Multi-instrumentalist Max Highstein not only creates original music, but develops original classifications for it. At first listen, his latest album, “Tiptoes,” seems to be a jazz album. But it isn’t. Then, on other tracks, it sounds like New Age music, but that is not quite the definition Highstein wants to use. Instead, he calls his work “Contemporary Instrumental Music.” After listening to “Tiptoes,” the classification seems apt.
“Tiptoes” was released June 2021. It is comprised of 11 original tracks, and each holds its own set of surprises for listeners. Just when audiences are sure they know how each song will go, there will be a key change, a set of nuances, something in the soundscape that turns the expectation on its head. To start, the title track and the song “All Bounced Up,” are excellent examples of what Highstein can do.
About Max Highstein: before “Tiptoes”
Highstein grew up surrounded by music. His father was a doctor, painter, and musician. Highstein’s early exposure to music included hearing a string quartet practicing in the living room. In his youth, Highstein started out playing the clarinet, but switched to rock organ at age 13. His influences would include The Beatles, Mozart, Jimi Hendrix, and John Coltrane.
Highstein earned a BA in music from Goddard College in Vermont, where he specialized in jazz piano. Later, in his 30’s, Highstein earned two master’s degrees: one in spiritual psychology and one in counseling.
Given Highstein’s educational background, it is little surprise that his first album focused on healing. In addition, the album, “12 Cosmic Healers” (1984) used key signatures to correspond to specific parts of the body. Highstein became an innovator in sound healing.
Highstein’s brand of music helped launch the musical genre known as NAC, or New Adult Contemporary/New Age Contemporary, which enjoyed a wave of popularity in the late 1980s and 1990s.
The sound and style of “Tiptoes” by Max Highstein
Seeing pictures of Highstein with his saxophones and clarinets makes those unfamiliar with his work expect jazz in the most traditional, if contemporary, sense. However, those expectations are immediately challenged with the first notes of the title track.
A mischievous motif is played by all instruments, but the arrangement might call to mind for some listeners Sting’s jazz-esque era in the late 1980s. There is a buoyancy and sophistication as part of the woodwinds keep a consistent line going, but other woodwinds take danceable twists and turns. Then, there is the tremendous beauty of the fretless bass and percussion that grounds the entire song in a groovy rhythm. The song ends with a searing woodwind note, unexpected, but still perfect.
It is difficult to resist a song called “All Bounced Up.” The song begins with a bang and holds it until the end. There are rock piano, guitar, and bass elements pulsing through the fast-paced track. The woodwinds find their way around the mainstays of the soundscape. As usual, at least for this album, there is power in nuanced and satisfying chords that audiences did not think they needed to hear, but they do. The saxophone and bass are reminiscent of so many classic rock songs of the 1970s and 1980s, but this is no retrospective. This is a pushing forward, a clear new era for contemporary instrumental music.
To learn more about Max Highstein, visit: http://MaxHighsteinMusic.com. “Tiptoes” is available at all fine retailers.