Monday, February 27, 2012

The Balladeer

David Paul Mesler
The Balladeer
Review by Matthew Warnock

As he is known to do, Seattle-based pianist and improviser extraordinaire David Paul Mesler has once again recorded and released a wondrous album of improvisations, this time in duo with trumpeter Michael Caldwell.  The album, as is the case with his other releases, was completely improvised in the studio and not edited in any fashion before its release.  It takes a certain level of player to abandon compositions and arrangements in favor of completely improvised music when setting out on a new recording project, and Mesler and Caldwell prove themselves to be up to the task on the record’s 14 improvised pieces, some of which were done solo while the vast majority feature the duo together.

Beginning the album is the mostly solo piano “The Balladeer, Part 1.”  The song has a Middle Eastern and Spanish flavor to it, most notably due to Mesler’s choice of modes during the sparse and captivating introduction.  The single-line melody that begins the piece is built up and expanded with added harmony as the piece progresses and Caldwell enters during the final third of the piece with his muted trumpet taking over the lead line and Mesler moving into a more harmonic function.  Right away the duo plays well together, there is no awkward “first dance” on this album, right from their first notes together the duo sounds as if they’ve shared bandstands for years, something that is needed when improvising a duo recording in the modern jazz idiom.

The duo moves between rubato sections and time with the ease that experienced performers possess.  On pieces such as “The Sighting,” Mesler sets the tempo with his upper-register ostinato phrase, while Caldwell enters with a tone that is reminiscent of the late-great Miles Davis, moving his way around the harmony to conjure up a line that is more a melody than an improvisation.  This is one of the keys to the album’s success, the fact that these songs don’t sound totally improvised.  Yes, they sound organic and there is a high level of improvisation breathing through each line.  But, the lines themselves often resemble composed melodies, a testament to the amount of thought that each performer puts into their melodic material before they play, instead of just letting go and creating the “noise” that is so often associated with fully-improvised music. 

Apart from the more melodic and tranquil pieces, there are also darker, harsher moments such as the piano intro to “The Tango.”  Driving the bass in the low register and clashing clustered harmony in the middle to upper range, Mesler lays down one of the more sinister and dissonant moments on the record before bringing in the time on a tango-based rhythm, allowing Caldwell to insert his muted trumpet once again in the harmonic melee, with both musicians playing follow the leader as they weave their way through the piece.  Again, this is another reason why the album is so successful, both musicians have a strong sense of musicianship and big ears, allowing them to let the music breathe when it needs to and fill up the sonic space when called for.  Far too often, freely improvising musicians get a bad rap for creating “noise” music that is unmelodic and devoid of rhythm.  But, the best improvisers can create a new piece on the spot, composing in real time as they bring together pieces that resemble composed works rather than the “free jazz” that one is used to hearing, and Mesler and Caldwell firmly fall into this latter category of musician, and their album The Balladeer is a first rate example of what fully improvised music can sound like when in the hands of seasoned professionals.

Review 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.

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