Cloud of Witnesses: Brad Mehldau searches the Scriptures

Finding gabriel

When something’s broken, it’s always wise to check the manual. That’s what the jazz pianist and composer Brad Mehldau does on his new Finding Gabriel, an album born of grief and confusion over crumbling institutions, shattered societal guardrails, and the prevailing sense of things falling apart. Trying to make some sense of these beleaguered times, Mehldau searched the Scriptures. “Finding Gabriel came after reading the Bible closely for the last several years,” he explains. “The prophetic writing of Daniel and Hosea resonated in particular, as well as the wisdom literature of Job and Ecclesiastes, and the devotional words of Psalms. The Bible felt like a corollary and perhaps a guide to the present day—one long nightmare or a signpost leading to potential gnosis, depending on how you read it.” So the album is a Bible study, but perhaps not in the way you’d expect. There’s no attempt here to summarize Judeo-Christian dogma; instead, Mehldau preserves the voice of the Bible as a library of human experience– the collected testimonies of migrants, asylum seekers, wayfaring strangers, and prophetic voices pleading for the Kingdom to come. It’s an album about life amidst chaos, and if it doesn’t settle on any answers, it upholds the search itself as something holy in its own right; something that binds us with the great cloud of witnesses from the past.

Mehldau’s immersion in ancient wisdom is well-annotated, the liner notes appending a textual citation to each of its 10 songs. Not that you necessarily need them: Even the biblical novice will register “Born to Trouble,” which juxtaposes the deep blue of Mehldau’s piano against the antiseptic indifference of an analog synthesizer, as a meditation on the plight of Job; “Striving After the Wind,” which chases vanities through a haze of loops and squelches, as a repartee with the Teacher from Ecclesiastes. Even so, anyone who plans attendance in Mehldau’s Bible study will want to do the readings in advance. You might even supplement with Jesus’ words from John 10:27 (Mehldau’s citations keep it Old Testament, but there’s no reason we should stick to such arbitrary dispensations): “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” Or this, from Psalm 55: “I utter my complaint and moan, and he hears my voice.” The ancient wisdom posits time and again that voice is a connection point between humanity and the divine, and Mehldau seems to grasp the theological weight of that on Finding Gabriel, a largely lyric-less album that’s bedecked with a host of vocalizing witness-bearers. When those voices do congeal around actual words, they tend to be faint expressions of need; one song opens with a slow and bleary exhalation, then Mehldau’s simple request to “make it all go away”– a crude prayer language, perhaps, but as relatable as any Psalm. Much more often, voices unite in wordless supplication: They appear in “The Garden” one after another, like so many stars appearing in the night sky, cooing and moaning as the song’s weariness builds toward ascent. Just as the sheep know the call of their shepherd, you’ll know from the timber of these voices that they are searchers and seekers, lifting up holy groanings even when intellect and vocabulary fail them.

The voices that swoop and dive through these soundscapes– not unlike the unruly choirs that add vocal ballast to Kamasi Washington’s records– include such luminaries as Kurt Elling, Becca Stevens, and Gabriel Kahane. You’ll hear Mehldau himself speak up a time or two, but even when he’s not at the mic, the whole of Finding Gabriel bears his unmistakable voicings. Mehldau is justly celebrated for his brainy, deeply conceptual solo recordings (After Bach, 10 Years Solo Live) as well as records that expand the lexicon of the traditional jazz trio (Seymour Reads the Constitution!), but Finding Gabriel feels closer to Largo or Highway Rider— albums that required a broader palette to capture the eccentric colors of his imagination. It’s an expansive record that consolidates much of what Mehldau’s done before but also carries the thrill of experiment and discovery: “The Garden” opens with a narcotic keyboard haze learned from his beloved Radiohead, its gauzy reverie ultimately blasted open with righteous skronk and howl from trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and breakneck drumming from Mark Guiliana. “Proverb of Ash” captures the meditative feel of Mehldau’s solo piano recordings, only here he accompanies himself on synths and drum loops, the result a wonderfully rickety one-man-band groove. “O Ephraim” is an elegiac cycle that thrums with anticipation, while “St. Mark is Howling in the City of Night” teeters from an arena-rock backbeat into the delicate swell of voices and strings. The animating tension in all of this is between Mehldau’s usual intellectual robustness and his willingness to negotiate new sounds and textures; you can tell that there’s concrete ideological scaffolding holding all of this together, yet much of the album is played on keyboards and synthesizers that were new to Mehldau, keeping these performances just slightly off-kilter and exploratory.

