David Paul Mesler – Just a Lucky So and So (2011)

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Many a jazz singer has stumbled through the Great American Songbook, slowed by imitative missteps or the inability to keep pace with a swinging quartet surrounding him. David Paul Mesler is not that singer.

In fact, the new Just a Lucky So and So, issued by Emerald City Records, includes a number of familiar standards from the likes of Duke Ellington, George Gershwin and Rodgers and Hart. But Mesler approaches them with individuality and grace, even while brilliantly matching his deft backing band stride for stride.

Melser begins with a quietly effective take on the title track, the Duke Ellington standard. Pianist John Hansen swings confidently, while saxophonist Jay Thomas adds a robust sensuality through a series of well-placed asides. By the time bassist Michael Barnett and drummer Brian Kirk join the proceedings, Mesler has begun to evolve from the role of smooth balladeer into a serious groove, moving to the front of and then just behind the beat with a confidence that recalls Harry Connick Jr. Hansen returns for a roaming solo, tackling the theme head on, and then smartly moving far afield. His playing is at once full of gusto, but temperamentally appropriate — something that’s difficult to do. Doris Day’s “Kiss in a Shadow,” meanwhile, has a completely different feel, with Hansen and Co. playing in the lithe, air-filled style of Vince Guaraldi’s trio. Melser, now the portrait of mid-century cool, moves into a sweeter, lower tremolo — like a next-generation Mel Torme.

Thomas then switches to the trumpet, adding a muted, melancholy atmosphere to “They All Laughed,” the Gershwin classic. Mesler returns to the opener’s expressive, rhythmic vocal style, something well suited for the lyric’s series of throw-away hipster asides. Bassist Barnett propels “The More I See You,” perhaps most famously done by Peter Allen, into a break-neck pace. That nudges drummer Kirk toward a series of smacking brush-strokes, then Thomas — again on sax — into a blinding series of honking retorts. Mesler, unfazed by the sudden cacophony all around, displays a terrific ability to change gears, up-shifting into a confident swash-buckling attitude.

The Victor Young standard “My Foolish Heart,” presented with an undulating island beat, becomes a showcase for the delicate intertwining of sound between Hansen’s piano and Mesler’s voice. Playing longer, more intuitive lines now, in stirring contrast to the polyrhythmic efforts of Kirk, Hansen echoes perhaps the most emotional performance yet from Mesler. Eventually, the song slowly quiets, becoming nothing more than the insistent cadence from Kirk, and Mesler modulates perfectly — bringing the song to a sweetly romantic conclusion. “You Taught My Heart To Sing,” memorably done by Dianne Reeves, finds Mesler rebounding into a robust joy. Thomas offers a brightly swinging solo, this time on the trumpet, while Hansen’s driving runs at the keyboard underscore the sun-filled tone. But it’s Mesler who frames the song’s billowing hopefulness. He sings with an open-hearted joy, the personification of a smile.

“Skylark,” the timeless songbook favorite written by Johnny Mercer and Hoagy Carmichael, is often presented as a devastating admission of loneliness. Mesler won’t let the song skitter off that emotional edge, though, holding out in his insistently swinging vocal for this last moment of hopefuless. Thomas answers with a series of simple, effective lines on the trumpet, recalling the tender impact of Chet Baker. “Where Or When,” from Rodgers and Hart, is goosed along in a similarly memorable way, with Mesler’s band skipping merrily behind as the singer reformulates this ballad into a happy-go-lucky moment of winking intrigue. Returning now to the urbane tone of Torme, Mesler provides a horn-like counterpoint to Thomas’ sax work.

In fact, until the last, he’s an impish foil for this backing band. On “That’s All,” initially brought to wider attention by Nat “King” Cole, Mesler moves and grooves with every bit of the musical confidence of Thomas, whose searching sax solo carries the song — and Mesler’s Just a Lucky So and So — to a satisfying close.

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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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