Review from New Age Reporter:
In the liner notes, Omar Akram states that he hopes his music can act as an international language that crosses cultural barriers, an admirable goal to be sure. If this CD finds its way into the hands of people who enjoy an assortment of uptempo and relaxed music, blending ethnic (primarily Mediterranean and Middle Eastern) influences with contemporary jazz, electronica, and new age elements, then Akram’s hopes will almost certainly be fulfilled.
Comparing favorably to such well-regarded works as Chris Spheeris’ Culture and Eros or Shahin and Sepehr’s, Secret Journey features pianist and keyboard player Akram joined by acoustic guitarists Ardeshir Farah and Ramon Stagnaro, as well as Gregg Karukas (keyboards, drum and percussion programming), Pedro Eustache (flute, duduke, Persian ney flute), Ron Wagner (ethnic percussion), and the always-in-demand violinist Charlie Bisharat (who graces nearly every song). The CD’s twelve tracks are all ensemble pieces, the musicians either playing together in harmony, or taking turns soloing and providing skillful back-up. The mix and production of the CD (by Karukas) are textbook, especially where the drums, beats and percussion are placed in the mix. It’s this stressing of the lead melody (whoever is playing it) over rhythm and accompaniment that gives the album its perfect sense of balance. While Akram’s piano playing dominates the recording, he’s never overbearing or in your face, instead sharing the spotlight repeatedly with other musicians repeatedly.
As stated earlier, the music integrates world fusion elements (rhythms and musical signatures) with the jazz, new age and even electronica genres. If you are familiar with the artists mentioned earlier, or perhaps pianist Armen Chakmakian, they are good reference points. While I think the album is generally uptempo, some cuts are laid-back or gentle, such as the closing “Angel of Hope” (a tender and romantic, yet slightly mournful track featuring only Akram’s piano and Bisharat’s violin and some modest synth strings). The majority of songs on the CD will put a smile on your face and set your feet a tapping or, if you listen while driving, may inspire you to nudge that speedometer up a bit. “Run Away With Me,” the opening cut, starts off slowly with jazzy piano and muted hand drums, before cranking it up a notch with some subdued techno-ish dance beats and an elevated piano tempo along with some swaying violin from Bisharat and some tasty licks from Stagnaro’s guitar. “Secret Journey” begins with haunting duduke, and mysterious piano and guitar (all sounding solidly Mediterranean). Like the first track, things kick into a higher gear with hand percussion and some electronica rhythms, along with an infusion of additional drama and passion from piano and violin. This song evokes the same sexy liveliness that the previously mentioned e (from Shahin and Sepehr) has in abundance. Another song I particularly enjoyed was “Caravan,” one of the higher energy tunes here and featuring great integration of contemporary electronica and jazz fusion elements with more traditional instrumentation and rhythms.
What it all comes down to is that this CD celebrates music in its many forms, regardless of culture, ethnicity, or locale. Whether the sweeping drama of the ballad “Shimmering Star,” the bubbly effervescence of “Gypsy Spirit” or the sultry sensuality of “Whispers in the Moonlight,” Secret Journey is your ticket to almost an hour of expertly crafted music by musicians at their artistic peak, led by pianist/keyboardist Akram. I recommend the recording to musically-inclined travelers, armchair, virtual, or real, everywhere.
New Age Reporter
Secret Journey review on Thecelebritycafe.com
Omar Akram’s Secret Journey is a record that embodies this artist’s numerous musical abilities and influences. The son of a United Nations diplomat, he traveled around the world to foreign realms like Afghanistan, France and the Czech Republic. He cultivated these experiences and uses them to wield a baroque tapestry of melodies that will calm and soothe listeners’ souls.
“Nomadic Rhapsody” has an upbeat feel to it in the intro, and Akram states this song seizes the legacy of his Afghani ancestors. There is quick guitar play along with percussion that has an indigenous vibe, cementing the inherited rhythm of the song. Akram also utilizes what is called a duduk, which is a double-reed woodwind instrument of Armenian descent.
