May 25, 2024

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Bach certainly casts a long shadow over US pianist Brad Mehldau: Photos, Video

23.08. – Happy Birthday !!! No composer looms over modern jazz quite like Johann Sebastian Bach, whose harmonic rigour seems to have provided the basis for bebop and all that followed.

Listen to the endlessly mutating semiquavers tumbling from Charlie Parker’s saxophone and it could be the top line of a Bach fantasia; the jolting cycle of chords in John Coltrane’s Giant Steps could come straight from a Bach fugue and Bach’s contrapuntal techniques crop up in countless jazz pianists, from Bill Evans to Nina Simone.

Bach certainly casts a long shadow over US pianist Brad Mehldau: even when he’s gently mutilating pieces by Radiohead, Nick Drake or the Beatles, he sounds like Glenn Gould ripping into the Goldberg Variations. Which is why it comes as no surprise to see Mehldau recording an entire album inspired by Bach.

However, this is not a jazz album. Instead of riffing on Bach themes, as the likes of Jacques Loussier or the Modern Jazz Quartet have done in the past, After Bach sees Mehldau using Bach’s methodology. Mehldau plays five of Bach’s canonic 48 Preludes and Fugues, each followed by his own modern 21st-century response. For instance, after a straight performance of the Prelude No 3 in C-sharp major, Mehldau responds by resetting Bach’s original riff in a jerky 5/4 rhythm and taking it into a harmonically adventurous labyrinth. Similarly, a romantic, rubato-heavy reading of the F minor Prelude and Fugue is followed by a dreamlike meditation on some of the themes hinted at in Bach’s original. The effect is as if someone has taken pages from The Well-Tempered Clavier, turned them upside down and reflected them in a wobbly fairground mirror.

Where Bach’s preludes and fugues are like gentle sudoku puzzles, Mehldau’s cryptic harmonies sometimes feel as if you’re grappling with an insoluble 5×5 Rubik’s Cube and the results – as with the opening track, Benediction – can sometimes be headache-inducing. However, by the two closing tracks, Ostinato and Prayer for Healing, Mehldau is wearing his chops lightly and starting to tug at the heartstrings.

Jazz pianist Brad Mehldau has recorded and performed extensively since the early 1990s. Mehldau’s most consistent output over the years has taken place in the trio format. Starting in 1996, his group released a series of five records on Warner Bros. entitled The Art of the Trio (recently re-packaged and re-released as a 5-Disc box set by Nonesuch in late 2011). During that same period, Mehldau also released a solo piano recording entitled Elegiac Cycle, and a record called Places that included both solo piano and trio songs. Elegiac Cycle and Places might be called “concept” albums made up exclusively of original material with central themes that hover over the compositions. Other Mehldau recordings include Largo, a collaborative effort with the innovative musician and producer Jon Brion, and Anything Goes—a trio outing with bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jorge Rossy.

Mehldau’s musical personality forms a dichotomy. He is first and foremost an improviser, and greatly cherishes the surprise and wonder that can occur from a spontaneous musical idea that is expressed directly, in real time. But he also has a deep fascination for the formal architecture of music, and it informs everything he plays. In his most inspired playing, the actual structure of his musical thought serves as an expressive device. As he plays, he listens to how ideas unwind, and the order in which they reveal themselves. Each tune has a strongly felt narrative arch, whether it expresses itself in a beginning, an end, or something left intentionally open-ended. The two sides of Mehldau’s personality—the improviser and the formalist—play off each other, and the effect is often something like controlled chaos.

Mehldau has performed around the world at a steady pace since the mid-1990s, with his trio and as a solo pianist. His performances convey a wide range of expression. There is often an intellectual rigor to the continuous process of abstraction that may take place on a given tune, and a certain density of information. That could be followed by a stripped down, emotionally direct ballad. Mehldau favors juxtaposing extremes. He has attracted a sizeable following over the years, one that has grown to expect a singular, intense experience in his performance.

In addition to his trio and solo projects, Mehldau has worked with a number of great jazz musicians, including a rewarding gig with saxophonist Joshua Redman’s band for two years, recordings and concerts with Pat Metheny, Charlie Haden and Lee Konitz, and recording as a sideman with the likes of Michael Brecker, Wayne Shorter, John Scofield, and Charles Lloyd. For more than a decade, he has collaborated with several musicians and peers whom he respects greatly, including the guitarists Peter Bernstein and Kurt Rosenwinkel and tenor saxophonist Mark Turner. Mehldau also has played on a number of recordings outside of the jazz idiom, like Willie Nelson’s Teatro and singer-songwriter Joe Henry’s Scar. His music has appeared in several movies, including Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut and Wim Wender’s Million Dollar Hotel. He also composed an original soundtrack for the French film, Ma Femme Est Une Actrice. Mehldau composed two new works commissioned by Carnegie Hall for voice and piano, The Blue Estuaries and The Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, which were performed in the spring of 2005 with the acclaimed classical soprano, Renee Fleming. These songs were recorded with Fleming and released in 2006 on the Love Sublime record; simultaneously, Nonesuch released an album of Mehldau’s jazz compositions for trio entitled House on Hill. A 2008 Carnegie Hall commission for a cycle of seven love songs for Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter premiered in 2010. Love Songs, a double album that paired the newly commissioned song cycle, with a selection of French, American, English, and Swedish songs that Mehldau and von Otter performed together, was released in late 2010 (on the Naïve label) to unanimous praise.  In 2013 Mehldau premiered and performed Variations on a Melancholy Theme a large format orchestral piece which was performed with both Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and Britten Sinfonia. Commissioned by Carnegie Hall, The Royal Conservatory of Music, The National Concert Hall, and Wigmore Hall with the support of Andre Hoffmann (president of the Fondation Hoffmann) in 2015, Mehldau’s Three Pieces After Bach were inspired by selections from Johann Sebastian Bach’s seminal work, The Well-Tempered Clavier.

Mehldau was appointed as curator of an annual four-concert jazz series at London’s prestigious Wigmore Hall during its 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons, with Mehldau appearing in at least two of the four annual concerts. In late January 2010 Carnegie Hall announced the 2010-11 season-long residency by Mehldau as holder of the Richard and Barbara Debs Composer’s Chair at Carnegie Hall—the first jazz artist to hold this position since it was established in 1995. Previous holders include Louis Andriessen (2009–2010), Elliott Carter (2008–2009), and John Adams (2003–2007).

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