The concept is simple. Take a number of artists from a variety of musical backgrounds, ask them each to write and perform a song. The main restriction is that the only instrument is to be the piano and there are no vocals allowed. The context is also clear and equally rule bound. The commissioning label is Windham Hill, home of the dreaded New Age tag and purveyor of tastefully ambient product to the educated classes. So expect 11 reflective, relatively solemn and possibly a little bland compositions. Such is nearly the case, but the results, on closer listening, are actually much more substantial.
You do have to like solo piano (a lot) to enjoy this album. You also have to be comfortable with styles that owe something to classical music, jazz, and ’70s folk-rock — in fairly equal measure. This is asking quite a bit of the listener but stick around, it is worth the effort.
In fact, something peculiar starts to happen as the album progresses. In the various pieces, a certain unity of theme, imagery and perhaps even ideology starts to emerge. It is not simply the result of certain stylistic similarities that the 11 player/composers share, although that is a factor. It is really more to do with one stratum of American life that the music somehow conjures into being.
This particular America is not one that is very often portrayed, outside of literature. For the world we enter in Songs Without Words is essentially that of a slightly disappointed, thoughtful intelligentsia. All this cultivated keyboard tinkling produces a picture of a world of slightly academic liberalism. Entwined, like college ivy, around that world is an ecological awareness and a sixties radicalism now more calmly, if somewhat sadly, channeled. If the album has a season, it is autumnal — the fall semester in fact. If it has a location, then it is a weekend retreat in Vermont. This all sounds faintly ludicrous, but the evocations are definitely there — and refreshingly honest and fundamentally decent they are too.
As to why it bears this aura, I am not too sure. Certain of the pianists do have a radical track record. Margie Adam is a leading feminist artist and Michael Feinstein is a well-known supporter of Green causes. However some of the players are too young to literally fit the bill. Taylor Eigsti is barely out of nappies, despite his high profile and almost professorial status. Smooth jazzers Brian Culbertson and David Benoit are usually associated with the commodity-obsessed suburbs rather than the liberal, petition-signing classes.
Inevitably, it has to do with the formal structures of the music and its generic influences. Recognisably folky, singer-songwriter styles (best exemplified here by the one and only Janis Ian) spill over into many of the tunes. This lends the album a certain generational bias. Other “rock” forms have an influence too. A certain, very American piano sound, one I always associate with Bruce Hornsby, raises its head a number of times. It is redolent of a kindly, undeniably “White” sensibility, one that is both melancholy and oddly captivating.
That element though is subsidiary to jazz and the classical piano as a determinant. Naturally, it is a rather scholarly, “learned” jazz, while the classical patterns smack rather of good boys and girls and expensive piano tutors. All very restrained and well behaved. Yet, somehow the overall effect is quite moving. Culbertson’s “You’re Not Alone”, which manages to combine the Hornsby with both the jazz and chamber references, is very tender. That track, as with Benoit’s “Glory”, suggests that Smooth Jazz types are generally more the victims of stifling arrangements than lacking in emotional depth. They easily hold their own with whiz kid Eigsti or the very polished Michael Gore, artists taken more seriously by the jazz cognoscenti.
The finest piece is the oldest sounding. Paul Sullivan’s pastoral evocation, “Rising Moon”, draws on nineteenth century hymn structures, thus grounding the album in a very long tradition of righteousness indeed. It is stately and wholly convincing and shows him to be a composer of the first rank. Next to that, I would single out Janis Ian’s self-effacing “Days Like These” which bears that detached sadness that characterise many of her more famous vocal pieces.
Most typical is perhaps Michael Gore’s “October Moon” which sounds like a familiar, rather Chopin-like etude and a half-forgotten popular song at the same time. It is slightly precious, takes itself a little too seriously but is pleasingly uncluttered. Like most of the “Songs”, it is also delicate to the point of fragility. This sense of bruised emotions carefully wrapped in classical flourishes shows up again in Alan Pasqua’s “To Love Again”, a fittingly equivocal title.
So, tranquility tinged with regret? A social conscience and a strong sense of the past in a post-modern, affluent framework? Sounds dreadful,doesn’t it? Well, it’s not. This record gets better, richer and more rewarding with each play. It is certainly not background music although it is meditative and is undoubtedly keen to produce an “ambience”. The nearest Songs Without Words comes to exuberance is on Barbara Higbie’s robust “Charlie Riley”, which I found a little contrived and jarring.
I have to confess myself surprised at myself for liking this disc. It so nearly tumbles into parody and self-satisfied complacency. The poise and grace of the playing and the strength of the compositions themselves prevents this happening. Yet the prime fascination remains this sense of a portrait of both a physical landscape and a social milieu. It is probably not even a conscious thing on the artists’ behalf; it may even be just my own whimsy. Whatever the reason, this one will stay close to the CD player for some time.
The exquisite “Rising Moon” by Paul Sullivan, a major composer who hovers between new age and classical styles, has something of the feel of old Methodist hymns and a nineteenth century rural America. There is a tradition invoked here.