On “Gypsy Spirit,” subdued nature sounds flood the intro, as relaxing percussion play gently beats away. Balanced and skilled grand piano work takes over, as Akram taps away building up to a high-powered crescendo.
“Seven Secrets ” begins with a magical tone as chimes wistfully engage listeners right off. Of this song, Akram says he was compelled by ancient architecture such as the Great Pyramids and the other Seven Wonders of the World. In this song, Akram yearns to snare the mislaid understanding of generations gone by and bring those secrets back into the light for all to rejoice in, through music.
Secret Journey, from Omar Akram, is a stunning compilation of jazz and new world influences. His last release, “Free as a Bird,” placed Akram high atop the musical mountain and with this album, listeners will ache to be a passenger on his Secret Journey.
Reviewer: Sari N, Kent
Reviewer’s Rating: 9.5
Secret Journey by Omar Akram reviewed by Ken Mowery
From the opening song with its delightfully intricate yet understandable melody, to the profoundly contemplative final notes of “Angel of Hope”, this 12 track recording accomplishes what its enchanting title promises. It transports listeners into a kaleidoscopically aural world that is sensually vibrant, introspective and diverse.
“Secret Journey” is a feat made possible by the seasoned composing and arranging acumen of Omar Akram and Gregg Karukas artfully united with world class musicianship on a recording that is skillfully produced, recorded, mixed and mastered.
The transcendent aspirations of “Secret Journey” are clearly announced in the mystically mysterious opening measures of “Run Away With Me”. Omar Akram’s expressive piano technique nicely states the musical theme over perfectly proportioned world beat, ethnic percussion played by Ron Wagner. The arrangement builds to a driving climax before dropping back into the subtler rhythmic groove of the opening.
Excellent acoustic guitar work by Ramon Stagnaro and the remarkably fluid violin of Charlie Bisharat provide melodic, rhythmic and harmonic contrast to the dynamic contour of the composition. Bisharat and either Stagnaro or guitarist, Ardeshir Farah play opposite Omar’s piano on every song. This pleasantly noticeable pattern could conceivably seem a bit trite in the end, however sensitive listeners should appreciate the overall effect as “the sound” or “feel” aptly pursued by the composer. There is a sense in which this sound is the journey”.
There is a predominantly Latin feel to “Secret Journey”, although judicious use of a variety of percussion instruments helps to offset any homogeneity. Omar makes skillful and timely use of this technique on tracks such as, “Stargazers”, which comes at the halfway point offering subtle nuances of variety to the CD’s sonic palette. In addition, Pedro Eustache plays a variety of wind instruments, which adds yet another dimension to the album’s tapestry. Eustache is featured on “Whispers In The Moonlight” and provides his marvelous coloration numerously in the other songs on the CD.
Omar’s piano technique flows seamlessly between solo instrument charged with melodic dominance to accompaniment and rhythmic support. His compositions as well as his style of playing leave amble room for complex and stellar instrumentation and performance by other musicians. This serves to elevate “Secret Journey” beyond the realm of the ordinary and into the stellar heights of significance. This is an important work from a rising composer who has much to say and who has the vocabulary to say it well. “Secret Journey” is a must have addition to any self respecting music collection.
Solo Piano Publications review of ” Secret Journey” (2007)
After Omar’s last release, Free As A Bird, this musician became a force to be reckoned with. Secret Journey gives us the one-two combination hit that reflects a musician that is in full stride creating compositions laced with unbridled passion and poised grace. Rooted in world themes and layered in smooth jazz and new age influences, Omar’s music has become distinct yet highly accessible. This album has all the ingredients to be not only a chart topper but also a critic’s darling for 2007.
