Ah, Doug Hammer’s “Travels.” This album is a true gem! And one of the brightest of them for that matter.
From the moment this two disk set arrived in the mail, I’ve been captivated by it. “Travels” has a way of doing that. Just looking at the album artwork is enough to draw you in. A pleasant shade of green, a weathered wooden floor and an old, used up piano intrigue the eyes. Then, you ask the questions. Travels. What kinds of travels? What is the inspiration for this work? That piano on the front cover–where has it been? What kinds of musical travels am I about to take as I listen?
Then you turn the disk over and read the song titles. “The Turn Of Time.” “Country Road.” “Maine Morning.” “Days Of Summer.” The list continues with titles that reach out to you, demanding your attention. “Reflections Of A Distant Past.” “Can’t Go Back.” “Here With You,” “The Place We Once Knew.” These songs are instrumental stories, and one can tell just by reading the list of titles.
Then you do listen. And listen, and listen, and listen. Each piece is uniquely different and has it’s own flavor, yet each piece is also familiar enough to be a part of the collection. Doug Hammer definitely has his own signature sound, but “Travels” as a work has a signature sound all it’s own as well. You’ll hear jazz influence, along with ragtime and gospel, all worked into refreshing contemporary arrangements. On the whole, the album is very warm and inviting. The places Doug takes you are places where we’ve all been. These are places in the world, in the mind, and in your own backyard. The familiarity that Doug is a master at creating within his songs is welcoming, encouraging, inspiring. “Travels” has a way of making you believe you’ve never been without this album, that somehow it’s always been there in your collection. I’m sure that’s because the thoughts and the moods that Doug is able to convey here have always been in your mind and in your Spirit.
I would strongly recommend this album to anyone. Period. I’d especially like to recommend it to anyone who may have some misconceptions about what fresh, original New Age piano music really is. I have no doubt that one listening, with an open mind, may change your opinion of this genre. As for the rest of us, get ready for something that will take your New Age piano listening experience to another level completely.
“Travels” is a true work of art. A creative masterpiece. And after spending a decent amount of time with it, I can say that I’d feel musically incomplete if I’d never listened to this work. Doug, bravo.
Visit Doug Hammer’s website at: www.doughammer.net
Reviewed by Cathy Oakes
November 14, 2013
Even before the tragic events of Newtown, CT and Boston, MA, Doug Hammer knew that he wanted to make his next album one of deep emotion. But, being the father of boys who were 7 and 9 at the time, the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary became very personal to Doug and he began a journey that even he did not foresee. And so soon after the Newtown event, came the Boston Marathon tragedy. This hit way too close to home for this Boston boy!
I had the privilege of talking with Doug as I was writing this review. He was generous enough to spend some time with me on the phone and confirm what I thought I was hearing through his music. He shared the inspiration behind specific pieces and his hopes for what they portray to the listener.
He did not set out to do a “tribute” album. And yet, as he worked his way through the emotional upheaval of the Newtown and Boston events, along with a grieving nation, that is what began to take shape. But Doug had a unique perspective that he wanted to portray. He was guided by something his father once told him, “No one wants to hear the 11:00 news told through music!” And so, Doug set out to bring tribute to the fallen and yet, portray hope. This is evident in the fact that most of the songs on this album are in major keys. His feelings and inspirations are enhanced by the golden notes of guest vocalist, Amethyste and cellist Velleda Miragias.
I must admit that this album touched me in a way that I have never been touched by any other music. The writing of this review took much longer than I expected. I became so emotionally engaged with the music that I found it difficult to “step away” enough to actually write the review. For me, this album is an emotional experience that begins with the first note and continues through the last. It is so significant to me that the album begins and ends with “Heart.” It is a tribute to the human experience – the joys, the sorrows, the love, the gratitude, and yes, the tragedy. And yet, it begins and ends with the character of the human heart, beating in a never-ending rhythm underlying all the goings, comings and emotions of everyday life. And in the end, hope reigns eternal.
At the beginning, I could not isolate any of the pieces from the whole, the total experience. But as I listened, many times over, I began to hear the character of individual pieces.
