Friday, February 24, 2012

I Hear America Singing, Volume 1

David Paul Mesler
I Hear America Singing, Volume 1
Review by Dan MacIntosh

To say that David Paul Mesler’s I Hear America Singing project is ambitious would be a severe understatement. Pianist Mesler describes this musical series as a multi-album, 10,000 song project. Volume 1, then, is a mere 13 of these songs.

To accomplish this huge project, Mesler has invited mezzo soprano, Barbara Hume, to sing each of these songs. These aren’t just any songs, however, but are American poems set to music, instead. The first volume of Mesler’s project spotlights Walt Whitman, E.E. Cummings, Robert Frost, W.H. Auden, Emily Dickinson, and Carl Sandburg.

Although Mesler’s main claim to fame is as a jazz pianist for 25 years, there isn’t a whole lot that is jazzy on this release. Instead, due to Hume’s contributions, it comes off closer to opera music. While Mesler allows himself a lot of stylistic freedom, Hume can only sing one primary way. Her voice has a strict, formal sound, even when she’s attempting to sing more informally.

“I Could Bring You Jewels,” inspired by Dickinson’s writing, is a good case in point. Mesler’s hands are all over the keyboard, as he playfully pecks out the various note runs. In jazz terms, he darn near swings on it. However, Hume just can’t match his playfulness vocally. Hume is a fantastic singer. Nevertheless, one has to imagine what this track might have sounded like with a more flexible female jazz singer performing it.

Although Hume seems to struggle with the upbeat material, she many times sounds right at home on much of the slower stuff. Her singing is warm and flowing during “Yes Is a Pleasant Country.” On it, Mesler plays quietly, while Hume brings out a strong and purposeful vocal.

At its best, these new configurations for famous American poems are enlightening. Chances are good that most people don’t hear a female voice and a piano whenever they read poetry. This recording stretches the imagination in new and unexpected ways, and may make you see familiar poems in a brand new light. Even so, it’s safe to say that these writers likely didn’t think quite so musically when they originally wrote. Therefore, it is putting vocabulary – musical vocabulary – into prose where it was never intended to go. Has Mesler taken too many liberties with these poems? Well, you can be the judge of that.

Perhaps more importantly, however, is the consideration that there is an art to songwriting that is significantly different from writing poetry. Putting words to music is a special skill, and it is likely that most songwriters begin with melodies first, before they write words. In all of these cases here, of course, the words came first. Therefore, it’s a whole lot like putting the cart before the horse, artistically speaking. When you work with words that were never intended to be reformatted as a song, the results can be awkward. Hume does her best to make these songs sound as if they were always intended to come off as they do here, but she doesn’t always succeed. When words are written for the express purpose of being sung, they just flow so much more smoothly.

With that said, if Mesler’s worthy project causes folks to rediscover, or even discover classic American poetry for the first time, it will all be worthwhile. Poets just have a way of taking the American experience, and putting perspective to it. These recordings may not present American poems the way your high school or college English teachers taught them, but they most certainly show a lot of respect for the original work.

One has to wonder what might happen if Mesler had added a third collaborator, an established songwriter, to this creative mix. Instead of trying to squeeze the original words into songs, a songwriter might have taken inspiration from these original words and put them into more song-friendly settings. Just a thought.

If nothing else, I Hear America Singing Volume 1 is like nothing else you’ll hear all year – guaranteed.

Review by Dan MacIntosh
Rating:  3 Stars (out of 5)

Dan MacIntosh writes for CCM, CMJ, Indie-Music, Review You, Soul-Audio and Spin.

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