Returning musicians from Omar’s prior success story include violinist Charlie Bisharat, guitarist Ramon Stagnaro, and on the wind instruments Pedro Eustache. New musicians on board are Ardeshir Farah on guitar and Ron Wagner on ethnic percussion. Most importantly there is Gregg Karukas on drums and behind the production board bringing life, warmth and immaculate detail propelling us on Omar’s Secret Journey.
Instrumentals always have to overcome the lack of lyrics to make their story strong and distinct. But every now and then there are certain songs that are so powerful visually that words can be unspoken. Who remembers David Foster’s tearful “Love Theme From St. Elmos’ Fire” or Yanni’s optimistic “Everglade Run”? As such, Omar’s Secret Journey begins with such a song courtesy of “Run Away With Me” that would add elements from both (mostly the former), slowly building in detail and pace that by the time you get to the chorus your toe will be tapping and your pulse racing. Utterly uplifting and fluid this particular song has the ingredients of a hit single. Turn this powerhouse up!
So how do you reduplicate “Run Away With Me”? You don’t, as Omar shifts gears with his mid-paced moody yet exotic title track emphasizing the mystical world with an off beat bass line that will vibrate your soul. Charlie Bisharat is prominent and as always and does a stellar job in bringing style and elegance to the composition.
The mid tempo melancholy themes are prominent throughout the album but always trimmed in hope and optimism as reflected by tracks such as the Yanni influenced “Whispers In The Moonlight” and the mysterious “Mirage”, this track featuring Pedro Eustache on his wind instrumentation. Intermingling with Omar on piano and Ardeshir Farah on guitar, it is a wonderful blend of West meets Middle East.
In contrast, there are a few exceptionally reflective moments which begin with the mid tempo ballad “Shimmering Star”. Once again, interaction is the name of the game this time with Omar, Bisharet and Ramon Stagnaro (on guitar) creating soft and warm musical conversation. But from an introspective point of view the album winds down with the simple yet stunning ballad “Angel Of Hope”. It is here that Omar takes the lead on his grand piano with Bisharat adding mild embellishments. With no percussion to speak of Omar brings the Secret Journey to a peaceful and tranquil end.
Omar Akram stated that “…we need to embrace aspects of each culture that make them unique and special”. Secret Journey expounds on this philosophical statement boldly integrating several musical cultures. With elements of world, new age and smooth jazz he creates a rich harmonic musical tapestry that has become synonymous with his recordings. Omar has outdone himself exceeding his exceptional Free As A Bird. If not already done, his latest masterpiece will place Omar on the elite list. From that aspect his own secret journey is over. Omar has arrived.
~ Michael Debbage, Solo Piano Publications
Wind and Wire Magazine Review of ” Free as a Bird ” (2004)
Do you remember the first time you heard music on a compact disc? What a transition it was going from the snap, crackle and pop of the vinyl “soundtrack” to the high technology of the crystal clear compact disc. It was like having your ailing eyes corrected back to 20/20 vision. This would accurately describe the transition from the Omar’s strong debut Opal Fire to the impeccable Free as a Bird. There is certainly no sophomore jinx present here. In fact, Omar has presented strong evidence to suggest that he has not just improved on his personal goals but in reality has become a major player within the Contemporary Instrumental genre.
Much like David Lanz’s 2001 release Finding Paradise, Omar has tweaked his melodic knobs and he has geared toward a New Age-Smooth Jazz merger creating music that is immediately accessible. Yet at the same time he retains that certain mystical quality that he possesses making his music always interesting. My first reaction was to place a lot of credit on the shoulders of producer Greg Karukas who coincidentally was the co producer of the previously mentioned Finding Paradise. Upon further examination, I noticed that Omar is credited for producing five of the eleven tracks. Of course, it does not hurt to have the world class violinist Charlie Bisharat, well known for his work with John Tesh, Yanni and Bradley Joseph. He brings a tremendous human warmth and emotion to the album. That said, it is a great group effort but always with Omar at the helm.
