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By Doug Hammer
Label: Dreamworld Productions
Released 10/24/2011
Travels tracks
1. Travels
2. The Turn Of Time
3. Country Road
4. Maine Morning
5. Days Of Summer
6. Pendulum
7. Reflections Of A Distant Past
8. Can't Go Back
9. Moving
10. City Of Dreams
11. Outbound Train
12. The Castle
13. Lost City
14. Here With You
15. After The Storm
16. Whirling Dervish
17. Jonathan's Song
18. The Brightness Of Days
19. Travels (epilogue)
20. Moving On
21. Back In Your Arms
22. The Place We Once Knew
23. Glory Days
24. Have Faith
25. Old Piano
26. Ragtime Blues
27. Jekyll And Hyde
28. Frozen Night
29. Here At Last
30. My Heart Belongs To You
31. My Precious One
32. Thinking Of You
33. Going Home
34. It'll Be Alright
35. Stillness
36. I Am With You
37. Remembrance
38. Marching On
39. In Memory
Releasing a 2-CD set of solo piano (by a single artist) is an ambitious undertaking and Doug Hammer has succeeded in doing so with Travels. Subdivided into disc 1 (sub-titled Travels) and disc 2 (sub-titled Travels: Detour), the entire album contains a whopping 39 tracks! No matter how you slice it, that’s a LOT of piano music, so don’t expect a blow-by-blow, track-by-track critique of every song, as I would likely suffer writer's cramp before I finished! Both discs of Travels feature solid music and the recording certainly deserves consideration from any fan of the genre.

The first CD features composed tracks (or, as Hammer refers to them, “handcrafted songs”) which were inspired by the artist’s travels during his 40+ years of journeys. One can ascertain this by a quick reading of the songs’ titles: Country Road, Maine Morning, Moving, Outbound Train, and more. The second disc, unlike the first, is wholly improvisational with all 20 tracks being recorded in single takes. According to the liner notes, Hammer would just sit down and play - the results were these twenty selections which he refers to as “detours” (since he recorded the improvisations while he was working on the first disc of the set).

Having reviewed Doug Hammer’s music before, I was expecting a display of artistry and technical mastery and there is ample evidence of each after just a few songs on disc 1. The title track opens with a flurry, a rapid pace meant to convey the excitement of starting a trip as well as evoking the actual motion of same, perhaps looking out a car window or even on a train? At first, the music is a soft yet fast refrain, but the power of the piece elevates as it progresses becoming positively energizing, always, though, with an undercurrent of movement via that same refrain. “Country Road” slows down the pace to a gentle meander, almost to the point that maybe the traveling here is done on horseback at a slow trot. There is also a palpable sensation of nostalgia that I detect, very “small town-ish” in feel. "Maine Morning" crackles with energy but not in an overpowering way. Visually, the music suggests being out on a sailboat off the coast of, maybe, Bar Harbor, riding the wind as the sun glistens off the waves. Pendulum showcases Hammer’s skill at crafting jazzy riffs (is he channeling Dave Brubeck on this track?) while City of Dreams has an air of gentle beauty as it spins out in relatively minimalist yet romantic fashion (I can see this serving as a wedding processional tune). I like the rolling refrain which opens “Outbound Train” over which Hammer delicately picks out a wistful lead melody, and I was charmed by the soothing counter-play Hammer exhibits between his left and right hands at the start of After the Storm.

Moving on to disc 2, the Detour collection as it were, I can hear some dissimilarity between these tracks (the improvisatory nature can be discerned) and those on disc 1. Moving On starts off the disc in a somber vein, although set against a slow-mid tempo pace - a fine beginning. Back In Your Arms is, predictably, romantic - a slow, gentle ode to a special someone. In fact, more than half a dozen tracks on disc 2 have titles which indicate the songs were inspired by a loved one(s): The Place We Once Knew, Here At Last, My Heart Belongs To You, My Precious One, Thinking Of You, and In Memory. Obviously, these improvisatory meditations are quite personal to the artist, so the overwhelming mood here is less joyful and more introspective, warm, and subdued. You can almost feel the bittersweet atmosphere permeating “The Place We Once Knew” (a childhood dwelling perhaps?). Glory Days is not a cover of the iconic Springsteen tune, but instead a rumination on the passing of time and the memory of a period when life was good. However, Hammer shows he can also lighten the mood considerably, which he does on Old Piano (which sounds like it’s straight out of a saloon from a John Ford western), as well as the funky Ragtime Blues (some serious cattin’ around on the ivories here!), and the appropriately titled Jekyll and Hyde which veers from haunting and quiet to powerful and menacing. The sorrowful yet peaceful resignation of “In Memory” closes out disc 2, a relatively minimalist and touchingly beautiful number and an excellent choice for the last track.

Travels is the ultimate showcase for Hammer’s abundant talents at the keys of a piano. Whether delicately performing a slow, meditative piece, pounding away with passion and drama, or ripping it up with fun and humor, his playing skills and his composing/improvising abilities are spread across both discs (I myself somewhat favor disc 2, but that’s a purely personal taste issue). Getting through both discs all in one sitting might prove a bit daunting simply because that’s a lot of solo piano to hear all at once, but on the other hand, played consecutively, one would be better able to detect the difference between the two CDs. However you choose to play the album, Doug Hammer will be an entertaining “travel” companion.
Rating: Very Good   Very Good
- reviewed by Bill Binkelman on 10/15/2012
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