There's a scene in Michael Cimino's 1978 film The Deer Hunter where five friends celebrate a successful hunt at the bar owned by their older companion. The mood is celebratory, but as John (George Dzundza), the bar's owner, sits down at the piano to play Chopin's G-Minor Nocturne, the room grows quiet. Three of the younger men are shipping out to Vietnam, and while they don't know what the future holds, the music hints at the cataclysm to come.
Elan Mehler recorded Trouble In Mind (Sunnyside Records, 2024) not in a Pennsylvania mill town bar but in a deconsecrated New Orleans church in late February 2020. He couldn't have known the cataclysm that would be unleashed in the following weeks, yet premonitory unease tints this solo piano recording in shades of the deepest blue.
Trouble In Mind is in the tradition of musicians confiding their most private thoughts to the piano, diary entries of sorts not really intended for the public. As such it is in the tradition of such releases as Keith Jarrett's The Melody at Night, with You (ECM Records, 1989) and The Duke Plays Ellington (Capitol Records, 1953). The latter comp is instructive; Mehler leads off with "In A Sentimental Mood," a highlight of the Duke Ellington record, and programs "Come Sunday" and "In My Solitude" for good measure.
The latter begins with the rarely played verse, a cavatina before the main melody arrives, propelled forward by a sly emphasis on the bass line's upbeats. Ellington the player is also invoked in Mehler's stride-derived left-hand patterns and the way he uses rubato to make room for his phrases to speak without embellishment, unhurried and eloquent.
All is not gloom. Mehler brings a Chopin-esque poetry to Bill Frisell's hymnlike "Justice and Honor" and a subtle hint of New Orleans habanera rhythm to the title cut. "Out Of Nowhere" unfolds with the playful glee of a junior member of the New Orleans piano professor faculty, and despite its wistful title, Mehler's own "I Should Have Prayed For Rain," with its AABA structure and old-fashioned chord progression, could be a deep cut from Allen Toussaint's back catalog. Misha Kachkachishvili's engineering is clear and atmospheric.
While many of us might like to forget the events of 2020, Elan Mehler reminds us that keeping a little trouble in mind can be a thought-provoking and moving way to spend an hour of your dayor better yet, late night.
In A Sentimental Mood; Esplanade Blues; Alice's Wonderland; Justice and Honor; There at The Heart; Trouble In Mind; In My Solitude; Out of Nowhere; I Should Have Prayed for Rain; My Funny Valentine; Come Sunday; Scheme for Thought.
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