Friday, February 24, 2012

The Beautiful

David Paul Mesler
The Beautiful
Review by Alex Henderson

As a recording artist, David Paul Mesler has been quite diverse.   The Seattle-based acoustic pianist has recorded as a vocalist, and he has also recorded instrumental albums.  Mesler has performed straight-ahead post-bop jazz, but he has also recorded avant-garde jazz.   And The Beautiful, which Mesler recorded for his own label, Emerald City Records, in 2005, is one of his more avant-garde efforts.

The three musicians who perform on Mesler’s three In Spiritu albums (Mesler on acoustic piano, Doug Miller on upright bass and Brian Kirk on drums) also appear on his self-produced The Beautiful, but while they perform as a piano trio on the In Spiritu trilogy, they are part of a septet on The Beautiful. The other participants on this instrumental album are Tony Grasso on trumpet, Cynthia Mullis on sax and clarinet, Sarah Bassingthwaite on flute and piccolo, and Susan Pascal on vibes.  And stylistically, The Beautiful is quite different from In Spiritu I, In Spiritu II or In Spiritu III.  While In Spiritu is essentially a post-bop trilogy that detours into inside/outside territory on occasion, The Beautiful is more decidedly and consistently avant-garde.  Outside playing is a much higher priority on The Beautiful than it is on the In Spiritu trilogy.  But that is not to say that this 43-minute CD is an exercise in atonal chaos for the sake of atonal chaos; the septet’s performances are definitely left of center, but they aren’t as left of center as, say, the blistering screamfests that John Coltrane favored during the last few years of his life (after he got away from post-bop and took the free jazz plunge) or the harsh atonality of saxophone firebrand Charles Gayle.  The Beautiful has plenty of outside playing, but it also has discernible melodies.  And here’s where things really get interesting: The Beautiful is an avant-garde jazz album with a patriotic theme. The Beautiful is an avant-garde jazz salute to the history of the United States.

The opener “Tis of Thee” references “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” and “A Grand Old” is a very abstract version of “You’re a Grand Old Flag.”   Meanwhile, “Ixi” is Mesler’s take on “Dixie” (a song that goes back to the 1850s).  “From Sea to Shining” and “Spacious Skies” both draw on “America the Beautiful,” and “Doodle Dandy” is Mesler’s cerebral interpretation of “Yankee Doodle.”  The latter should not be confused with “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy,” a.k.a. “The Yankee Doodle Boy.”   While “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy” is from George M. Cohan’s 1904 musical Little Johnny Jones, the song that Mesler interprets goes back to colonial times. 

On “The Truth Is,” Mesler incorporates the melody of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” as well as “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” and “When the Saints Go Marching In.”  Mesler, of course, is hardly the first jazz musician to tackle “When the Saints Go Marching In,” which has long been a favorite on the Dixieland circuit and was a major crowd-pleaser during Louis Armstrong’s live concerts.  But rarely does one hear “When the Saints Go Marching In” performed in an avant-garde setting. 

It should be noted that as a pianist, Mesler doesn’t give himself a lot of room to stretch out on The Beautiful.  Mesler has plenty of room to stretch out as an acoustic pianist on his In Spiritu trilogy, but on this disc, he prefers to let wind players like Grasso, Mullis and Bassingthwaite have much of the solo space.  On The Beautiful, Mesler clearly sees himself as a bandleader/arranger more than a pianist.  And in that sense, he brings an Ellingtonian perspective to this project.  Duke Ellington was fond of saying that his band, not his piano, was his “instrument,” and on this release, Mesler’s septet is the main thing he uses to express himself emotionally.

If The Beautiful has an obvious flaw, it isn’t the music itself, but rather, the lack of liner notes.  A project as interesting as The Beautiful should have had comprehensive, informative liner notes.  But that absence of liner notes doesn’t make the music itself any less valuable.  This fine album is as thoughtful as it is ambitious.

Review by Alex Henderson
Rating:  4 stars (out of 5)

Alex Henderson writes for All Music Guide, Billboard, CD Review, Creem, HITS, Jazz Times, Jazziz, The L.A. Weekly and Review You.

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