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Brad Mehldau: Dragons & Dreams

Ian Patterson By

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I think that a lot of music expresses the desire to enter back into a dream. But this is deception, because the fodder for the dream comes from waking reality. —Brad Mehldau
For many, pianist Brad Mehldau's recording Day is Done (Nonesuch Records, 2005) with drummer Jeff Ballard and bassist Larry Grenadier came as close to trio perfection as is reasonable to expect in your wildest dreams. Perhaps perfection is a chimera, yet even if attainable it's at best fleeting by nature. But for Mehldau that doesn't stop the hunt for the stuff of his own wildest dreams.

That elusive 'in-the-zone' quality when the music seems to play the musician rather then the other way round comes more freely in dreams than on the stage, and dreams—or rather the magic music that reveals itself in that unselfconscious state—is in part the driving force behind Mehliana: Taming the Dragon (Nonesuch Records, 2014), Mehldau's stunning duo collaboration with drummer Mark Guiliana. The recording is also about harnessing power and on Mehliana: Taming the Dragon Mehldau draws energy from deep-rooted influences that find a voice here as never before.

Mehldau first heard Giuliana on a trio recording by bassist Avishai Cohen—with whom Guiliana has recorded six CDs— and was immediately struck by the drummer's originality: "Mark has his own thing, quite simply—but, I mean, really," Mehldau says. Guiliana has garnered glowing praise on both sides of the Atlantic for his innovative drumming in his own bands along with sideman gigs with singer Gretchen Parlato, guitarist Lionel Loueke, and vocalist/oud player Dhafer Youssef. "Mark's already influencing a lot of other drummers, and influencing the scene more generally," says Mehldau. He is also a very sympathetic player and a close listener. He really improvises. All those things appeal to me, of course."

The two musicians first met on the road in 2007 while touring with their respective projects and within a few years were playing live gigs as a duo, with Mehldau eschewing acoustic piano for synthesizers and electric piano. Their gigs started out as pure improvisation, though in time Mehldau's writing—stems and chord progressions—formed the basis for the compositions on Mehliana: Taming the Dragon. Over the course of four years playing together the music has grown, but for Mehldau the change is mainly textural: "I would say my sonic set up has evolved a bit. I have more of a palette on the synths than I had initially," he explains. "There is something we had, though, right away, that is still there—there was an immediate identity."

Identity or more specifically acknowledging all the elements— the sometimes seemingly contradictory elements—in a person's essence is the subject matter of Mehldau's narration on the track "Taming the Dragon": "This was a dream," says Mehldau of the tale. "It was the kind of dream that you realize was telling you something after you wake up and think about it a bit."

What exactly the dream was telling Mehldau found its physical manifestation in the music on Mehliana: Taming the Dragon. The entire album could be said to be inspired by dreams: "Definitely," admits Mehldau. "I think a lot of the music on the record has a dreamy hue to it—"The Dreamer," "Elegy for Amelia E.," "London Gloaming," and maybe "Swimming" as well, in particular."

Guiliana, however, provided the spark of inspiration to make the recording a reality: "I only started thinking of doing a record like this when I started playing with Mark," says Mehldau. "I consider this a collaboration in the total sense of the word, which is very exciting for me."

Certain experimental aspects of Mehliana: Taming the Dragon, certainly sonically speaking, could be seen as a kind of extension of ideas presented on the album Largo (Warner Bros, 2002), "The engineering and the production are continuing a bit from Largo but also Highway Rider (Nonesuch Records, 2010)," explains Mehldau. "We worked with the brilliant recording engineer, Greg Koller, who also recorded and mixed that one."

Mehldau is full of praise for the sound that Koller produced in the recording and mixing: "Dry, in your face drums—with a drummer like Mark, I say, bring it on! I want to hear him right in the middle of my forehead when I listen to him on phones. That's what Greg went for here. The drum sound was a lot of work for Greg, and he really crafted something special here, I think, from a miking/mixing perspective."

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