Friday, February 24, 2012

Celebrating Ellington

David Paul Mesler
Celebrating Ellington
Review by Wildy Haskell

With extensive classical training and over thirty years as a professional jazz musician, David Paul Mesler knows a thing or two about structure and improvisation. As a composer he has written or arranged a host of well-known choral and orchestral works as well as pieces for musicals and dance theater. Mesler's work has also graced the silver and big screens in franchises such as Days Of Our Lives, King Arthur, The Blind Side, Eloise At Christmastime and The Grudge 2. In spite of all of this, Mesler still finds time to play 125 live dates per year, and record and release albums of both standards and originals. Beginning in 2006, Mesler released two successive volumes entitled Celebrating Gershwin. He follows up on these with a new collection entitled Celebrating Ellington, offering up enigmatic piano interpretations of some of the Duke's greatest songs.

Mesler's piano style is expansive, percussive and borders on out-of-control at times, taking listeners on wild, Miles Davis-style runs born of classic melodies. Mesler has moderated this tendency over time, working to find a balance through the two Gershwin volumes. That's not to say that the piano style isn't occasionally over the top, but Mesler is remarkably reserved at times on Celebrating Ellington. This cannot be said of the opening tracking, Ellington's iconic "Take The 'A' Train", in which Mesler treats the melody line as more of a reference point than as part of the song. Unlike earlier works, however, Mesler stays in control and offers up an enjoyable, if highly derivative read on a classic tune. There's very little mellow about "In A Mellow Tone", although it starts off genteel enough. The song quickly devolves into a rip-tide of runs that carry the listener away from the spirit and sound of Ellington's opus.

"I Got It Bad And That Ain't Good" is solid, but may not sit well with more traditional fans. Things devolve a bit for "Do Nothing Til You Hear From Me", which shows Mesler losing a bit of the composure he's learned over the years. The melody drowns in excessive variation and overcrowding of notes. "Satin Doll" retains the beauty of the original; delivered in a subtle yet expressive style that reflects a growing willingness by the artist to place the song above himself. Mesler brings out the swing in "I'm Just A Lucky So And So" before turning it into a free-form piece full of life. Mesler shows off a more lyric side in the middle of Celebrating Ellington, painting pretty musical pictures with songs such as "I Didn't Know About You" and "I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart", but hits an absolute high note with his take on "Mood Indigo". Here Mesler stays true to the original, expanding a bit here and there but keeping himself focused within Ellington's original musical vision. The result is stunning, and the moderate approach amplifies those moments when Mesler does open up the doors and take the song in his own direction.

"Don't Get Around Much Anymore" is brilliant, with Mesler bringing to life a classic melody with a dynamic verve. Even in the latter moments of the song when Mesler begins to deconstruct in rapid fire runs, it's an impressive listen. "Rockin' In Rhythm" follows a similar path, but with more of a swing/rock feel. Mesler closes things out with "In A Sentimental Mood", played in reverent fashion and with a quiet spark.
David Paul Mesler pays fair tribute on Celebrating Ellington, staying true to Ellington's signature style while making the songs his own. Mesler has learned over the years to rein in his expansive tendencies and allow the songs to speak for themselves. This self-control makes his moments of expansion all the more powerful and interesting to explore. Mesler gets it right this time around.

Review by Wildy Haskell
Rating:  4 Stars (out of 5)

Wildy Haskell writes for The Independent, Indie-Music, Review You and Wildy’s World.

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