Whilst synthesizer-driven ambient groove music seems like a left-field move, nothing pianist/composer Brad Mehldau does should surprise anymore. The piano trio releases of Mehldau's first recording decade established his reputation as the most influential jazz pianist since Keith Jarrett
. The brilliant, emotionally intense Elegiac Cycle
(Warner Bros. Records, 1999) marked a significant departure from his previous works, opening the way to increasingly frequent experimental foraysfrom duo collaborations with soprano Renée Fleming
, Love Sublime
(Nonesuch, 2006), and mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter
, Love Songs
(Naïve Records, 2010), to the ambitious orchestral jazz-suite Highway Rider
(Nonesuch Records, 2010). In this context, Taming The Dragon
represents one more vibrantly colored flower in Mehldau's garden.
With drummer Mark Guiliana
mixing funk, trip-hop, pop and jazz beats, Mehldau handles bass and lead lines on synthesizer and electric/acoustic piano, acknowledging the influence of progressive rock's halcyon days when keyboard banks resembling small battleships were the norm. In one sense, Taming The Dragon
is a compelling bridge between past and present; in another, it could be the leaner, older brother of Largo
(Warner Bros, 2002), Mehldau's first ensemble deviation from straight-ahead jazz towards an experimental, more pop-centric and beat-heavy aesthetic.
The spoken-word title trackover a sci-fi/grungy backdroprelates in allegory the music's driving forcethe embracing of diverse and seemingly conflicting inner elements to produce music that's neither one thing nor the other, but a distilled and celebratory hybrid of many influences. And given the simple set-up, Mehldau and Guiliana cover surprisingly wide stylistic terrain.
Swirling keys and rattling drums on "Luxe" set Mehldau up for a soaring synthesizer flight that evokes keyboardist Rick Wakeman-era Yes
, or more specifically White Rock
(A&M Records, 1976) Wakeman's dashing Montreal Winter Olympics documentary soundtrack. Whether it's Yes or Rush
that springs to mind on the quietly majestic "The Dreamer" and the fast-grooving drum 'n' bass "Just Call Me Nige," or perhaps Pink Floyd
in the dreamy synthesizer and electric piano of "Elegy for Amelia E.," the common denominator is the music's somewhat epic character.
It's surely this quality that's also drawn Mehldau into Radiohead
's orbit time and again; several tracks, notably "Luxe," the melodically and rhythmically striking "Hungry Ghost" and "You Can't Go Back Now" and the persuasive art-pop of "London Gloaming" all bear the hallmark of the band that's informed Mehldau's music possibly as much as his formative classical and jazz influences.
On the infectious French pop-retro number "Gainsbourg," Mehldau's sunny piano improvisation shares protagonism with samples of Serge Gainsbourg's "Mustang" and "Manon." "Sassyassed Sassafrass" is pure funk, with Mehldau's blues-tinged Rhodes underpinned by Guiliana's light, propulsive rhythms and astutely placed cymbal crashes. The spacious ambiance of "Sleeping Giant" pairs washing synth waves and laid-back groove with gently undulating Rhodes, and will appeal to fans of the Café del Mar chill-out CD series. Though rhythmically dynamic, "Swimming"'s unwavering patterns render it the least interesting track of the recording.
Mehldau's narrator on "The Dreamer" alludes to the elusive music of dreams: "music that made him fly, music that made him escape from his body, music that made him escape from time itself." Once awake, the narrator recognizes that this wondrous music remains "perpetually out of his grasp," but on an engrossing collaboration that burns itself into the consciousness, Mehldau and Guiliana surely come close to grasping it.