Heart has a beautiful, poignant melody that sings above the steady, rhythmic “beating” of a heart played in the left hand. Spinning Sky was conceived as Doug sat at Joe Bongiorno’s piano in Seattle, playing with a melody and watching the stars through a window. He says that it reminds him of the time-lapse photography of the beautiful skies. Your Face in the Moonlight is a lyrical love song written for his wife while they were in France. It has an almost hauntingly beautiful melody. For Camden is a tribute to a young, innocent life that ended much too soon. It is a beautiful, child-like melody that touches the soul. A Piece of Home is a gorgeous and heart-warming tribute to Doug’s parents. Great depth of emotion is expressed by the vocals of Amethyste in this piece. Peace for Martin was a song that Hammer did not want to write. But his conscience compelled him to pay tribute to this tiny fallen hero of the Boston Marathon bombing. The only cover piece on this CD, I Will Always Love You is a lovely arrangement of Dolly Parton’s beautiful song. Arielle conveys an innocence. It is playful, yet emotional in its dance-like quality. Perhaps the most difficult piece for me to get through without simply sobbing was Newtown. Doug says that this was the most difficult song he has ever written or arranged. It portrays a beautiful innocence and life just going about its daily business in small-town America. And then (with the strong chords in the bass) in one horrible moment, life is changed forever. At the end, life slowly resumes – but not quite the same. But despite all, hope returns. Fly Away is a totally improvisational piece, done in one take – unchanged. Shine Like the Stars, All Is Calm and The Chimes Are Ringing are pieces inspired by Newtown, Ct. But they are meant to portray the hope that remains. Last Dance expresses the joys and sorrows of life with it’s meandering from major to minor keys. But it also expresses Hammer’s conviction that life is fleeting and we should each treasure every moment. And finally, we return to Heart, but this time with cello and vocals. This piece is so beautiful as a piano solo. But the cello and vocals add a depth of expression that is beyond telling.
Doug said, “I almost put the CD on hold for a year while I was recording it. I did not intend to write 6 songs about Newtown, only the one. I did not intend to write Peace for Martin, but it came out anyway. I had two choices: honor what was coming through me or shelve it and live with what comes from that.” Doug, we, your listeners are ever so thankful that you chose to honor your creative process and those you have paid tribute to through this beautiful album!
VERY well done, Mr. Hammer! VERY well done, indeed! If I could give this album 12 stars, I certainly would. But, alas, I find myself confined to our 5-star system. And so, I rate this CD a very definite 5 ++ out of 5! I highly recommend this CD with a warning: Be prepared for the experience. And be prepared to listen, not only with your ears, but also with your “Heart!”
Reviewed by Cathy Oakes
First, let me say that Doug Hammer’s music always makes me cry. And I very seldom cry about anything! It’s not a sad cry. The sheer beauty and raw emotion of his music touch my heart in a way that cannot be described with mere words.
Every musician fears that moment when they “peak” and find that they have written the best that they will write. When I wrote the review of “Heart,” I truly thought that Mr. Hammer had reached that peak. How could anyone write anything more beautiful than that? But he’s done it again! And not only has he equaled his immense creativity with “Secret World,” he has added the unbelievable, ethereal beauty of Amethyste’s theremin. Her precision and expression are flawless. In this work, Doug and Amethyste take an instrument made of wood and metal and a piece of electronic equipment and give them very human voices. That is true art!
The music of this CD was a collaborative, spontaneous improvisation. Improvising at this level is such an act of baring one’s soul. And the fact that these two highly talented, very creative musicians could do this together – in the moment, makes one wonder if they are two distinct people created from the same soul. The sheer genius of this work is amazing. In a promotional video, they say that the piano represents the earth and the theremin represents the sky. The music paints a most beautiful picture of the perfect joining of those two elements.
From the first mysterious, booming note of “The Ones We Leave Behind,” the opening track, you KNOW this is going to be good! The theremin joins in with a beautiful, soaring melody – evoking emotion from the very first moments of the piece.
In “Crimson Sky,” Amethyste uses the rich lower tones of the theremin to paint the vibrant colors of a sunset after a storm. Meanwhile, Mr. Hammer’s piano adds a sense of movement and changing shades. This is the piece that first caused me to physically hear their idea of “earth and sky.”
I love the echo effect of “Raindrops” – the theremin playing a phrase and the piano echoing that phrase back. They play back and forth like this for several moments, creating an audio ripple effect. Later in the piece, Mr. Hammer creates musical raindrops that trickle and sparkle up and down the keyboard.
The haunting melody of “El Dorado Wind” literally “got inside of me!” I felt it. It stayed with me for days at a time. It is so beautiful and mesmerizing. I could hear the wind singing through canyons. Again and again, I found myself going back to the place it led me by playing it over and over in my mind. This is without any doubt, my favorite piece on the CD.
The CD finishes with “I Will Wait,” which, to me, is a perfect depiction of the constant back-and-forth swing between patience and impatience that comes with waiting. But there is a hopefulness and even shades of joy weaving through this piece. It reminds me that even in waiting, there is joy in the journey. It is a beautiful reminder and a beautiful ending to an excellent grouping of 12 beautiful pieces.
