Will Ackerman: Guitar Picker, Windham Hill, New Age and More

If you like softer, sophisticated solo guitar songs, with occasional accompaniment, William Ackerman is your player. I first heard him 40 years ago and have followed him ever since.

There was not really a musical category for this mellow, sophisticated sound. Eventually, it was called New Age, which grew to become not much of a compliment. Ackerman was at the center of this musical genre as he launched Windham Hill Records to release his and other albums that were conveniently dumped into this musical bucket.

Windham Hill was formed in 1976 by Ackerman and his girlfriend and later wife, Anne Robinson. Ackerman began by borrowing money to record an album of him own acoustic guitar music. He sent copies to radio stations and peddled copies at coffee shops, bookstores and health food restaurants. During the first years, he worked construction as the label slowly grew, with what he says was a pivotal moment when pianist George Winston joined the label. His Autumn became an instant classic and has been a steady seller ever since. Ackerman negotiated a distribution deal with A&M Records, eventually selling to BMG in the early 1990s.

One of the things that made Windham Hill records so special was the state of the art recording technology used by Ackerman and the heavy, quality vinyl pressing process. The mainly acoustic instruments sounded warm and intimate. Robinson handled the artistic album cover design and graphics. Windham Hill focused on fewer unit, but higher quality.

The first of his albums I purchased was Passage (1981), which was his fourth album. I immediately fell in love with his quiet, but inventive style of acoustic playing. These were reflective and moving instrumental songs. I told everyone about Windham Hill artists. I bought the George Winston albums and later Nightnoise, Alex DeGrassi, Michael Hedges, Darol Anger, Mike Marshall, Mícheál Ó Domhnaill, Shadowfax, Liz Story and many more.

Passage contained a mix of new songs and older ones that were re-recorded. What a great intro to Ackerman’s music! Incredibly strong melodic and airy, Ackerman augments his fingerpicking style with piano, horn or string accompaniment, though he sparely uses it, allowing the haunting melody lines to breathe and resonate.

Later, I purchased Past Light (1983), Conferring with the Moon (1986), Imaginary Roads (1988) and The Opening of Doors (1992), before taking a break from New Age music and Ackerman, although I still occasionally pulled one from the collection to play.

Of those, Past Light, is my favorite. Ackerman does things with the guitar I’ve never heard before. “Visiting” is an awesome song and kicks off the album in a majestic and soulful manner. Mike Manring commands the fretless bass throughout the album. “Garden” also features the Kronos Quartet, a great compliment to Ackerman’s guitar. Every song on this album is at least a three-base hit. “Pacific” is a beautiful solo piece, displaying Ackerman’s fluid fingerpicking style. “Synopsis” is elegant in an pulsating, ethereal way. I’ve never heard Ackerman do anything remotely similar. Chuck Greenberg on the lyricon and Mark Isham on synthesizer give this song texture beneath Ackerman’s rhythmic strumming. Mesmerizing. “Synopsis II offers a variation on the earlier version. Also, instead of a synthesizer, Ira Stein plays a rigorous piano; and Russell Walder is on oboe. The effect is more jazzy and acoustic. “Rain to River” is melancholy and lyrical in a gently rolling vignette. The album closes with “Night Slip”, a dreamy, folkish song. Walder is back with English horn and guitar phenom Michael Hedges provides a soaring second guitar.

Conferring With the Moon opens withe title song. It is sprawling and evocative in a slow-building 7:33 length song. “Lago de Montanas” is haunting and deep in texture. It is a moving song. “Climbing in Geometry” is typical Ackerman. An ensemble piece, Ackerman gives away the tastiest melodies and standout moments. He’s not invisible, often doing the heavy lifting by playing the rhythm and harmonic fills. “The Last Day at the Beach” is like an epic film condensed down to about seven minutes. “Processional” is dark and moody, and the interplay between the guitar and woodwind instrument is emotionally stirring. “Garage Planet” sounds vaguely like “Synopsis II” and is quite good.

Imaginary Roads is very good, it loses some of the simplicity fore more complex songscapes and arrangements. Less songs? No, these are pleasing as Ackerman continues to incorporate complimentary musicians. The two best songs are “ Brother A Teaches 7”, Darrow’s Barn – Version II” and “Innocent Moon”.

The Opening of Doors was co-produced by Steven Miller, a jazz guitarist who worked was Windham Hill. The title song is a good one, with a gentle and optimistic tone. It feels more of a return to Ackerman’s earlier work – less complicated. “Murray’s Song” is solo acoustic and a very quiet and reflective song, if an instrumental can be termed reflective.

If you are intrigued by Ackerman’s soulful and melodic acoustic guitar and want to hear more. He has a greatest song CDs called Retrospective with covers his Windham Hill years. “A Bricklayer’s Daughter” and “Seattle” from his early albums are on this collection.

Skip ahead to 2022, I ran across Brothers, Ackerman collaborating with Jeff Oster on flugelhorn, with Tom Eaton on piano, keyboard, and bass guitar. Released in 2021, Brothers is one of my favorite albums. It reminds me of the 1980s Windham Hill collaboration albums. The songs on the album are not meandering jazz tracks, rather tightly constructed, soulful and aching instrumentals.

This year (2022), Ackerman released a new, solo album, Positano Songs, drawn on the people and town of Positano, Italy, a place Ackerman knows quite well, as he has travelled there often, including marrying his current wife there. The songs on the album are developed from musical pieces he wrote while there. This isn’t a concept album other than the songs capture slices of Ackerman’s Positano. Although not as daring as some past songs, they radiate a maturity than only life can provide.

Ackerman no longer has a record label, although he owns a recording studio and busies himself with recording and producing a variety of projects for others. As a sideline, he and Eaton made up half of a jazzy, New Age quartet call Flow. My own personal theory is that selling Windham Hill Records was liberating for the artist Ackerman. What began as a lark with his girlfriend became a corporate gig as the label’s success, and challenges, weighed heavily on his creative spirit. From free spirit carpenter to business model CEO, success is the sunburn of long hours of creative perspiration.

Later, I’ll drop a few blogs on George Winston and Michael Hedges, and perhaps a few more former Windham Hill artists. Groovy.

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