||Released 2016 on Dreamworld Productions and Design
Produced, Arranged, Recorded and Mixed by Doug Hammer
Doug Hammer: Piano, synth and orchestrations
Jon Finn: Guitar and banjo (tracks 2, 5, & 8)
Dave Landoni: Acoustic bass (track 2)
Dave Buda: Electric and fretless bass (tracks 8 & 17)
Steve Chaggaris: Drums (tracks 2, 3, 8 & 17)
Brian Maes: Vocals (track 8)
Ariel Friedman: Vocals and cello (tracks 2, 8, 11, & 16)
Mia Friedman: Vocals and fiddle (tracks 2, 8, 11, & 16)
I admire and respect pianist Doug Hammer for releasing what I know to be a deeply personal album during these tumultuous political times. I exchanged emails with him about the "bad timing" due to the current political climate and Doug told me that Americana was not about nationalism in any respect, but instead, reflected his deep love for the America that we all want to believe in and experience, both as a country of great natural beauty as well as a country whose people, by and large, are decent, hard-working, community-minded folks. So, before I get to extolling how great this album is (and it is all that), please do not look at the title or the red/white/blue of its cover art and prejudge it. Thanks.
Americana is a wonderful musical tribute to the titular country. Featuring both well-known standards as well as some of Hammer's best originals, it's also a collaborative album from the sometimes solo piano artist (see the review header for a complete list of guest artists). It's noteworthy that Hammer himself also plays synth (for ambient textures) and sampled orchestrations and he does an outstanding job at both.
The album kicks off with two originals. "The Spirit of America" has a Copland-esque feel to it, building from a quiet opening of French horns, piano and strings before evolving into a robust, stirring orchestral swell of dramatic melody, accented by drums. By contrast, the title track (next up) is homespun and rural with a pronounced Appalachian feel, owed in no small part to Mia Friedman's fiddle. Opening with these two songs, Hammer really hits it out of the park. This is the way to open an album, folks.
I can't go into deep detail on all of the remaining tracks because there are sixteen more! "Yankee Doodle" gets a rousing arrangement, propelled by drums and piano. The song shifts into some serious jazz riffing after a bit (Hammer has shown on previous albums that he has serious jazz chops and boy, he cuts loose in the bridge here!). After that uptempo tune is Hammer's solemn rendition of the national anthem, played with single piano notes for the opening and slowly morphing into a more powerful piece by the end. Irving Berlin's "God Bless America" follows the same pattern of a subdued opening followed by power and passion by the conclusion. Another Hammer original "Heartland" once again draws comparisons to Copland, albeit a more subdued evocation of the famous composer as the tune is somber and reflective. One of my favorite traditional songs, "Shenandoah," receives a wonderful vocal rendition by Mia Friedman, enhanced by Hammer's piano and Ariel Friedman's cello as well as Mia's fiddle. The closing three songs are the famous spiritual, "The Water Is Wide," (again, sung by Mia Friedman), and two Hammer originals which end the album on a celebratory note: "The Dream Is Alive," and "Sunnyside Rag." The former is a serious musical ode but filled with pride for his country while the latter is, as you can guess, a kick off yer shoes and get dancin' tune, replete with artificially created pops and clicks as if one were listening to an old 78 rpm record. Nicely done, Doug!
While you wouldn't have to be American to enjoy this expertly performed album, obviously those of us who grew up hearing these classics will likely resonate much more deeply than those for whom there is no innate connection with the standards. Hammer's originals deserve to stand side-by-side with all these classics and major props are due to him for accomplishing that task. In closing, I will leave you with an excerpt from Hammer's liner notes. "I have traveled all over this country. I have met so many beautiful people and seen so many beautiful things. I love America and what it stands for. I love the diversity of our nation…I wanted to capture the spirit of America, for it is alive and well. And it is unbreakable."