Brad Mehldau - Finding Gabriel

Label: Nonesuch, 2019

Personnel includes Brad Mehldau: piano, synthesizers, Fender Rhodes, Hammond B-3 organ, Musser Ampli-Celeste, Morfbeats gamelan strips, xylophone, mellotron, drums, percussion, vocals; Ambrose Akinmusire: trumpet; Joel Frahm: tenor saxophone; Chris Cheek: baritone sax, tenor sax; Charles Pillow: baritone sax, alto sax, soprano sax, bass clarinet; Michael Thomas: alto sax, flute; Sara Caswell: violin; Mark Guiliana: drums; Kurt Elling: vocals; Becca Stevens: vocals; Gabriel Kahane: vocals; and more.

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One of the most popular stylists in contemporary jazz, pianist Brad Mehldau, releases a challenging record, stepping away from conventional jazz paths as he explores new directions, deliberately looking for something new. Expanding vistas into multiple musical arenas that not merely jazz and classical, Mehldau creates a hypnotic concoction where he explores alternative textures and sounds with sometimes-crawling, sometimes-kinetic modernistic beats, multi-layered vocalizations, and an artsy fusion of electronica-induced vibes and modern creative fervor. Motivated by the Holy Scriptures and today’s political destabilization, the pianist brings to light 10 new compositions recorded over an 18-month period, some of them featuring illustrious guests such as drummer Mark Guiliana, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, saxophonist Joel Frahm, violinist Sara Caswell, and vocalists Kurt Elling and Becca Stevens, among others.

Regardless the fantastic crew of musicians, Mehldau tackles three accompanying himself: “Born To Trouble”, a romantic, slightly gospelized pop-ish track showing deep love for melody and incorporating a minimalistic beat later turned into a regular 4/4 backbeat; “O Ephraim”, during which he poses poetic classical expressions on the Musser Ampli-Celeste and complements it with jazz improvisation on Fender Rhodes; and the title track, which closes out the album with piano, synth, mellotron, Hammond-B3, drums, percussion, and vocals.

Among the highlights is the opening tune, “The Garden”, which initially foregrounds an atmospheric gospelized synth wave tied to a minimalistic beat that creates urgency. Beautifully layered, the three-piece vocal explorations immerse us in a sonic cloud that is simultaneously ethereal and petrifying, just as Philip Glass’s “Koyaanisqatsi”. This all happens before Guiliana’s drums go berserk, the inky throb of the bass notes make their way, and an amazing solo by Akinmusire reaches the skies. The trumpeter also blows on the politically charged “The Prophet Is a Fool”, another peak, but the star here is Frahm, whose seismic tenor outpour is filled with in-and-out movements. If prior to his intervention we could ride the vigorous rocking rhythm, the dirty funky bass a-la Beastie Boys, and the chilled-out hip-hop piano moves reminiscent of Robert Glasper, then, after that, we hear a tragicomic vocal sample saying: 'build that wall!', followed by a breakbeat avalanche.

Although both immersed in ambient waters, “Striving After Wind” and “Deep Water” reveal fine singularities. The former is a synth-infused, electronica-inspired piece with breakbeats, while the latter sinks in downtempo, featuring a string trio led by Caswell’s violin as well as Stevens’ rigorous voice. The latter’s vocal presence also captures the listeners’ attention on “Make It All Go Away”, a spacious combination of new age, funk/soul, and trip-hop, but it’s Kurt Elling who shines by the end, pulling the song into a crescendo. These moods contrast with the progressive trance projected by “St. Mark is Howling in the City of Night”, where chamber-esque sketches are drawn atop the syncopated groove in seven. Rock-inflected movements on the lower register bolster the scenario.

Roll up your sleeves and strap in for this unprecedented work by Mehldau, likely his most conceptually knotty and meticulously composed yet.

Grade  A-

Grade A-

Favorite Tracks:
01 - The Garden ► 06 - The Prophet Is a Fool ► 07 - Make It All Go Away


Brad Mehldau Trio - Seymour Reads the Constitution!

Label: Nonesuch Records, 2018

Personnel - Brad Mehldau: piano; Larry Grenadier: acoustic bass; Jeff Ballard: drums.

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Brad Mehldau, one of the most influential pianists of our times, is all imagination and sophistication when it comes to composition and execution. After assembling readings of preludes by Bach and his own originals on the solo work After Bach (Nonesuch, 2018), he returns to the trio format, accompanied by longtime associates Larry Grenadier and Jeff Ballard on bass and drums, respectively.