The entire CD will take you on a journey lasting more than 70 minutes filled with incredible beauty and stirring emotion. But be prepared to engage yourself. This is no “background” music. It will reach inside you, pull you out of that place inside yourself and commune with you, leaving you beautifully changed for the better. Excellent work of art, Doug and Amethyste!
Once again, I find myself constrained by the five-star rating system. I would give this work 20 stars if I could. But I will stay with the system and give it 5++. VERY highly recommended. I hope we hear much more of this beautiful music created by two very creative minds and beautiful souls sharing one musical voice!
Reviewed by Darla Bower
Christmas music is one of my favorites to listen to year round. Christmas Lights brings to life a musical picture that canvasses through your memories of Christmas past. Memories that perhaps remain from Christmas past, present and future. A compilation of traditional Christmas favorites arranged and an original composition played by another one of my favorite artists -Doug Hammer. Christmas Lights is his tenth release and the second release of a long awaited Christmas album. Christmas Lights absolutely showcases the versatile genres this artist can masterfully play!
Christmas Lights begins with Angels We Have Heard on High. The sweet gentle arrangement of this Christmas classic drew me in as a listener. The gentle interpretation of this carol building with a crescendo and ending gently into the upper register was a favorite for me on this album. Joy to the World is my next favorite on the album. I absolutely loved the intro to this carol! Mr. Hammer gives an inspiring and unexpected musical interpretation of this beloved favorite. This advent and Christmas carol boasts of angelic chorus and this arrangement is no exception. I think I heard heaven and nature singing along with this piece!
Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella is my absolute favorite on this CD. This is a French carol from the 16th century that I have recently fallen in love with. After hearing many different arrangements of the carol, I absolutely love Mr. Hammers stately interpretation of this song. The melody is catchy with the piece beginning gently with growing jubilation into the lower register and returning to a gentle cascade of melodic delight. Well done!
Toyland is another favorite of mine on Christmas Lights and one that you don’t hear as often in solo piano. Mr. Hammer’s arrangement of this song leaves the listener with the impression of child-like wonder and anticipation of exploring Christmas treasure. The innocence of childhood and Christmas meshed into a charming melody. I absolutely love it!
Christmas Lights the title track of the CD is another musical treasure of Christmas delight. This original composition speaks of reminiscing about childhood memories of Christmas past and the joy those memories invoke. Christmas Lights is a musical reminder of a magical childhood that Mr. Hammer fondly remembers with his family going to see Christmas lights.
This CD is a refreshing take on all of my favorite traditional Christmas classics and includes a new original composition – Christmas Lights. There are several carols on here that some may not consider traditional but are such delightful musical treats that I was both surprised and glad to see these beautiful arrangements included. Though we had to wait 7 years for another Christmas release from Mr. Hammer the follow up was well worth the wait! If you’re looking for a well-rounded and emotive traditional Christmas album, then look no further! Christmas Lights will light the way into Christmas future and reignite memories from Christmas past. Each arrangement tells a musical tale of heartfelt passion and sincerity from this artist highlighting the Christmas season from start to finish—I truly enjoyed this Christmas jewel. I very highly recommend Christmas Lights. Christmas Lights is available at DougHammer.net, Amazon, iTunes and CD Baby.
As is par for the course, Doug Hammer delivers a recording that’s stellar in every way with his latest release, “Americana.” I’m a big fan of Doug Hammer and his music and have reviewed previous recordings for him in the past, and it seems that every time I do he outdoes himself. “Americana” once again does just that, while at the same time presenting something very different than we’re used to from Doug Hammer. The overall impression of the album is one of reflection and simplicity, and a feeling of looking back at America’s roots-without the nostalgia. The approach is fresh and modern, combining strings, percussion, voice and guitar with the piano compositions. At times the music is constructed in a way that’s almost deconstructed, with the piano parts playing simple melodies in their lonesome amidst the backdrop of some very sparse chording. This is not an accident, but rather, an intentional compositional move on Doug’s part. At times he’ll build these simple themes and melodies up so that by the end of the piece you have an arrangement that’s saturated with the powerful sounds of the moving chord progressions. The opening track and final track on the album are vastly different (one is an anthem style composition while the other is a rag which sounds as though it’s being played on an old record player), and this disturbs the “overall flow” of the recording slightly, but the quality of the playing, arrangements and recordings more than makes up for that.
