Back to his roots

Seasoned producer and Windham Hill Records founder credits Palo Alto for lighting his musical fire

Up in the mountains of Windham County, Vt., Will Ackerman's Imaginary Road Studios has a fine Steinway and sweeping views. There, the guitarist and founder of Windham Hill Records finds fulfillment in producing a variety of acoustic music, much of it meditative and bright.

But when Ackerman thinks about his own musical roots, he sees not the autumn colors of the Northeast but the Stanford hills and the fields that surrounded Palo Alto's College Terrace neighborhood when he was growing up there.

Born in 1949, Ackerman lived in Palo Alto for the first 13 years of his life. That's where he started playing guitar, and where he fell for folk and acoustic sounds. As a kid, he would ride his bike over to the old Stanford student union to watch musicians playing there. The crowds could be small, but some of the names were about to be big. "I watched the Kingston Trio come up," he said in an interview.

The trio's Dave Guard went to Stanford, and Ackerman regularly watched the group try out new material on campus. By the time the trio did a benefit concert up at the Masonic Auditorium in San Francisco, Ackerman was such a "crazy fan" that one of the managers got him a box seat, he said. He was 12.

Even before that, when he was small, a favorite sitter (whom everyone called "the beatnik babysitter") would take him to downtown Palo Alto to see Joan Baez sing at an underground coffee house in downtown Palo Alto. The city was a major hub of folk music then, Ackerman recalled. "That was what really colored my early life and got me into guitar."

Next month, Ackerman will head west to return to his Peninsula roots. On Dec. 7, he's set to perform at the Unity Palo Alto church at a CD-release party for Marin guitarist Shambhu. Ackerman co-produced Shambhu's new record, "Dreaming of Now."

Shambhu describes his sound as world music or, like Ackerman's music, contemporary instrumental. (Ackerman is not fond of the term "New Age.") "Dreaming of Now," Shambhu wrote in a press release, is also meant to be inspiring.

"I wrote 'Dreaming of Now' as a feeling of how the world could be, right now imagining a peaceful planet in this very moment with music that aims to touch the perfection, beauty and diversity that we are as a people and a global home," he said.

The album also shows Shambhu's versatility, Ackerman said. "He's done serious rock music, he's done electric, he's done real jazz, and is a really fine player and has a tremendous range," he said. "The record we just did is probably more jazz-influenced than anything I've been involved with in a long time."

Most of the music Ackerman produces has a focus on melody and harmony, and is typically acoustic. "With Shambhu you also have real rhythm and interesting time signatures," he said. "It's adventuresome. It was such great fun to produce."

As for Ackerman, he says his role at the Dec. 7 concert will be as guest musician to Shambhu's main act: playing three or four songs, and a duet or two with Shambhu. Listeners will probably hear at least one of Ackerman's most popular songs, like "The Bricklayer's Beautiful Daughter," from his 2008 album "Meditations."

"I haven't done a new record in many years, although I feel the stirrings of it now," Ackerman said.

A new Ackerman recording would become part of an ample and popular collection. The platinum-selling artist has released 14 albums of his lyrical, graceful work, going back to the 1976 recording "In Search of the Turtle's Navel." His 2004 album "Returning" won a Grammy Award for Best New Age Album, and "Meditations," "Hearing Voices" (2001) and "Sound of Wind Driven Rain" (1998) were also nominated for Grammys. His guitar sometimes blends with strings, horns and other sounds, or even electric bass or subtle vocals.

Ackerman has also published a book, "The Will Ackerman Collection," with 14 songs transcribed note for note.

Earlier this year, Ackerman also netted the Lifetime Achievement Award, among other honors, at the ZMR Music Awards in New Orleans. The Zone Music Reporter is a website that monitors radio airplay of acoustic instrumental, world, ambient and other genres.

Ackerman had no idea he was up for the award until he saw his picture up on the screen at the ceremony, along with videos of friends and colleagues singing his praises, he said. "I just burst into tears. It was so lovely."

Throughout his career, some elements of Ackerman's music have remained the same: an emphasis on melody, the use of a variety of tunings. It's an approach that's served him well. After growing up in Palo Alto, he attended Stanford for a time, then worked as a homebuilder. But he continued to play the guitar and write songs, and after he released "In Search of the Turtle's Navel" to acclaim, he founded Windham Hill Records.

Well-known Windham Hill artists included George Winston, Alex de Grassi and Michael Hedges, and Ackerman's own recordings found success. But he ultimately decided to leave life as a record-label executive, moving to Vermont and building Imaginary Road Studios in 1993, continuing to write and record his own songs while bringing others' visions to vinyl.

Many musicians who have worked with Ackerman the producer have high praise. "Will simply brings you to heights you'd never reach alone, and guides you to performances you never knew you had inside," said Jeff Oster, a maker of ambient flugelhorn music who played on "Dreaming of Now" and will be among the performers in Palo Alto on Dec. 7.

Ackerman has found it inspiring and sometimes a little daunting being surrounded by top musicians with different skill sets. In the end, he's at peace with his musical vision.

"I'm a very clean player, but I'm not the technical player that de Grassi is or the innovator that Michael Hedges was," he said. "It's not about gymnastics. It really is all about heart."

Over the years, Ackerman has played venues large and dramatic, from Carnegie Hall to the Hollywood Bowl to the open-air Red Rocks Amphitheatre near Denver, where one night Ackerman, Hedges and the group Shadowfax had the lights turned off to play under a full moon. These days he prefers intimate house concerts that remind him of his early days.

Clearly, the joy of connecting closely with his audiences remains one of the highlights of Ackerman's life as a musician. He periodically writes essays that he hopes to turn into a book, and one of the essays, posted on his website, speaks of his gratitude to his listeners.

"People have written me over the years saying how much my music has mattered to their lives ... There are the stories of how my music helped them through heartbreak and loneliness," he wrote.

"Then there are the ones that tell me that a husband, wife, father or mother, brother or sister chose to listen to my music as they left this earth. There is no honor that could ever fall to someone more beautiful than this and I have tears in my eyes as I write this. I have been lucky."

Info: The CD-release concert, put on by East West Bookstore, goes from 7 to 9 p.m. Dec. 7 at Unity Palo Alto, 3391 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets are $25 in advance and $30 at the door. Go to eastwest.com or call 650-988-9800.


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