sound is distinctive because of the driving, boogie woogie side of his playing--at times, he sounds like a strange marriage of Keith Jarrett and Jelly Roll Morton.

Perhaps one reason these artists don’t feel compelled to perform rosters of their hits on this tour is that none has new releases, and they are therefore free of promotional pressures. Higbie’s last album is more than a year old, Nightnoise’s “The Parting Tide” also came out last year, and Aaberg’s “Upright” was released in 1989.

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Without that heavy pressure to push their own music, the artists can explore collaborations. Traveling together during the tour, they have developed a family-like camaraderie that carries over to the stage, Oskay said.

Windham Hill has enjoyed tremendous success with its three “Winter’s Solstice” releases. The first two volumes, released in 1985 and 1988, have sold more than a million copies each, and the third is approaching 500,000.

As for label founder Ackerman, he has artistic horizons that extend well beyond the boundaries of Windham Hill.

A new independent venture of his is a spoken-word label called Gang of Seven that will present such artists as Spalding Gray, Peter Mathiessen, Tom Bodett and Ackerman himself.

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And his musical preferences are also broad.

“My own tastes are fairly catholic,” he said. “The Clash, the Cure, Psychedelic Furs. Right now, School of Fish and Jane’s Addiction are bands I listen to.

“The unity that exists in the Windham Hill catalogue was less an intelligent precept than just myself involving myself in music I like. I just thought we were doing music that deserved to be heard in an era that wasn’t too thoughtful musically. Whether you want to call it contemplative is up to you.”

Thursday night’s “Winter’s Solstice” concert begins at 8 at Copley Symphony Hall. Tickets are $14.50, $18.50 and $24.50, and are available from TicketMaster outlets or the Symphony Hall box office.

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