Brad Mehldau doesn't do predictable. The celebrated American pianist's output to date has been mainly in the traditional trio format. Within it, though, he has always been mercurial and inventive, both in terms of what constitutes a suitable basis for improvisation (anything from Brahms to Gershwin to Radiohead), and in the moment-to-moment decisions that inform his solos.
Even by Mehldau's own standards, Mehliana: Taming the Dragon is a bold move, and one that may surprise, even alarm devoted followers of his acoustic playing. Teaming up with trail-blazing percussionist Mark Guiliana, Mehldau lays his talented hands on an array of electric keyboards, including the gorgeous Fender Rhodes, a prepared upright piano, and a winking bank of old-school 1970s synths. Rarely do both hands play the same keyboard at any given moment. And rarely has new music sounded so damned exciting.
It’s unusual for a pianist of Mehldau’s calibre to get stuck into electricity in this way – guitarists have generally proved far more adventurous. Early adopters of the synthesiser (Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea) have largely reverted to acoustic instruments, and Keith Jarrett famously refuses to sully his hands with electricity.
There have been notable exceptions (Jan Hammer, Hermeto Pascoal, the late Joe Zawinul), but recently the synthesiser has lacked a champion in contemporary jazz worthy of its potential. So to hear Mehldau apply his fearsome skills – particularly the independence to play several at the same time – is to hear the future that was promised when synths first emerged in the 1970s.
Guiliana, meanwhile, is a musician engaged in his own feat of reinvention. At 34, the New Jersey-born drummer is 10 years Mehldau’s junior and has grown up with the synthetic, programmed beats of hip-hop, techno and drum’n’bass. His dense, polyrhythmic grooves bridge the yawning gulf between those sequenced dancefloor sounds that no human should be able to play, and the flexible, responsive funkiness that no machine will ever replicate.
Every now and again a record comes along that sounds like it slipped through a wormhole from the future. Mehliana is one of them. bradmehldau.com