The voices themselves are what make the greatest impression, yet they’re subsumed by the voice you hear on “The Prophet is a Fool,” a composition so formally audacious and thematically brash that it casts a shadow over everything else on Finding Gabriel. Here, Mehldau rolls the tape from a political rally, including the voice of the 45th President of the United States inciting his acolytes into fear-mongering isolationism. Mehldau himself verbalizes blunt commentary. It’s unsubtle, but perhaps Mehldau would tell you that it’s pitched at just the right frequency for a brutish age. And maybe there’s more to it than it first seems. With the rally scene, the pianist provides us with a study in discipleship– a reminder that we all have voices to whom we’re accountable, whether they’re heads of state or simply ragged figures testifying in the desert, ratifying the prophets who came before them. Either way, sheep always recognize the sound of their shepherd. The Bible tells us so; Brad Mehldau bears witness.

Legacy & Lineage: Old and new jazz from Joshua Redman; Bugge Wesseltoft & Prins Thomas; Brad Mehldau Trio

still dreaming

Joshua Redman’s Still Dreaming tells a story of lineage and legacy. It starts all the way back with Ornette Coleman, the “free jazz” godfather who still daunts neophytes with his reputation for entropy and abrasion. Exposure to his work unveils the alleged rabble-rouser as a tunesmith without equal, and on early classics like The Shape of Jazz to Come and Change of the Century, Coleman pursued an aesthetic equally devoted to free expression and melodic purity. Those early Coleman records use the master’s great tunes as trailheads for idiosyncrasy and invention; they feel both direct and unpredictable, with each player developing a unique personal grammar amidst a tumble of melodies and rhythms. The restless Coleman would eventually be seduced by funk and electronics, but the spirit of those seminal explorations was continued by Old and New Dreams—a group of Coleman alumni that included trumpeter Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden, drummer Ed Blackwell, and saxophonist Dewey Redman. Old and New Dreams were keepers of the flame, perhaps, but they used it as a spark for further combustion. Their albums from the 70s and early 80s carve out new territory within Coleman’s elastic aesthetic; their legacy exists in his shadow, but it also deepens his pioneering vocabulary.

Joshua, as you might have guessed, is Dewey’s son—and though he’s recorded several albums of his own with Coleman/Old and New Dreams veterans, he’s always been aloof in his relationship to his father’s pedigree. The younger Redman is many things, including a deep conceptual thinker, a generous collaborator, and a preeminent balladeer. One thing he’s not is complacent custodian to anyone’s legacy—Coleman’s, his father’s, or anyone else’s.  The great thrill of Still Dreaming, then, is how it reveals the ideals of Old and New Dreams to be eternally renegotiable. This music deliberately engages with a particular sound and tradition but not as a means to preserve it in amber; instead, the saxophonist and his third-generation dreamers blow the dust off familiar conceits, taking a rangy and roaming approach to their springy melodic pursuits. It’s an album about lineage, but only as filtered through their unique and vibrant personalities.

The newest dreamers include Ron Miles on coronet, Brian Blade on drums, and Scott Colley on bass—all three players whose eclecticism both embraces and surpasses jazz traditionalism. (Colley, in particular, is quickly becoming an MVP sideman; see also the twitchy energy he brings to the Nels Cline 4.) Their performances evoke the spontaneous camaraderie and effervescent tunefulness of Old and New Dreams without ever lapsing into tribute-band territory—and as evidence, check their take on Haden’s “Playing,” which served as the title song on Old and New Dreams’ best album. The original began as a speaker-rattling bass rumble, as though it was recorded from deep within a subwoofer, but here it’s recast as mournful dialogue between Redman and Miles before Colley and Blade enter with a nervous-tic pulse. This song and Coleman’s “Comme II Faut” are the only canonical selections here, with everything else composed anew by Redman or his band members—and perhaps it’s telling that the most lovably Coleman-esque song on the whole album is “New Year,” a bubbly Colley composition that opens with a tightly melodic head before each band member peels off into a joyous and ramshackle solo, stretching the tune like it’s taffy but never losing its original shape.

