On Finding Gabriel (Nonesuch), which dropped in May, Mehldau, who turns forty-nine in August, eschews the acoustic landscape and the written word for musical ruminations on Old Testament prophecy and wisdom.
“When I was in my twenties I had a thirst to answer all these How and Why questions regarding existence,” Brad Mehldau remarked in 2006. “The big one that was constantly circling around was an ontological inquiry of what music is — trying to figure out what makes it tick.”
During those heady years, Mehldau established his ability to weave the harmonic language and emotional ambiance of Brahms and Mahler into his improvisational warp and capture it on a series of trio and solo recordings. He described his intentions and thought process — his speculations on what makes music tick — in a series of essays that comprise perhaps the most comprehensive aesthetic manifesto ever penned by a jazz musician not named Anthony Braxton. These existed, most notably, on explicative liner notes for three of five CDs that Warner Brothers issued between 1996 and 2001 under the umbrella title “The Art of the Trio.”
On his new album, Mehldau moves away from the acoustic space and towards the theological outer reaches, like a worshipper rising from a church, passing by human words in favor of the lord’s in the Old Testament. He creates exegetical sonic responses to passages from Daniel and Hosea, the Psalms, and the Books of Job and Ecclesiastes, addressing an array of keyboards and analog synthesizers upon which he layers the voices of Kurt Elling, Becca Stevens, Gabriel Kahane and himself. Also included are a cohort of horn players that includes tenor saxophone soloist Joel Frahm and trumpet soloist Ambrose Akinmusire; a string trio that includes violin soloist Sara Caswell; and the singular grooves of Mark Guiliana on drums and electronic drums.
The vaguely apocalyptic connotation that permeates the proceedings is entirely in keeping with Mehldau’s animating imperative to transmute Biblical study into, as he writes, “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.” To paraphrase a remark Mehldau made in the liner notes to his first solo piano record, Elegiac Cycles, the music “shimmers with the urgency of time and place.”
No album deserves the term “beyond category” more than Finding Gabriel, but you can position it as the latest instalment of a distinguished series of Mehldau’s cross-genre works. These include the plugged-in altpopisms of Largo (2001); the lyrical imaginary soundtrack, Highway Rider (2010), featuring 28-piece chamber orchestra; the Beat/Electronica-oriented Mehldau-Guiliana duo, Taming The Dragon (2014); fully notated song cycles for classical sopranos Renee Fleming (Love Sublime–2006) and Anne Sophie von Otter (Love Songs–2010); and a collaboration with singer-songwriter Chris Thile (Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau–2017).
The album arrives on the heels of a pair of 2018 acoustic releases that document the two files of activity that dominate Mehldau’s C.V. during his quarter-century as a recording artist. One is Seymour Reads The Constitution, Mehldau’s latest trio master class with bassist Larry Grenadier and Jeff Ballard, his working unit since 2005. The other is After Bach, an ambitious solo recital on which Mehldau refracts the complexities of The Well-Tempered Clavier into springboards for recomposition and improvisation, concluding with the elemental, hymn-like ballad, “Prayer For Peace.”
The latter song foreshadows the unembellished melodic flavor of the ten pieces that comprise Finding Gabriel, on which Mehldau tamps down his customarily florid improvisational impulses and instead privileges compositional and ensemble aims. Throughout the 55-minute program, the overall effect mirrors Mehldau’s description of the harmonic language of Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen, Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Mellisande, and late Mahler — “right on the edge of the abyss, yet still tonal, with a tragic, hyper-real feeling.”
The album also reflects, as Joshua Redman told me several years ago about Highway Rider, “a natural extension and development of all the musical ideas Brad’s worked with in the past … with a sense of arrival, of completion, as though fully formed in its time.” Redman continued: “Brad’s a true virtuoso, but it’s not intimidating — in every instance he employs his chops in the service of musicality and an emotional statement, not for display. You feel so much warmth and empathy and soul and love, as well as the intelligence, rigor and complexity music should have.”
One groundbreaking element of Finding Gabriel is the way Mehldau deploys Elling, Kahane and Stevens not as interpreters of the texts in question, but as discrete instruments possessing distinctive timbral properties — “a pure expression of harmony and emotion,” he writes. Perhaps not groundbreaking, but new to Mehldau’s instrumental arsenal, is the organ-like tone of an OB-6 Polyphonic analog synthesizer, on which — joined by Guiliana on drums — he generated the core elements of most of the tracks, before orchestrating the voices, strings, and winds into the flow. Mehldau functions as a multi-tracked one-man band on three selections — “Born to Trouble” (“For affliction does not come from the dust, nor does trouble sprout from the ground; but man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward.” –Job 5. 6-7); “O Ephraim” (“What shall I do with you, O Ephraim? Your love is like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes early away.” –Hosea 6.4); and the album-ending “Finding Gabriel” (“At the beginning of your pleas for mercy a word went out, and I have come to tell you, for you are greatly loved. Therefore consider the word and understand the vision.” –Daniel 9.23).
Inhabiting the role of Archangel Gabriel is trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, who climaxes the program-opening “The Garden” with an ascendent solo, and uncorks a florid, complex declamation that illuminates the Babylonian chaos portrayed in “The Prophet Is A Fool” (“The prophet is a fool, the man of the spirit is mad, because of your great iniquity and great hatred.” –Hosea 9.7), which also features a take-no-prisoners statement by tenor titan Frahm; snippets of a speaker, perhaps the current American President, chanting, “Build that wall”; a crowd cheering in response; and a dialogue between Mehldau and a boy, perhaps his son, discussing what to do.
Mehldau’s response to the boy’s question, “Who is he?” is not optimistic. “He’s just a voice,” Mehldau says. “He speaks for them. They’re scared. They think he makes them stronger.”
“Does he?” asks the boy.
“No, he weakens them.”
“Then they’re not dangerous actually.”
“No. They are dangerous. Deep inside, they suspect they’re getting fucked over, but they’re too proud to admit it. They don’t want to hear from us. He tells them we’re the enemy.”
“If they’re weak, why are they dangerous?”
“They have guns. Lots of guns. And they’re not for hunting.”
This is the only explicit analysis that Mehldau offers about 21st Century Populism on Finding Gabriel, but you can assimilate his message from the textual armature for “Deep Water” (“Save me, O God! For the waters have come up to my neck, I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me.” –Psalms 69.1-3) and “Proverb of Ashes” (“Your maxims are proverbs of ashes, your defences are defences of clay.” –Job 13.12). Politics is there, but in this cri de coeur Mehldau is placing his ontological focus on another big issue — what the human condition represents in our perilous times.
Brad Mehlhau – Finding Gabriel (Nonesuch Records)