The first of my top three picks on the album is track seven, “America The Beautiful.” We all know the song, and it’s a gorgeous melody by itself, just as we remember it. Doug takes that melody, alters it slightly, and interweaves it between a lovely, ambient and spacious introduction. Following that we hear a more straightforward approach to the song, which counter-balances the introduction, but don’t get too comfortable with that! Doug soon alters the music once again, adding pop style chords and chord progressions which build, only to then subdue into a final reconstruction of this timeless classic. This is “variations on a theme” at it’s best, a difficult accomplishment for any composer/arranger and a true testament to Doug’s talents in many arenas.
“Heartland” is the second piece we’ll be looking at in this review. It’s a solemn piece of music, and it moves slowly and methodically. I was born and raised in the American “Heartland” myself, and I can tell you that Doug has perfectly captured the serious, sober nature of the people from this part of the country in this beautifully contemplative piece of work. There’s a sentimentality that’s very prominent here as well, a sort of bittersweet look at what work, faith and family mean to these people. The piece speaks to my own heart, and all of the things that I come from. It’s definitely not a “warm fuzzy,” which once again is perfectly appropriate. The American Heartland is known for it’s friendliness, and equally for it’s stoicism.
Rounding out the album is the penultimate track, “The Dream Is Alive.” Doug presents us with one last message of hope through music in a track that’s uplifting and inspiring. The piece not only places that hope in our hands but it also empowers us, calling us to each do our part in a world that is sometimes shocking, cruel and unjust. It’s a regal piece of music, contemplative and expressive, that ends without a musical resolve as if to ask us a question: What is our part in “The Dream?”
To summarize this album I would say several things about “Americana.” The pieces, for the most part, speak independently and individually for themselves. This is a brilliant move on Doug’s part, keeping in mind that America is a country that thrives on individualism in and of itself. As such these are separate and unique pieces which capture the essence of the American Spirit. Let me also say what this album is not: It’s not heartwarming. It’s not in any way intimate or charming. It’s not even patriotic. It’s a collection of rugged songs and arrangements that have been composed in a way that smooths out the edges and makes them listenable, all the while defining the soul and character of America, it’s roots, its people, and its present state. It’s a complex recording that deserves to be viewed as such and not simply taken at face value, and I highly recommend it. Well done as always Mr. Hammer.
Reviewed by Pam Asberry
“Celtique,” Doug Hammer’s twelfth release, tells the story of a fisherman: a day in his life from daybreak to twilight. Inspired by his love of Celtic music as well as places and cultures he has experienced, Doug Hammer has created a masterpiece.
“Celtique” begins and ends with the title track “like an unbroken, sacred circle.” The first one, subtitled “Daybreak,” starts quietly but quickly develops into a spirited, joyful dance. “Through The Mist” opens with rich, sustained bass that supports a simple melody played in the middle register of the piano, then shifts to a contrasting theme that is both robust and haunting that almost sounded like it was being played on a hammered dulcimer, concluding with the second theme played in a whisper. “Wandering Path” begins with a repetitive bass pattern played at walking tempo beneath a simple right hand melody, changes to a second theme that shimmers like the wings of a hummingbird, then returns to the original theme. “Crumbling Wall” is an atmospheric sound painting; as the colorful, almost impressionistic chords ripple downward one can almost smell the earth and feel the roughness of the stone while walking along the ancient structure. This ambience continues with “Ancient Stones,” an elegant processional with open intervals pulsing in the left hand beneath a right hand melody both poignant and powerful in its simplicity as it alternates between the upper and middle registers of the piano.
“She Beckons” initially brought to mind the legend of the Sirens, alluring and mysterious, before changing to a passionate Celtic dance. The exuberant “To the Sea” encapsulates those feelings of excitement and optimism experienced when one embarks upon a long-anticipated journey. “Wind and Waves” describes that journey, which turns out to be a perilous one, with sonic representations of thunder, lightning and wind indicating that the ship is in grave peril. One can almost feel that sting of the ocean spray and the turbulence of the sea beneath! But all ends well with “Calm Water,” a musical depiction of peace settling over the ocean at the conclusion of the storm and sunlight sparkling over the smooth surface of the water. “Voices of the Past” pays homage to previous generations, their strength and courage a source of inspiration and courage in the present day. The hymn-like “Golden Land” is followed by “Moss and Earth,” its two contrasting themes serene and beautiful. “Journey Home” offers reflections of time well spent before the dreamlike closing track, subtitled “Twilight,” brings the day in the life of the fisherman to a tranquil finish.
Although this album deserves to be listened to in its entirety, the individual tracks are so strong individually that it is impossible for me to identify any particular favorites. I loved them all! Fans of solo piano and/or Celtic, this is an absolute must for your collections. Very highly recommended!