It happens every year when Christmas rolls around. As exquisite as so much holiday music is – especially in the new age solo piano realm – sometimes we hear so much of it, and the same old tried and true versions so often, that our ears can get fatigued and songs we once embraced grow so familiar we tune out the uplifting messages. With secular seasonal fare, it’s perhaps not so much of a loss. Tunes like “Silver Bells” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” may make us feel warm and fuzzy (at least in moderation) but were never intended to spark the opening and awakening of our spirit to a higher purpose and understanding of God.
It’s a whole different story – literally - when we’re talking about the four songs related to the birth narrative of Christ that veteran pianist and recording artist Dana Cunningham graces us with on her new EP What I Hear: A Collection of Carols – a long-waited sequel to her 2005 album Silent Night and a prelude to her full length holiday album, due next year.
In line with the messages of the pieces on her most recent album, 2016’s Above the Field: A Collection of Hymns, the three carols “What Child Is This,” “We Three Kings” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” relate gospel-centric stories meant to change hearts. The opening track “Do You Hear What I Hear” is not a traditional carol, but is still a unique way to convey the concept of a birth that will change the world and bring “goodness and light.” When these become so familiar that we click “next,” we may just be tuning out to something soul and life changing.
Which is why Dana’s versions, inviting as they may be, are more than simply lovely, tender and impressionistic versions of songs we’ve heard many times before. The gentle, reflective and open-minded way she approaches them inspires us to feel every emotion, hang on every chord and melodic line and take flight in our spirit. Check out, for instance, the unique dynamics of “Do You Hear What I Hear,” which eases from the gentle high ranges to darker, heavier emphatic chords to emphasize the dramatic story line.
Also noteworthy: Dana’s meditative movement through “What Child Is This” that captures the solemnity of a silent night and the sparks of joy where manger and heaven playfully merge; the ominous approach of “We Three Kings” that gives way to an openhearted, tender dance of the heart (via intertwining piano and cello); and the soft and reflective yet increasingly bright spin she puts on “Hark!” that approximates the balance between the sacred event and the slow build up to jubilantly sharing the Good News with the world.
And yes, though she creates instrumental versions (two featuring the lush harmonic coloring of Max Dyer’s lithe cello lines), Danas’ inspired renderings allow us to feel calm enough to bring the words up in our memory and sing along. This uniqueness has been the pianist’s trademark her whole career. None other than new age artist, super-producer and Windham Hill Records founder Will Ackerman once said, “The greatest compliment I can pay any musician is that they sound like no one else. . .that Dana is simply one of the most impressive pianists with whom I have ever worked adds to the singularity of her talent.”
Even beyond being influenced by her mother’s passion for Chopin, Ravel, Debussy and Satie growing up, perhaps the reason Dana is so lyrical and spiritually intuitive about these pieces is a multi-faceted background that includes growing up singing old southern hymns, a Master’s in Biblical Studies from Dallas Theological Seminary and a sabbatical at Our Lady of Guadalupe Monastery. She knows she’s sharing more than her freewheeling takes on long-established pretty melodies. She’s tapping into the deeper essences of life and higher purpose and blessing us with the riches.
Listen to What I Hear here: https://open.spotify.com/album/3cDILF5I738cNJNlQNXSQj