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Brad Mehldau's new Prog album, Jacobs Ladder


NewImprov
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Was going to discuss this on the current listening thread, but thought it might deserve its own thread. I've been pretty obsessed with this album since it came out a couple weeks ago. Love Mehldau generally, and am a pretty hardcore prog fan. On this album, he covers Rush (Tom Sayer and the title track), Yes (Starship Trooper) and Gentle Giant (Cogs in Cogs). instrumentally, it's mostly Mehldau on piano and a range of synths,  and (awesome) drummer Mark Guiliana, with a few other guests and a few vocalists. 

 

He takes some interesting directions with the tunes. Tom Sayer is here twice, the album starts with the tune linked above that takes a child singing one phrase from the original, while Mehldau reharmonizes and drastically re-arranges around it. The other version is probably the most straight-forward on the album, a pretty faithful cover for the first 2 minutes, with vocals by Chris Thiles, then takes off into an improvisational space based on the middle synth riff. 

 

Cogs in Cogs and Jacobs ladder are both expanded into 3-part arrangements. The first part of Cogs takes an almost chamber-music approach to a few elements of the tune with some wonderful piano and rhodes improvisations. The second part is a somewhat strait arrangement of the tune that emphasizes the fugal and Early Music elements of the original, with vocals from Becca Stevens, imho, the best vocal performance on the album. The third version takes a Switched-On Bach treatment of the tune as a fugue, realized on Moog Modular. 

 

Jacob's Ladder has always been one of my favorite Rush tunes, and I've always felt there was a Tangerine Dream influence on the original recording. Part 1 of Mehldau's version is a variety of voices quoting the book of Genesis. Part 2 brings out the droney majesty of the original, before swerving analog drum machines and synths for the ostinato, and ends with one of Mehldau's nicest piano solos on the album. Part 3 goes into more bible quotes, some in German, and ends with screaming, it's the most "avant-garde" moment on the album, and I'm not really sure it works, though it is certainly unexpected.

 

His take on Yes's Starship Trooper is mostly piano-based and is quite wonderful, again taking a chamber-jazz approach to the tune. It really works, one of the best things on the album.

 

I had very mixed feelings about the record on first listen, but it really has won me over, it is a truly progressive take on some progressive music, with some terrific playing and really ingenious arrangements. Much as I love and respect Mehldau as a jazz pianist, I would have never suspected he'd do an album like this, and I find it really commendable that he took the risk. Would love to hear other thoughts about the album.

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I've only listened through once, but it's really cool. (Although I wish he had chosen a different singer for "Maybe as his skies are  wide"). He's used some synths on other records, so I guess it's not completely out of left field.

Of course, his success and reputation as a jazz player (and having a supportive record label) gives him the opportunity to more easily do this kind of thing, but he's the kind of musician everyone should strive to be: highly skilled and unencumbered by genre. 

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36 minutes ago, Jonathan Hughes said:

I've only listened through once, but it's really cool. (Although I wish he had chosen a different singer for "Maybe as his skies are  wide"). He's used some synths on other records, so I guess it's not completely out of left field.

Of course, his success and reputation as a jazz player (and having a supportive record label) gives him the opportunity to more easily do this kind of thing, but he's the kind of musician everyone should strive to be: highly skilled and unencumbered by genre. 

It's funny, I love the child's vocals on "Maybe", but Chris Thile's vocals on Tom Sayer bug me, there's something a little too sterile abut them, and about the whole vocal section of that version, it only takes flight for me when Mehldau and Guiliana start to stretch on it. 

 

And, yeah, the Mehliana album kind of hinted in this direction, but it still kind of hit me out of the blue that he'd do a true prog album, and such a good, and truly progressive album.

 

And yes, it is so awesome that he gets to do projects like this, especially on a label on the level of Nonesuch. 

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13 hours ago, Tusker said:

This sounds really interesting. Thank you. 👍 👍

 

It can be difficult for jazz players to pull off rock, but as Jonathan alluded, Brad Mehldau has consummate taste and skill.

It’s not so much that he pulls it off, it’s more that he takes the material and incorporates it into his sound. The Gentle Giant stuff makes total sense, given his interest in (and amazing facility with) polyphony and fugues. 

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Listened to it for the first time Saturday night.  Definitely surprised and intrigued me.  Going to take a few more listens to see where I land with it, but it was compelling.  I agreed about the Chris Thile vocals on Tom Sawyer, but where it went after I loved.  Need to read the liner notes on this too.  Something I miss about listening digitally vs having an album in hand while I listen.

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20 hours ago, NewImprov said:

It’s not so much that he pulls it off, it’s more that he takes the material and incorporates it into his sound. The Gentle Giant stuff makes total sense, given his interest in (and amazing facility with) polyphony and fugues. 

👍 👍

 

Yes, he always has something interesting to say. I borrowed stole some ideas from his version of "She's leaving Home"  for a trio and had the privilege of transcribing it. That was an eye opener in how he adds layer upon layer of counterpoint and harmonic embellishment and makes it appear deceptively simple.

 

I am hearing something similar in his approach to Starship Trooper on this album. I'll dig into the Gentle Giant tune also. I am not as familiar with it, so I might have to listen to the original a few times to appreciate what he does with it. Thanks NI! 👍👍

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I used to be a huge fan of Brad Mehldau and I even used "Brad Mehldau" as an alias on a few forums along with the proper avatar 🙂 I'm not sure what happened, it's most probably caused by my withdrawal from jazz for the last 10 years and gradually becoming tired of jazz as a whole but I just can't listen to Brad Mehldau anymore. I see the mastery behind it and I appreciate how he manages to be individual within the craft of jazz, but it just can't touch me in any way anymore... 😕

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1 hour ago, CyberGene said:

I used to be a huge fan of Brad Mehldau and I even used "Brad Mehldau" as an alias on a few forums along with the proper avatar 🙂 I'm not sure what happened, it's most probably caused by my withdrawal from jazz for the last 10 years and gradually becoming tired of jazz as a whole but I just can't listen to Brad Mehldau anymore. I see the mastery behind it and I appreciate how he manages to be individual within the craft of jazz, but it just can't touch me in any way anymore... 😕

That’s fair, and I can see it to an extent, when I go back to his early trio stuff there’s a certain emotional coolness/detachment I get from it that I hadn’t felt before, because the harmonic sophistication kind of dazzled me on first hearing. I get less of that with this album, perhaps because the material is, to sort of quote one of his inspirations, closer to his heart.

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IMO, Brad Mehldau has always done what a musician/artist should do musically.  He applies his enormous talent to all types of tunes and sounds.  He does not appear to be pigeonholed by the expectations of fans or critics. He's a consummate musician. It's great that he has that freedom. 😎

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