David Paul Mesler, with Tony Rondolone – Moonsongs (2011)

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Pianist David Paul Mesler and saxophonist Tony Rondolone offer 13 takes on a theme during the appropriately titled Moonsongs, an album perfectly suited for twilight. Each of the tunes here, familiar though they may be, is approached with a thoughtful restraint — resulting in an album that is bold in its conception, yet often touchingly poignant in its execution.

The duo opens with “Polkadots and Moonbeams,” the Jimmy Van Heusen-Johnny Burke vehicle, remaking the song with a hushed, untroubled nerve. Rondolone’s tone is warm and inviting, while Mesler trails just behind him, offering delicately constructed thoughts.

“Old Devil Moon” is similarly integrated, as Mesler and Rondolone play with an uncanny empathy. The piano, in particular, seems to move through and across the melody, without ever getting tangled up in Rondolone’s surging, but never over-dramatic runs. “Blue Moon” allows Rondolone a chance to create some sparky interplay, even as Mesler retains this gorgeous clarity at the keyboard.

Elsewhere, Mesler and Rondolone also do a commendable job of defying convention, and expectations.

“How High The Moon,” which in the post-bebop era has become a vehicle for lightning-quick improvisation, is reimagined here as a ballad of intriguing placidity. The duo plays with a nervy impressionism, with Mesler offering these waterfalls of notes behind Rondolone’s sweetly meditative shapes. “Fly Me To The Moon,” a rascally nudge of a song since Frank Sinatra remade it with Count Basie in the 1960s, becomes a hushed, almost translucent revelation on Moonsongs. “Moondance,” the familiar jazz-inflected pop tune by Van Morrison, is widely associated with its uptempo pace, as well. Mesler and Rondolone, instead, stop for a long exhalation — approaching the tune with a series of restrained, but firm variations.

Not that Moonsongs is all drowsy balladry. Rondolone, for instance, adds a muscular force to “Dancing in the Moonlight,” though the cut is all too brief at less than 2:30 minutes. Later, Mesler begins with an elegant series of thoughts, before ramping up into a lightly swinging posture on “Moonglow,” and Rondolone quickly takes the bait — playing with a liquid propulsion, but without ever sounding hectic or strained.

Mesler’s cascading, gently insistent opening on “Moonlight Serenade” subsequently gives Rondolone’s another chance to work in brilliant contrast. Melodically sensitive, he still finds a way to push his saxophone into newly assertive tones.

The pair ends up making two passes at “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” by Harold Arlen. On first blush, they get into the flirty spirit of the original, as Melser gooses Rondolone along with progression of flurries at the keyboard that suggest twinkling stars. Subsequently, on a late-album reprise, the duo downshifts back into a series of solitary, unselfconscious ruminations. The song, as beautiful as it is involving, unfolds like a moment of still improvisation.
And that’s the magic of the album, anyway — its ability to emotionally involve.

Pay special attention to their successes in tackling songs like “Moon River,” the deeply familiar and often cartoonishly histrionic theme from Henry Mancini. Here, Mesler and Rondolone show remarkable restraint, drawing the track’s typically very bawdy theme down into quietly effective rumination. A moment that has tripped up so many becomes one of this album’s undisputed highlights.

Then, there’s “Moonlight in Vermont.” Itself a legendary ballad, the composition needs less radical reconstruction to fit into this crepuscular mood. The challenge, of course, is to inject some sense of rising drama, and Rondolone does so by playing with an ebullient, though at the same time very controlled, power.

It’s just another testament to Mesler and Rondolone’s powers of tender renewal on Moonsongs.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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