Elsewhere, they recast Old and New Dreams’ lineage in their own image; listen to “Blues for Charlie,” with a smoky romance from Redman that goes down smoother than anything his ancestors ever recorded together, even as its malleable easy-listening is warped and transfigured over the song’s seven-minute run time. This, basically, is the Old and New value proposition: Musicians of extraordinary distinction putting pristine melodies through one mutation after another, bending them against their personal aesthetic preferences. There’s a prickly energy to the whole album, a high-wire tension heard in how Redman and his band fly so high above their melodic safety net, only to find their way back to its reassuring familiarity. You hear it best on “Unanimity,” a Redman composition. The quartet springs headlong into a halting groove, all four of them voicing the song’s buoyant refrain in perfectly stuttered unison, before they unravel it into a frayed jumble: Snaps and pops and rolling thunder from Blade, pliant swing from Colley, horn solos that disassemble the main theme and then jigsaw it back together. Take the song’s title as a mission statement: One of the great pleasures in jazz is hearing individual voices finding common ground, personal freedom wed to like-minded co-creation. It’s a pleasure that Still Dreaming both ratifies and expands.

It’s not the only recent jazz album to renegotiate a prestigious legacy. On a new collaborative album, Norwegians Bugge Wesseltoft and Prins Thomas engage the legacy of ECM Records, the venerated label that’s printed countless classics from Paul Bley, Keith Jarett, Charles Lloyd, and, as luck would have it, Old and New Dreams. ECM is acclaimed for its sound—bright, crisp, and warm—but also for its aesthetic, one that upholds both jazz and classical works and increasingly blurs the distinction between the two. Bugge Wesseltoft & Prins Thomas embraces ECM’s pristine sonics as well as its reputation for elegant synthesis, bringing both into the digital age. (The entire record feels like the answer to a question you hadn’t realized you’d asked: What would the classic ECM aesthetic sound like it augmented with laptop computers?) Wesseltoft is a jazz pianist long conversant with electronica, Thomas a keyboard texturalist indebted to jazz’ looseness and its use of space. Here their sensibilities dissolve into a seamless fusion, one that brings out the best in both artists while also pushing them into new discoveries. There are surprising textural composites here: “Norte do Brasil” sounds like the music of cathedrals as played on the chintziest Casio keyboard, euphoria channeled through washed-out synths. There are unexpected left turns into the back pages of jazz: “Sin Tempo,” intimate minimalism for live piano and drums, flirts with the melancholy and romance of a Bill Evans ballad. “Bar Asfalt” is elevator exotica, Wesseltoft’s piano winding its way through a funhouse of chimes and drum loops. But the album’s 800-pound gorilla is opening song “Furuberget,” an 18-minute shapeshifting groove that encompasses electronica’s layers and loops and the jazz tradition of thematic variation: Sometimes the song dissolves into its own beeps and bloops, only to be respawned as something recognizable yet reimagined. It’s a case study in how music that’s built on the past can still utterly surprise.

And you can’t discuss jazz legacies without talking about one of the music’s preeminent living historians—that is, someone for whom jazz is living history, ever open to reinterpretation. Pianist Brad Mehldau thinks about jazz structurally, comparatively, and taxonomically, not just in his heady liner notes but also in intellectually rich solo piano albums. This year’s reflective After Bach considered classical music through a jazz prism—it would have fit in well in the ECM discography—but his most colorful and kinetic albums are the ones he makes in the trio format. Seymour Reads the Constitution! crackles with energy and swing; it’s the work of a group that’s as comfortable with each other as they are with the lineage they unspool—Mehldau, bassist Larry Grenadier, drummer Jeff Ballard. There’s no overarching concept here, but the album belongs to the same tradition as Bill Evans’ Portrait in Jazz or Duke Ellington’s Money Jungle—albums that subtly animate the pliable nature of the piano/bass/drums format. Mehldau remains devoted to the porous nature of the jazz canon, here claiming a couple of pop tunes as standards: The trio brings a nimble touch to the folksy flourishes of Paul McCartney’s “Great Day,” and they breeze through The Beach Boys’ waltz “Friends.” There are more canonical standards, too: “Almost Like Being Love” begins with an ambling gait but builds into a whirling dervish of fleet-fingered piano and rumbling drums. These songs map out the physical and intellectual possibilities implicit in the chemistry between three musicians, but the most valuable offerings of all may be Mehldau’s originals: The clattering “Spiral” ascends forever, faster and faster as it goes, while the title song is a tragicomic picaresque, a sly shuffle through melancholy and whimsy. These are some of Mehldau’s most charismatic compositions to date, finding room for distinction in a lineage that stretches on.

Continuum: MAST plays Monk, Mehldau plays Bach

mast

It’s tempting to view songbook excursions in purely binary terms—assuming any re-litigation of a well-trod canon to be either an exercise in rote reverence or in cheeky desecration. A pair of new albums—both of them ostensibly jazz, or at the very least jazz-adjacent—have it both ways, exploring the contours of familiar songs and keeping the material both formally and spiritually intact, yet still allowing it to live and breathe in a whole new context.

