Yet the gifts of music that he brings us add up to something even greater. His story is in fact a testament to the human spirit, to determination and humility, and above all to love, expressed through actions and art.
Born with a profound disability, Cardall would undergo critical surgeries, the first one hours after his birth. Through and beyond his childhood he lived with essentially just half of his heart. Not surprisingly, he grew up fully aware of mortality, augmented by the shock of losing his closest friend in an auto/pedestrian accident when he was just 16. Grief and existential questions haunted him.
Yet he grew through it all. His convictions and optimistic personality led him onto a path out from despair. And music lit the way down that path. With the piano as his foundation, he created, performed and recorded original pieces, some of them intimate, others buoyed on orchestral wings. Success came his way: In 1994, author Richard Paul Evans invited him to compose a musical adaption of his No. 1 New York Times best-selling novel The Christmas Box. The resulting album and Evans’ mentorship essentially helped launch his professional recording career. In 1999, Cardall founded Stone Angel Music. It became the platform from which he would release his albums independently, eventually going on to debut at Number One on eight Billboard charts and solidifying a worldwide enduring following. The pianist has impressively earned nearly 2 billion spins on Pandora alone.
Then, in 2009, another miracle: While living in a children’s hospital, composing for and sharing experiences with parents of children suffering from congenital heart disease, Cardall was notified that a heart had become available to him; it had belonged to a young man who had taken his own life after his family had returned to Mexico.
Receiving a normal functioning heart was, in Cardall’s words, “Like I had been driving an old truck all my life and that was all I knew. Then doctors gave me the keys to a Porsche. I had to calm down a little bit!” he joked. “My brain was receiving normal oxygen flow for the first time in my life and I was like a computer rebooted to full power” Adding, “They’d lowered my body temperature for surgery so many times throughout my life that after the transplant with my new found energy, I actually had to relearn my music.”
Clearly Cardall is still on that path that his experiences had opened. Much lies ahead, most likely in greater variety as well as in charitable areas beyond music. But now, ten years after the transplant, he pauses to reflect on where he began with an album unlike any he’d ever done before.
Peaceful Piano is not Cardall’s first solo piano project. However, it is his first completely improvised collection, based not on his usual writing process but on communion with the instrument of his soul. Several pieces reflect common themes he made popular since receiving a new heart. “It’s also my first album with no sound effects or module effects — just me and the piano,” he points out. “The idea comes from when I was in that hospital ten years ago, waiting for the transplant. There was a Steinway there; my nurse would help me walk down the hall to the piano with my oxygen tank, tubing, and a couple of IV fluids running into me. Then I’d just play whatever I was feeling.”
With multi-Grammy Award winners Michael Bishop engineering and Robert Fredrick mastering, Cardall recorded Peaceful Piano at the Oberlin Conservatory. “I didn’t know what was going to happen,” he admits. “Before every take, I’d just breathe. I’d take in the moment. Then I might start with some chords in Eb major. The next one I might start with an arpeggio pattern in D minor and see where it went. I was basically composing on the fly, finding some melody and let it take me somewhere. In two days we laid down forty-two tracks. Then we narrowed them down to eighteen. When it got down to it, we had enough good material that we didn’t have to add any arrangements of songs that I had already done. Everything was completely original.”
Rather than indulge in marathon improvisations Cardall kept the idea of song structure in mind. “Growing up, whenever I saw someone play something really fast and flashy, everyone would gather around the piano and watch,” he says. “But that doesn’t always mean they were finding transformative comfort in the music. I thought it was interesting because they attracted crowds and it was exciting to watch.”
That wasn’t the direction, however, that Cardall was led because his own personal experience of literally healing from illness and grief came when he was alone at the piano processing some of our most significant life moments. “It became an antidote, not just for the sad, hard times, but for all monumental moments in life.” Adding, “My focus is in enriching others with music.
The song titles came after the music had been finished. Appropriately, Peaceful Piano opens with “A New Beginning,” which introduces the theme of the album in a kind of quiet wonder. Everything that follows — “Deep Waters,” “Sweet Surrender,” “Beauty Finds Her,” “Awakening,” “The Growing Season,” “Waiting For A Miracle,” “Dance of The Forgotten,” “When She Smiles,” eighteen pieces in all — is an expression that’s unique as it happens, never again to recur in the same form.
Thus the meditations of Peaceful Piano capture a traveler come home to replenish himself before setting out once again. It’s a beautiful portrait conveyed in sounds and silences. Yet it’s more than that too, it’s a reminder that every step on our own quest offers beauty and wisdom. As Cardall has done on Peaceful Piano, it’s up to us to savor each one.
Peaceful Piano is being released August 23rd on Anthem Records.