For their third recording as a duo, Jeff Johnson and Phil Keaggy have created a contemporary instrumental journey inspired by Cappadocia, a visually spectacular area in central Turkey also known over the past several thousand years as a place of great spirituality. The colorful soil there eroded over the millennia leaving steep cliffs and tall rock spires known as fairy chimneys, and into that rock ancient inhabitants carved houses, churches and even entire communities sometimes partially exposed and other times entirely underground.
According to Jeff Johnson, “My wife and I were invited by friends to travel to Cappadocia in 2017. The first morning we were there we went into a valley full of underground wonders. One particular entry had a wooden bridge and then a stairway inside that took us up to a carved-out basilica within the hillside with a rose-shaped window where the sun’s rays filtered in illuminating the many columns and chambers that made up the church. I was completely overwhelmed by this hidden world. The acoustics were amazing. We sang, prayed and sat silently for a couple of hours as we marveled at this extraordinary place and what had gone into creating it.”
Upon his return, Johnson contacted one of his musical collaborators, Phil Keaggy, and told him of the journey. Their conversation led them to record a musical tribute to Cappadocia. “I love the spirituality associated with Cappadocia,” states Keaggy. It was this spiritual component of Cappadocia that most inspired Keaggy and Johnson who have both released numerous albums reflecting their mutual Christian faith. The two had formerly met and worked together at Laity Lodge, a Christian spiritual retreat center on the Frio River in Texas.
From very early times, Cappadocia became a haven for Christians fleeing persecution and seeking a place to worship without outside interference amongst the area’s dry plains, deep wadis and eroded badlands. The Apostle Peter, in an early letter attributed to him, greeted those hidden “elect exiles.” Later, in the 4th Century, the Cappadocian pastor and theologian Gregory of Nyssa wrote extensively contributing to the development of Christian philosophy. Throughout this early history, hundreds of cave churches were created and many still contain remnants of the stunning wall frescoes attesting to the spiritual passion of those long-ago religious congregations.
Johnson and Keaggy’s new recording conveys the deep spirituality that emanates from that region, and also seeks to spotlight the history, geography and geological beauty. The duo presents it as exquisite, delicate, new age music, with world music inflections, to paint their musical portrait. Phil Keaggy, a master of acoustic and electric guitars, utilizes a wide variety on this recording including classical and Spanish-style acoustics, a Turkish chumbus, a 12-string acoustic, Les Paul and Zion electrics among others, fretless bass, ukulele and Ebow. Keyboardist Jeff Johnson moves from piano to synthesizers to layer the music with additional textures that include the sounds of percussion, strings and flute. Both musicians also incorporated occasional very-subtle wordless vocalizations in the background.
The eight compositions on Cappadocia include the title tune with its mid-Eastern sounds, “Valley of Swords and Roses” (so-named for two of the mysterious valleys that can be explored), and “Chapel of Stone” (inspired by the first carved-out-of-rock church that Johnson entered). The title of “Parousia (A Presence)” has an additional meaning that connotes “a second coming.” There also is a double-meaning in “That Which Is Hidden” which refers to both the hidden aspects of God as well as the hidden communities and churches in Cappadocia. According to Johnson, “The title of ‘Quo Vadis (Where Are You Going?)’ comes from Peter’s question to Jesus during the Last Supper.” Keaggy says about the piece, “This is a real joyful fusion of Eastern Europe meeting Spanish and Western pop.” Johnson says, “The tune ‘Dove Visions’ refers to the Dove Valley in Cappadocia as well as idea that in the scriptures the Holy Spirit sometimes takes the form of a dove.” The album ends with “Trinity.” States Johnson, “The writings of the early Cappadocian theologians were steeped in ideas about the mystical union of the Christian idea of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. These writers emphasized that love is at the heart of the Trinitarian union. And it’s this love, with all of its beauty and cause for wonder, that is behind the music that Phil and I create.”
The music on Cappadocia continues the same gentle, yet exhilarating musical stylings that Jeff Johnson and Phil Keaggy first exhibited on their earlier and highly-successful duo albums — Frio Suite (2009) and Watersky (2012). Both musicians have lengthy and illustrious careers as solo recording artists as well as making albums with a variety of others.
Phil Keaggy, one of the world’s most acclaimed and admired guitarists, first started playing when he was ten-years-old. He took to the national stage with his touring rock band Glass Harp that recorded seven studio albums (some as reunion projects several decades later) and a live at Carnegie Hall disc. When Keaggy went solo, he decided to record music reflecting his Christian beliefs resulting in the album What A Day in 1973. His first instrumental album, The Master and the Musician came five years later. Since then he has recorded about five-dozen albums (some with vocals and some all-instrumental, some for the Christian music industry and some not geared specifically for that market). He has toured internationally, produced other musicians and been a session player in Nashville.
Christian music is recognized annually with the Dove Awards, and Keaggy has been nominated for and has won numerous Dove Awards. For many years he dominated the “Instrumental Record” category winning for The Wind and The Wheat, Invention, Acoustic Sketches, Majesty and Wonder and Lights of Madrid. Keaggy, for three years in a row, was voted one of the top fingerstyle guitarists in the world by Guitar Player magazine readers. Some of his collaborations have been recordings with Randy Stonehill, Mike Pachelli, Wes King, Scott Dente, Kyle Jones, Jack Giering and John Sferra.
Johnson’s early work was vocal progressive-rock, but his sound evolved to focus more on jazz, new age, contemporary instrumental, contemplative-spiritual and Celtic styles. “I started writing songs in 1976 when I was just a teenager. I was influenced and intrigued by great literature, poetry and art.” Johnson’s solo projects include Broken, Gazing, Journey Prayers, Standing Still, The Memory Tree and A Thin Silence. Johnson has collaborated over the years with Wendy Goodwin, Janet Marie Chvatal, David Friesen, Dave Hagelganz, Mark Schulman, Derri Daugherty, Sandy Simpson, the Coran Deo Ensemble, John Fitzpatrick, Jozef Luptak, Dallas McKennon and Scott Cairns. Johnson also creates music for and leads Selah contemplative worship services.
One of Johnson’s most productive on-going collaborations has been making modern Celtic music with Irish flutist Brian Dunning. They are well-known for their recordings Eirlandia, Songs from Albion Vols. 1-3, King Raven Vols. 1-3, Byzantium, Patrick, The Bard and The Warrior, Prayers of St. Brendan – The Journey Home, A Quiet Knowing, A Quiet Knowing Christmas, Stars In The Morning East, The Katurran Odyssey, The Enduring Story, Winterfold, Under The Wonder Sky and If I Do Not Remember…, among others. Their music also was featured in the Martin Scorcese film Gangs of New York.
“Throughout my musical career I have enjoyed making recordings that are ‘concept based’ like Cappadocia,” explains Johnson. “I enjoy the experience of carefully listening to an entire album in one sitting, and taking the journey that the artist created. I still believe that modern audiences would enjoy the full album experience if more of them gave it a chance.”
CDs and digital download tracks from Cappadocia (on the Ark Music label) and other recordings by the duo (as well as dozens of Jeff Johnson solo albums and his additional collaborations) are available at the label’s website (ArkMusic.com) as well as online sales sites such as Bandcamp, CDbaby, Amazon, iTunes, eMusic and many others. Solo and collaborative recordings featuring Phil Keaggy are available on a variety of record labels, but many are available at his website (philkeaggy.com).