Released for the great composer and pianist’s centennial birthday, MAST’s Thelonious Sphere Monk chops, screws, dissects, and bedazzles 16 Monk tunes—and just when you find yourself bracing for the next irresistible curveball, the album throws you a straight one, just to remind you of the skewed and enchanted beauty found in the originals. MAST is the project of L.A. guitarist and producer Tim Conley, who kicks these beloved songs down a staircase where they hit every electronic bleep and bloop along the way, but land without bruise or blemish: There’s not a song here that doesn’t pass through the filter of MAST’s colorful imagination, and not a song that’s anything less than instantly recognizable in its ravishing melody and off-kilter beauty. It’s an album where live jazz and trippy studio effects happily coexist: “Evidence” throbs with low end rumble and lurches through funhouse beats and samples before a full horn section comes in; the song cuts back and forth between trumpet and sax like they’re turntable samples, yet there’s visceral thrill to the horn players’ blazing fury and lively improvisation. It’s an album of thrilling transitions, too: As “Evidence” collapses into skittering beats, it melts seamlessly into the pulsing upright bass of “Bemsha Swing,” setting the stage for the clear melodicism of Conley’s electric guitar solo. Just as pianist Robert Glasper kept his Miles Davis tribute largely trumpet-free, Conley largely keeps pianos out of the spotlight here, highlighting the breadth and depth of his compositions rather than the rickety genius of his soloing—yet when Brian Marsella shows up to tickle the ivories on a fairly straight version of “Ask Me Now,” he connects the dots between Monk’s childlike whimsy and his roadhouse roots, proving that Monk contained multitudes. Elsewhere, Conley tests the resilience of these Monk tunes by letting them collide with more modern forms and tropes: A wobbly take on “Oska T” interpolates loose piano with a boom-bap drum beat, drawing a straight line from Monk’s wooziness to the punch-drunk beats of J Dilla. “Blue Monk” is done as a rattling headphone symphony, the melody carried entirely by the cavernous bass. An album-opening take on “Misterioso” allows Monk’s tune to drift in on a bed of synth ambiance and resounding gongs. “Epistrophy,” where a full horn section plays hot blues across breakneck drum ‘n’ bass, feels like the most maniacal thing here, until a late-album take on “Trinkle Tinkle” creates trance music almost entirely through the cling and clatter of percussion instruments. But no matter how much these songs are dressed up or dressed down, MAST retains their core appeal—their winking humor, their disoriented physicality, and most of all Monk’s melodicism, as unabashedly tuneful and romantic as Ornette’s or Billy Strayhorn’s. Only Monk himself composed richer, more imaginative Monk albums, and the triumph here is how Conley and his cohorts carry the torch of the composer’s own relentless reinvention—how he was always able to make these songs sound fresh again, no matter how many times he played them.

More austere but no less interested in songbook excavation as a catalyst for creative expression, Brad Mehldau’s solo piano album After Bach presents five Bach pieces—played with finesse and with passion—each followed by Mehdau’s reimagining. His ambitions are clear from the outset, as he spends just over a minute reciting the melody of “Prelude No. 3 in C# Major” before launching into his “Rondo” variant—the latter boasting an immediately recognizable melody but a looser, more languid pacing, the space between the notes transforming its mood from contemplative to gently swinging. Mehdau’s solo piano albums have long blurred the lines between classical and jazz (see Elegiac Cycles) and boasted knotty conceptual thinking (see 10 Years Solo Live), so it’s no surprise that After Bach offers something a bit more refined than a familiar “head” opening up to riffing and improvisation: Each of the “After Bach” pieces offers a thoughtful rewiring of the Bach original, with a “Flux” reading turning the “Prelude No. 10 in E Minor” inside out and a monumental “Ostinato” version of “Fugue No. 16 in G Minor” spending a full 12 minutes moving from expressionistic ambiance into a symphonic swell, gradually winding its way back down through classical precision and jazz abstraction. Mehldau presents a manifesto on timing and empty space, and as with the MAST album, he reinvents an enduring songbook without ever obscuring its resonant melodies. Most impressive of all is how Mehldau’s spritely playing and intelligent constructions make the album a natural and engaging listen, never feeling overly studious even in its repetition of material.

These two albums sound little alike, but make for accidentally illuminating companion pieces: Taken together, they lay out a continuum of classical music morphing into jazz, jazz evolving further into electronica; and, they both find progression in tradition, making a case for old songs as catalysts for new ideas.