Now that I have rambled on long enough about the production and cast members what about the music I hear you asking? It is nothing short of breathtaking. At the beginning of the year I raved about the new Jim Wilson album Sanctuary and stated emphatically that the album was the lead candidate for my album of the year despite reviewing it in January. While that may still be the case at this given time, Free As A Bird is giving Wilson a run for his money. Ask me again at the end of the year. Either way these two albums will be lead candidates for such honors.
Most of the album runs at a mid tempo pace, with Bisharat appearing on no less than seven tracks. We even have jazz saxophonist Eric Marienthal appearing on “Trust Unspoken”. By the very nature of the instrumentation used, there are heavy jazz influences presenting a very musky and moody attitude. It is not as melodically sensible as the others are. Nevertheless it is a wonderful distraction. Countered with the guitar work of Ramon Stagnaro, the song is a delightful exploration into accessible jazz.
Speaking of Ramon, the man works magic on the opening title track countered with Charlie’s tearful violin endeavors. And of course Omar’s piano work is nothing short of charismatic, setting the tone and pace of the entire album that simply can do no wrong. The song brings on the vivid images of a graceful bird freely defying gravity while floating effortlessly in the winds of our atmosphere.
How about the eclectic “Falling Through The Rain”? It includes the flute work of Pedro Eustache along with Omar’s repeated chord progression bringing to mind David Lanz’s collaborations with Paul Speer back in the ’80s. Even more eclectic is the Middle Eastern-based “Beauty Unveiled” that pulsates with exoticism and passion featuring Alex Galas on the bouzouki. Comparisons to Yanni are simply unavoidable here, but considering his success this is the ultimate compliment. Such comparisons continue with the uplifting “Dancing With The Wind” as well as “Riding The Current”.
Parallels are not just derived courtesy of the more upbeat music. The utterly serene and romantic “Surrender” makes you want to live out the title and submit to the powerful emotion expressed here. Once again Bisharat and Stagnaro are impeccable on violin and guitar respectively. Clocking in close to seven minutes I could have taken even more. And it is here that Omar is clearly confident in his abilities as he gives up the spotlight to his session players. Meanwhile, reflective moments continue via the mellow madness of “Never Let Go”
So have I mentioned nearly every song? Yes, the album is that outstanding. There is not one weak link to be found. Clearly, the human factor plays a huge role in the success of this project as the label has spared no expense from art work to production to make the music real (pun fully intended). Despite all the support this is still all about the memorable melodies of Omar. If this artist is able to continue the trend set here there is no doubting that Omar will become a major icon in the world of Contemporary Instrumental music. It is this kind of impeccable music that continues to give me hope in the survival of this genre.
~ Michael Debbage, Wind and Wire
All Music Guide Review of ” Free as a Bird”
Even as Real Music kicks up its release schedule to include more Eastern meditation projects, the label has committed to more pop-minded new age artists who beautifully blend relaxing atmospheres with tight, colorful melodies and grooves. Pianist/composer Omar thanks piano legend David Lanz in his liner notes, and like Lanz has done recently, takes a radio-friendly smooth jazz sojourn on many of the tracks here. Every other track alternates between soaring, self-produced atmospheric and exotic pieces and more in-the-pocket rhythmic tunes produced by smooth jazz keyboardist Gregg Karukas (who has also produced Lanz). Working with top outside musicians (from violinist Charlie Bisharat to saxman Eric Marienthal), Omar creates a wonderfully diverse collection which allows him to remain firmly at center stage. On the title track, his sensual musings are given dreamy and elegant harmonic support from Bisharat, while other pieces involve interaction with strings and percussion (“Passage Into Midnight”) or gentle, electronic grooves. No label release would be complete without some ode to Indian instrumentation, and Omar’s nod to the Orient is the sensuous and atmospheric “Beauty Unveiled,” which begins in an ambient trance state with intermingling sitar and flute before the pianist enters and begins a more upbeat adventure. For all the lush production values, it’s Omar’s piano, beautiful in its elegance and rich in its quiet rhythmic power, that proves the most unforgettable element.
