One of the elite of internationally acclaimed jazz musicians, Brad Mehldau is also something of a musician’s musician. He is a master of independence, not just in terms of technical facility at the piano but also in terms of the musical skill and intelligence needed to construct differentiated, contrapuntal internal parts. Since the disbandment of his original piano trio (with whom he recorded the hubristically but not inaccurately titled Art Of The Trio series), his music has become increasingly nuanced, reflective and subtle, drawing on the jazz tradition, the classical world and a new contemporary pop repertoire in equal measure.
Not content with having released a beautiful solo piano concert on CD and DVD earlier this year (the stunning Live In Marciac), Mehldau here collaborates with fellow US jazz pianist Kevin Hays (who has played with the likes of John Scofield and Pat Metheny as well as leading his own award winning trio) and the contemporary classical composer and arranger Patrick Zimmerli. A good deal of care and talent has gone into the making of this album.
Although it is certainly an inter-disciplinary affair, featuring musicians of different backgrounds, there are some identifiable common threads. The two pianists tackle a short excerpt from Steve Reich’s brilliant Music For 18 Musicians and elsewhere there are signs of an interest in exploring the possibilities of minimalism. Zimmerli’s own title track also has a certain Reichian charm, with its propulsive central rhythmic ostinato.
Throughout the album, there are remarkably deft fusions of features from the jazz and classical worlds. Hays’ Elegia, for example, is characterised by affecting, weaving melodies executed with a fantastic lightness of touch. Yet there is also some bold and exciting improvisation around his themes which incorporate interesting chromaticism. Mehldau’s Unrequited, originally recorded in duo setting with Pat Metheny, is every bit as controlled and haunting here.
Ornette Coleman’s Lonely Woman serves as the team’s choice of jazz ‘standard’, although it is of course a composition at some distance removed from the standard repertoire. It’s one of the highlights of this consistently intriguing set, with a new harmonic approach to Coleman’s melody that provides a radically different context. The improvised lines from Mehldau and Hays are breathtakingly intricate.
Mehldau has spoken of how Zimmerli’s involvement took both pianists away from their comfort zones, sometimes requiring them to play written parts whilst improvising at the same time. There is certainly an intensity and density to some of this music, perhaps an inevitable consequence of two virtuoso pianists improvising together. For committed jazzers, it may be seen as a diversion from the main core of Mehldau’s work. Yet everything this gifted and open-minded musician tackles is different – he has employed the services of Jon Brion, a producer better known for his work in the fields of rock and pop (with mixed results), and he has long infused his improvising with his love of classical music heritage.
There is definitely a sense of adventure and discovery that is exciting, but also an uncertainty that makes this marginally less satisfying than the Marciac concert. Still, it’s another fascinating and technically remarkable addition to Mehldau’s body of work and it will no doubt prompt listeners to further explore Hays’ work too.