David Paul Mesler
Review by Matthew Warnock
Some of the greatest pianists in the history of jazz and modern music have been prolific improvisers, in solo contexts as well as with trios and other groups. Whether it was Bill Evans on a long improvised intro to Nardis, or Keith Jarrett recording the Koln Concert, these performers set themselves apart from their contemporaries with their ability to create timeless music from seemingly out of nowhere. Flash forward a number of years and Seattle based pianist David Paul Mesler is bringing the spotlight back to freely improvised piano music, though in a slightly different context, with the release of his duo album Pacific Sailings. The album features 13 duos with bassist Doug Miller, all of which were improvised without edits, and the result is a world-class display of musicianship and musical collaboration that is sure to delight fans of jazz and modern piano, especially those who enjoy freely improvised music.
One of the things that makes this album different from some of the releases by Evans and Jarrett, are that these songs are much shorter in length as compared to other freely improvised releases of the past. While some listeners may be used to, and even expecting, concert length improvisations, such as Jarrett’s Vienna Concert, there is a distinct advantage to recording shorter pieces of music when delving into the realm of free improvisation. Not only does it give the listener a break every few minutes -- the average track on this record is a little over three minutes -- but it allows the musicians to focus their creative intent on one idea for a short period, before switching to the next idea on the following track, allowing them to always be fresh and to separate ideas in their minds as they work through each improvised piece on the album.
The other advantage is that each short piece ends up becoming a chapter in a musical book. Not in a concept album sort of way, but each piece ends up having its own unique personality that comes together with the other pieces to form the emotional and musical landscape of the album. For instance, “Blowsy” has a dark feel to it, almost eerie with its quasi-walking bass-line and short, punched pentatonic and blues influenced chords. And “Shower” has a lighter, more playful feeling, with its ostinato bass note and careful interaction with the piano melody. This last track is built on something so simple, a one-note bass-line, yet ends up being one of the more powerful moments on the album.
One thing that is apparent throughout the record, no matter what the feel or mood of the piece, is the incredible interaction between Mesler and Miller. These two talented musicians possess chops and musical knowledge, both of which are needed to record an album of this nature, but more importantly they both showcase their highly-trained ears and musical maturity. It would have been easy for them to take a tune like “Squabble,” with its rapid-fire opening line, and overplay the rest of the piece, relying more on chops and less on communication. Yet, the duo instead turns the piece into a rhythmically diverse conversation that is filled with engaging moments, both by the bass and piano, and breathes maturity and musicianship from start to finish.
Releasing any freely improvised record is a tall order for any musician, but to do it in a duo setting and at the highest-level of musicianship is a task that few performers could claim to accomplish. Mesler and Miller have not only released an impressive album with Pacific Sailings, but one that is emotionally and intellectually engaging at the same time.
Reviewed by Matthew Warnock
Rating: 5 Stars (out of 5)
Matthew Warnock writes for All About Jazz, Guitar International Magazine, Hal Leonard, Mel Bay, Modern Guitar Magazine and Review You.