||I received an album, Americana, from a prominent pianist with whose work I am quite familiar. The pianist being Doug Hammer, a composer of ten previous albums, some of them being quite ambitious, but all with merit. My expectations were set. I was not prepared however, for this tour de force of sentimental, folk, and patriotic tunes done in such a remarkable fashion. Hammer offers up eighteen songs performed by orchestra, ensemble and solo piano and every one of them is a gem. Furthermore, he dedicates his work to those that have given their lives and those that continue to defend our country and to all the people of our great country.
Doug's original first cut, The Spirit of America, put me in mind of works by Aaron Copland and John Williams. Yes, lofty company for a humble pianosmith, but deserving none the less. The music is a stirring tribute to a great country and features vibrant strings, stratospheric horns and a strong, timeless piano melody,
Americana, the title tune, captures the piquant flavor of every corner of America. With Doug's folksy piano serving as the base, the fiddle and banjo ring in with homespun touches that make the music come alive. Hammer weaves these textures into a soundscape of southern hospitality and Appalachian nostalgia.
Doug puts out a rendition of Yankee Doodle that will knock your socks off. The cut is rollicking fun with enough riffs and arpeggios to fill a symphony hall. I expect the Boston Pops to be playing this on their next Fourth of July concert.
The Star Spangled Banner and God Bless America feature Hammer's solo piano work that is both heartfelt and reverent, but his music comes to life on the song Heartland. The poignant, somber piece is the anthem of a nation looking for hope. We have a lot of irons in the fire, and perhaps more to come. Doug reminds us in his music that it is the relationships of man and country that keep us on the moral high ground, even though we may falter from time to time. This is the best cut on the album for me.
There are several vocals on the recording, all of them great songs that evoke times gone by, history lessons, and chronicles of love. Sung by Brian Maes, The Good Old Days reminds us of easier times when Americans were masters of machinery, when doors were not locked so tight and hard work was the order of the day. The Friedman sisters, Ari and Mia offer their instruments and voices on two cuts. Shenandoah and The Water is Wide. Shenandoah is harmonically rich and heart wrenching. Cello and fiddle partner up on this 19th century folk tune that goes way beyond a rolling river song. Sometimes it's actually a love song. The next folk song is called The Water is Wide. I remember it from the opening and closing credits of a movie called "Nobody Waved Goodbye" filmed in the sixties. I got reacquainted with it when Peter, Paul, and Mary came out with their version called "There is a Ship". I discovered this song when I was seventeen during one of the most difficult times of my life, the passing of my mother, and I have always been touched when I've heard it. It is my favorite folk song. Doug's arrangement and Ari and Mia's vocal made it special for me.
The Dream is Alive is another orchestral Hammer song that offers hope for tomorrow. The sounds of assurance, growth and a positive future are attached to every note like a voice in a prayer. I thought I could hear the sound of a bell in the melody ringing out the promise. The last cut is called Sunnyside Rag. It comes on like an old Victrola recording, scratches and all. It is a Hammer original that would make Scott Joplin proud. The turn of the century ditty reminds us when the country first started, everyone except the original owners came here on a boat and beginnings were humble for all. From the fifteenth century until today, America has been a refuge of hope for all.
This the best Americana themed album I have heard. Doug Hammer has put a lot of effort into his arrangements, somehow overstuffing them with emotion, nostalgia, and nationalism. Add the elements of respect and reverence and you get an album that is entertaining, patriotic and thought-provoking. I highly recommend this album even if it's not a holiday.