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Brad Mehldau / Mark Guiliana: Brad Mehldau / Mark Guiliana: Mehliana - Taming the Dragon

John Kelman By

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First impressions shouldn't necessarily be the lasting ones. Despite, according to the press sheet, having played together for several years, über-pianist Brad Mehldau and drummer Mark Guiliana only began touring as Mehliana in 2013, and one of the heavily electronic duo's early performances at the 40th Vossa Jazz Festival in Voss, Norway was, sadly, eminently forgettable. But a year has passed and, in the interim, the duo has clocked a lot of road time, and with the released of Taming the Dragon, it's a pleasure to report that plenty has changed since that Vossa Jazz date...and all for the better. Much, much better.

Mehldau's reputation and career have largely been built upon his inimitable talent as an acoustic pianist, primarily with his longstanding trio that's had just one personnel change in nearly 20 years: the original incarnation well-documented in the Art of the Trio—Recordings 1996-2001 (Nonesuch, 2011) box; and his current lineup heard, most recently, on two 2012 sets (also for Nonesuch), Ode and Where Do You Start. But, largely in private, Mehldau has clearly been occupied by more electronic environs, with some early hints revealed on Largo (Warner Bros., 2002), an ambitious set with a larger cast that, produced by Jon Brion—also a multi-instrumentalist who has previously worked in the pop world with everyone from Rickie Lee Jones and Peter Gabriel to Fiona Apple and Tenacious D, as well as in the jazz sphere on Bill Frisell's collaborative Floratone II (Savoy Jazz, 2012) and Nels Cline's Dirty Baby (Cryptogramophone, 2010)—was something of a shot across the bow for those who were getting too comfortable with Mehldau as a purely acoustic instrumentalist.

Ten years younger than the 43 year-old Mehldau, Guiliana—who also brings his own electronics to Taming the Dragon—first made his name with bassist Avishai Cohen, but in the ensuing years has built a reputation predicated on a fresh approach to the kit that's garnered attention (and work) from artists ranging from Meshell Ndegeocello and Wayne Krantz to Jason Lindner and Dhafer Youssef. He may know his jazz tradition, but he also knows his hip hop, drum 'n' bass, progressive rock and much, much more. He brings all of this and more to Mehliana, and perhaps the biggest surprise is that Mehldau does, too.

Even more surprising is that Mehldau has gone from writing the long, pretentious liner notes of his early recordings to the dream-inspired tale that he tells over the opening title track and is reproduced inside the Taming the Dragon's six-panel cardboard digipak. It's beatnik-inspired prose updated for the 21st century, where the narrator (Mehldau?) recounts a "trippy dream" of being driven around Los Angeles by "on old hipster with a scratchy voice kind of like Joe Walsh sings, but he kind of had some of that vibe and energy of Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider," all in vehicle that starts as an old convertible, morphs into a VW van and, by the end of the story, becomes "more like this spaceship kind of thing." As Mehldau narrates, the dream unfolds to reveal the dichotomy of human nature ("you've got this one part of you that watches out for you and keeps you steady, you've got this other part that's raging and full of anger"), with a deadpan delivery not unlike American poet Franz Wright—only younger and less grizzled—and the music juxtaposes slow-moving synth washes to fiery, drum 'n' bass propelled by a splashy, processed crash cymbal, and a slower, high hat-driven groove, all bolstered by a positively filthy bass synth line.

Six of Taming the Dragon's twelve tracks—a full 72-minute program whose overarching narrative gradually unfolds and is ultimately best absorbed in its entirety—are written by Mehldau; the others are co-credited to Guiliana and, no doubt, come from improvisations that demonstrate far more focus and intent than the duo's Vossa Jazz performance. Mehldau opens "Luxe" with some heavily delayed Fender Rhodes, but it's not long before Guiliana is in the pool and the keyboardist once again drops another dirty synth bass line underneath. It's sometimes difficult to discern amidst the density of it all, but the prodigious technique that allows Mehldau's two hands to sound like four ultimately reveals itself, even as Guiliana's staggering contribution justifies Bill Bruford's documented admiration for the drummer.

It's not a dominant instrument on Taming the Tiger, but Mehldau does throw some acoustic piano into the mix on "You Can't Go Back Now," though it's initially just an a cappella introduction to a more hard-edged six minutes that ultimately take off, once again, with Rhodes, synth bass and processed kit dominating. Guiliana's ability to play with time while still keeping it feels like an homage to Bruford's work in Bruford Levin Upper Extremities (DGM, 1998), in particular the opening "Cerulean Sea," where the progressive rock legend plays liberally (but differently) with time over a relentless ostinato. But here, Mehldau adds far more harmonic and melodic building blocks, with layers of synths, Rhodes and acoustic piano building to a fiery climax of rare virtuosity that's matched with similar effortless mastery by his partner in Mehliana.

Amidst all the heat and jagged angularity, there are still moments of beauty to be found. "The Dreamer," another collaborative composition, is driven by processed acoustic piano, a searing synth line and electronically processed percussion, but at its core it's a ballad—even one that Mehldau could easily transfer to his acoustic trio to demonstrate an inner funky bad self that rarely surfaces in that context—albeit one that concludes with more spoken word that links into the story of the title track as an assessment of dreams and the dreamer who dreams them.

It's difficult to alter predisposition when faced with an artist who has largely, for the past two decades, operated in the acoustic world, and there will, no doubt, be those who view Mehliana and Taming the Dragon with nothing short of contempt. But for those who are prepared to let an artist follow his muse in any direction it takes him, Taming the Dragon will be revealing yet still inexorably connected to the music Mehldau makes with his trio and on more expansive projects like Highway Rider (Nonesuch, 2010). When you've a voice as strong as Mehldau's, it shines through, whatever the context—even one as radically different as this. Having now proven itself far better than suggested by its Vossa Jazz performance with the release of Taming the Tiger, Mehliana has released a debut recording that, if it can be assessed on its own merits and not in comparison to past work—even the somewhat electro-centric Largo—will be seen as another superlative effort in the career of a pianist who has been consistent in his commitment to excellence and genre-defying creativity—and one that shines a major spotlight on the stylistically unbound and similarly forward-thinking Guiliana. For those who are not completely married to Mehldau as a mainstream pianist, it could even be considered a potential classic. Only time will tell.

Track Listing: Taming the Dragon; Luxe; You Can't Go Back Now; The Dreamer; Elegy for Amelia E.; Sleeping Giant; Hungry Ghost; Gainsbourg; Just Call Me Nige; Sassyassed Sassafrass; Swimming; London Gloaming.

Personnel: Brad Mehldau: synths, Fender Rhodes, piano, spoken voice, "Ahh" vocals; Mark Guiliana: drums, electronics.

Title: Brad Mehldau / Mark Guiliana: Mehliana - Taming the Dragon | Year Released: 2014 | Record Label: Nonesuch Records

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