I always dig it when hoary literateurs and poets are celebrated in music. It doesn't happen often, certainly not frequently enough for my liking, but when it does, you can bet your bottom dollar the effort will result splendidly. As far as I can tell, William Blake's the gent who's come in most frequently for the honor, so it's way past time Walt Whitman was accorded his due. That's exactly what happens here, and in so many ways that I was dragged back to the period bridging the 50s with the 70s, when this sort of extravaganza began as a collisionistic art form. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the genre, if genre it is (it's gone unnamed so far if so), is that it's always been a matter of tradition and experimentalism each time out, whether in the hands of David Axelrod, Jon Anderson & Alan White, or Martha Redbone (here), all of whom doffed their chapeaus to Blake, or Michael Johnathon (here), who created a play with musical accompaniment and a documentary film on Henry David Thoreau, or anyone else.
The need for a crossing-of-the-centuries mindset is inherent in the eclecticity of having to honor the past while tapping into, treading, and of course living the present. In particularly ambitious projects, like Eric Salzman's wildly variegated but marvelous originalist lunacies (here and here), one must also anticipate the future. That last doesn't occur here but once or twice almost. Pianist/composer Garry Dial and saxist/flautist Dick Oatts wrote a two-disc-er full of entrancing music, vocal and instrumental, interleaving the verse of one of America's grand old men of letters, the estimable Mr. Whitman (1819 - 1892), whose Leaves of Grass is perhaps his best known—definitely his most controversial—work.
You'll have to forgive me if I might seem to be flail about a trifle in attempting to pigenonhole what's going on in That Music Always Round Me, but that's the nature of this fete, so perhaps it's best just to list the ingredients. They include as follows: balladry, madrigal, the Swingle Singers (sans la-la-la's, da-da-da's, and bum-bum-bums), Stan Kenton's modernisms, trad jazz, elements of rock & roll, chorale, and, well, if I were to list everything, I'd be writing this review until Apocalypse, so perhaps best just to leave the bulk of it as noted. One listen to the excellent soloing from Dial and Oatts, however, both first most fully displayed in To One Shortly to Die, explains why that's so: you can't cage this pair.
More, they're the backbone of the entire smorgasbord, a huge undertaking incorporating the Temple University Concert Choir interblent with the Temple University Vocal Jazz Collective, New York Studio Vocalists, and then the multi-member instrumental collective: 64 people altogether, plus three conductors and an arranger (I suspect Dial and Oatts had to build an ark in the studio just to accommodate everyone). The chorale singing is exquisite, the music bracing while oft enough energetically mellifluous, then wistful, sometimes a bit clatterous, with singers often almost scatty in encanting Walt's lines. Frequently, though, they act as sky, arbor, and cathedral for the baritone, alto, bass, soprano, and tenor lead singers, accompanying instruments segmenting the unfolding imagery in any given cut.
A 12-page booklet gives insight into the processes encountered in the making of this venture and then reproduces Whitman's words, which I suspect will at least mildly shock more than a few for the zen/tao universalist sentimentations forwarded, something even modern liberals have profound difficulties with, coming from warmongering, mean-spirited, harsh, desert-religion JudeoChristian perspectives. Not that I wish, you understand, to even vaguely conflate today's 'liberals' with yesteryear's (Twain, Whitman, Ingersoll, Emerson, etc.), as Democrats and such are chiefly the product of radio propaganda from what Noam Chomsky has cited as a klatsch indulging a "soft Republicanism" now dying in favor of, unfortunately, even more sharply reactionary Rightist nonsense. Perhaps that's because modern liberals lack the self-inspection shown in Whitman's Are You the Person Drawn Towards Me? or the cognizance that this, as Walt put it, 'soiled world' wasn't made so by just one side or the other.
But then, even Walt wasn't exactly the holder of the grail either, was he?, not when, wrapped in exceedingly baffling conflictions, he saw the abolition of slavery as a threat to democracy, himself thereby a victim of the 'ultraism' he decried in others. But we love our artists despite their flaws and even despite a frequent enough inability to follow their own dicta. I think we do this most likely because, in the still simian consciousness of evolving human beings, artists at least see a light where the rest of us barely cognize our own faces even in the most resolute mirror-gazing, lost in the hurly-burly of just getting by. Thus, does art forward our condition, despite sometimes benighted creatives? I suspect Mr. Dial and Mr. Oatts would answer with an affirmative "Yes!", as would I, and that, I further adduce, played a heavy part in this set of opuses. The admixture and result stand as one of the year's best releases.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
Copyright 2014, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
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