~ Johnathan Withran, All Music Guide
New Age Retailer Review of ” Free as a Bird”
Of the diverse variety of music in the retail category of New Age, none is more popular with record consumers than contemporary instrumental. For decades such popular adult pop icons as Mannheim Steamroller, Yanni, Jim Brickman, George Winston and John Tesh have dominated the Billboard New Age sales charts.
Poised to break into the elite upper echelon of artists with mainstream consumer appeal is Omar with his latest offering, Free as a Bird. Filled with engaging melodies, diverse rhythms, romance and sensual appeal, this set of compositions by classically-trained pianist Omar is laden with rich influences from his travels world wide and his exposure to music by Yanni, John Tesh, Kitaro and Jarre. Eminently pleasing and enjoyable to experience, Free As a Bird takes the listener to such musically diverse regions as European gypsy minarets of the Middle East, Spanish nightspots of Ottmar Liebert, the Greek Acropolis of Vangelis and Yanni, as well as the homelands of Tesh.
Joining Omar are several headliners in their own rights. For years, Charlie Bisharat has been a mainstay on John Tesh’s recordings and tours, as well as a soloist. Bisharat appears here as the soulful and passionate violinist. Gregg Karukas, known to millions of listeners of jazz recordings and smooth jazz radio, lends his considerable keyboard talents as well as drum and percussion programming to this finely crafted ensemble outing.
For added flavor and texture David Dial plays romantic synthesizers, Ramon Stagnaro picks an evocative Spanish guitar and Pedro Eustache floats on flute. A guest spot by the Rippingtons Eric Marienthal and his saxophone top off the album.
From the sparkling piano, crystalline keyboards and soaring violin of the opening track “Free as a Bird” to the hauntingly mystic closing band “Flight of Mystery”, Omar has produced one of the most pleasure-filled and enjoyable instrumental collections of the year. Offering a rich and sumptuous array of memorable and romantic melodies, worldly textures and exotic percussion and rhythms, this set bears repeated listening for hours of carefree satisfaction.
- Ted Cox, New Age Retailer
Solo Piano Publications ” Free as a Bird”
“Free As a Bird” is the much-anticipated follow-up to Omar’s 2002 release, “Opal Fire.” Exotic, sensual, and brimming with life, it was worth the wait! Richly arranged and orchestrated by David Dial and Gregg Karukas, real instruments replace some of the keyboards from the earlier release, and the interaction of great musicians such as violinist Charlie Bisharat (one of my all-time favorites!), Ramon Stagnaro on guitar, Gregg Karukas on keyboards and percussion, and Pedro Eustache on flute makes the music even more exciting. It is impossible to not think of Yanni’s best work when listening to Omar. International flavors and a strong, optimistic spirit ignite the upbeat pieces, and the quieter songs are full of heart and passion. Quite simply, this is a GREAT album!
There are no weak tracks on “Free As A Bird.” My favorites tend to be those that feature Charlie Bisharat, but since he is on seven of the eleven tracks, that’s most of the album! “Free” sparkles with joy and, well, freedom. “Passage Into Midnight” begins with a bittersweet melody that is introspective and questioning, but as the piece evolves, it picks up a Latin flavor and rhythm. “A Day With You” is a sweet love song. “Surrender” is a standout. Elegant and melancholy, the piano, violin, and guitar fill the haunting melody with emotion. In a word – WOW! “Riding the Current” is jazzier and practically dances out of the CD player – another favorite. “Flight Of Mystery” closes the album with a swirling ensemble piece that allows all of the musicians to soar.
“Free As A Bird” is sure to be on my Top 10 for 2004 and should bring Omar the recognition he so richly deserves. It will be available from most of the online music outlets as well as wherever Real Music releases are sold on April 27, 2004. Very highly recommended!
