May 22, 2024

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CD review: Brad Mehldau – Jacob’s Ladder 2022: Video, CD cover

The pianist draws on an unlikely combination of childhood obsessions for this hard-hitting, audacious electronic hybrid.

The great jazz pianist Brad Mehldau has long relished ambiguities above predictable outcomes, and delicacy over muscle, but it was 70s prog-rock that obsessed him in his classical-pianist childhood, and indirectly became his route into jazz via the 70s/80s electric music of Miles Davis, Weather Report and the Mahavishnu Orchestra.

Jacob’s Ladder is the latest of several hard-hitting electronic hybrids that he has scattered as tributes to that past among his beautifully crafted acoustic chamber-jazz ventures over the years. Some might flinch at the core materials here – prog rock and Christian scriptures – but this epic venture’s panoramic soundscape, storyteller’s control of dynamics, and canny use of guest players including country-music mandolinist/singer Chris Thile and jazz/hip-hop drums maestro Mark Guiliana, show how far Mehldau has come as a sophisticated manipulator of complex materials.

He audaciously transfers a line from Canadian prog trio Rush’s 1981 hit Tom Sawyer to a child’s classical-treble vocal register for the haunting Maybe As His Skies Are Wide. Prog-metal vocal ranting mixes with massed-keyboard countermelodies on the hurtling Herr und Knecht. And Gentle Giant’s Cogs in Cogs becomes the Becca Stevens vocal centrepiece to a three-part mini-suite shifting from skimming keyboard improv over racing drums to synth-painted baroque counterpoint in its finale. A Weather Report-ish groove and an agile piano/mandolin dialogue illuminate Tom Sawyer, and the title track splices biblical recitation, rapturous choral sounds and plenty of jazzy jamming.

Hardcore proggers may be a shade perplexed by Mehldau’s use of their heroes’ hits, and though preacherly Christianity is discreet, it’s certainly in earshot. But it’s possible just to relish a unique contemporary musician’s ingenious mingling of a traditional and contemporary sound palette, with plenty of characteristically freewheeling jazz detours on the way.

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