The new album, Seymour Reads the Constitution!, got its title from a weird dream with the actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman, two weeks before his death. In addition to three originals, the album features renditions of meaningful post-bop pieces, pop songs, and a jazz standard.

Two originals are at the top of the song lineup. Whereas the odd-metered “Spiral” relies on a dazzling rhythm, a beautifully poignant melody reminiscent of Jobim, and a consistent post-bop stream of elegant sequential voicings, the title track is a classical-tinged waltz propelled by Ballard’s distinctive brushwork and stamped with refined piano phrases gently pronounced in unison with the bass. Mehldau compellingly flies in his solo, subtly pervading passage notes with warmth and richness, while Grenadier’s exploration becomes a source of inspiration such is the expressiveness revealed.

Swinging with gusto, the trio shapes “Like Someone in Love” with a different tempo and artistic refinement. Liveliness and elasticity conduct the drummer to enthusiastically trade bars with his bandmates. He repeats the procedure on Sam Rivers’ “Beatrice”, where notes are tossed with zest and lush chord changes take place on top of Grenadier’s dancing patterns. He even quotes “Acknowledgement” by Coltrane at some point. 

Elmo Hope’s “De-Dah” is tackled with a cool touch and flows at a moderate pace with bebop stimulus. One finds the pianist in evidence again with improvised lines that go around the melody, deepened by cracking motifs in a fluent conversational tone. The melodicism mirrors his purest musical sensitivity. Following the bandleader’s example, bassist and drummer, besides utterly supportive of each other in guaranteeing a classy foundation, also explore swirls of emotion through the appeal of spontaneity.

Mehldau has a knack for giving pop songs a unique emotional touch. For this album, the chosen ones were Beach Boys’ “Friends” and Paul McCartney’s “Great Day”. The former was transformed into an amiable jazz waltz (the original version also obeys a 3/4 time signature) with an inventive final section while the latter feels like a lively percussive triumph with a bluesy feel. Placed in the middle of these compositions, “Ten Tune” falls in the third stream genre and comes cleverly arranged with melodic counterpoint.

Mehldau Trio demonstrates a firm grasp across styles, engulfing the listeners in their glistening, warm-hearted storytelling and transporting them into another realm. This is among the most enchanting offerings of his career.

        Grade  A

        Grade A

Favorite Tracks:
01 - Spiral ► 04 - De-Dah ► 05 - Friends


Joshua Redman & Brad Mehldau - Nearness

Joshua Redman: saxophone; Brad Mehldau: piano.

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Only wonderful things could happen when the saxophonist Joshua Redman and the pianist Brad Mehldau, two longtime friends and creative minds of equal caliber, joined forces and let it out what their musical souls contain.
Recorded live during their European tour, Nearness touches an absolute emotional richness and its six duets - three originals and three covers - are to be cherished as real treasures.

This memorable celebration starts with Parker’s “Ornithology”, here transformed into a stylish neo-bop stretch that brings the flavors of the past mixed with a contemporary vision presented in the form of a superior musical wit. 
The mood changes with Mehldau’s “Always August”, a beautiful tune that went straight under my skin, aiming to the heart with all its influential assertiveness. Heavenly piano chords carry a vital, soulful pulse from which is impossible to stay indifferent. Redman is an unconditional giver, fulfilling the spaces with clever melodic delineations while Mehldau is better than ever, lighting up a consistent fire that lasts from the first to the last minute.

If still among us, Thelonious Monk would be certainly grateful for the fantastic rendition of his tune “In Walked Bud”, which boasts distinguished variations. Sporadically, the improvisers throw in fragments of the original’s main theme, permitting us to recognize the tune without falling in the obvious. Mehldau’s piano work attains a perfect balance through the inspiring and complementary sounds extracted by his left and right hands. By the end, the duo embarks on trades of eight, and then four bars, letting me more and more speechless with the coherence of their conversations.

The melancholy insinuated in the title “Mehlsancholy Mode” is only true until a certain point. In truth, I felt more alert than ever, in an attempt to absorb every idea suggested and the prompt responses that arrived from the other side.
Following “The Nearness of You”, a renowned jazz standard played with tasteful intimacy, we have Mehldau’s “Old West” whose pop music connotations are totally appropriate to conclude. This tune insists in cyclic harmonic sequences and unobscured melodies, evolving to irresistible solos that sweep the sky, whether as soft breezes or controlled wind gusts.

Mature, freeing and sophisticated, Nearness is a colossal record that will spin for a long time around here. I hope you can also feel this vibrant nearness that Redman and Mehldau are now sharing with the world.

Favorite Tracks:
02 – Always August ► 03 – In Walked Bud ► 06 – Old West