- Kathy Parsons, Solo Piano Publications
“Omar has succeeded in creating a musical zone of his own. He is absolutely brilliant.”
- Caroline Myss, Author of New York Times best selling books “Anatomy of the Spirit” and “Sacred Contracts”
New Age Retailer ” Free as a Bird”
Poised to break into the elite upper schelon of contemporary instrumental artists with Free as a Bird, Omar has created music laden with rich influences from his travels worldwide.
Sumptuous Romantic Melodies, worldly textures and exotic rhythms, this album bears repeated listening for hours of carefree satisfaction.
-Ted Cox, New Age Retailer
Midwest Record Recap ” Opal Fire ”
“It’s not new age, it’s not NAC, it’s not lite jazz, it’s not Jim Horner, it’s not Vangelis. A very skillful craftsman, Omar takes the best from each without taking anything from any of them and creates a keyboard driven tour de force that takes you somewhere else entirely. As comfortable as your favorite old chair but fresh as a spring breeze, these charming soundscape songs are like mini-movies for your ear. This tasty sonic treat is sure to become a treasured companion on the commute, the jogging trail or for those moments when you need to be alone and wrap your head in something de-stressing and wonderful.”
- Chris Spector, Midwest Record Recap
New Age Retailer ” Opal Fire”
“Clearly a fan of lyrical melodies that have a beginning, middle and end, Omar spins musical stories of love, loss and redemption, tales that open the heart and touch the soul… Omar plays piano and keyboards throughout Opal Fire. David Dial contributes synthesizers as well as handling the arrangements and orchestrations. For an exotic adventure with ports of call from the Caribbean to Europe to the Middle East, be sure to spend some quality time with the incendiary Opal Fire.”
- Steve Ryals, New Age Retailer
From Solo Piano Publications ” Opal Fire ”
I LOVE THIS ALBUM! I first heard Omar’s music on the Real Music compilation “Freedom to Love,” and his track, “Last Dance,” was my favorite on that album. I was really looking forward to Omar’s debut CD, and it is even better than I was hoping! A classically-trained pianist with an international upbringing (he is the son of a UN diplomat), Omar mixes acoustic piano with synthesized orchestrations, creating a sparkling musical palette with colors from all over the world. It is impossible to not compare Omar’s music to Yanni’s early work – it is full of fire and excitement as well as beauty and emotion, and the instrumentation is varied on each track. One major difference is that Omar’s piano always sings through, and he is obviously a pianist first rather than simply using the piano as one of an assortment of instruments. My favorite piece is still “Last Dance,” which grabs me every time, and stays in my head long after the CD has finished playing. It starts out with a light piano melody, and is gradually filled in with other instruments and rhythms. This is not a sad “Last Dance,” although there is a slightly bittersweet quality to the melody – the piece is really quite joyful, and I can’t get enough of it. There are no weak tracks on this album, but a few others really stand out for me. “Morning Rain” is a beautiful, gentle piece with mostly piano and guitar. The melody is simple, but so beautiful and passionate that this one sticks in my head, too. “Farewell For Now” has a classical feel when it is just the piano with background instrumentation, but then the rhythm track kicks in, bringing it right back to the 21st century and giving it a big grin. “Innocence Lost” is one of the few sad tracks, but demonstrates Omar’s range of playing and composing styles – just gorgeous! “Gypsy Woman” is big and noisy in parts more subdued in others, and is full of fun. It’s hard to believe that the guitar parts are synth. “Longing” is a quiet piece, mostly piano and strings, and full of passion – again compellingly beautiful. “Opal Fire” is definitely one of my “top 5″ favorite albums for the year so far, and I can’t wait to hear more from this incredibly gifted artist. I give “Opal Fire” my highest recommendation.
From Solo Piano Publications, October 9, 2002
Reviewer: Kathy Parsons from Hercules, CA United States