Brad Mehldau and Mark Guiliana succeed in blending the most sophisticated trends in electronic music with a welcome bend towards the complexities of modern jazz. I have heard jazzers experiment with hip-hop grooves and drum samples. I have heard electronic tracks that feature modal progressions on electric keyboards and stuttered swing beats. The difference is that “Mehliana” is not afraid to explore both languages deeply. I hope this is the beginning of an emerging trend- that more practiced improvisers will not be afraid to get down and dirty with drumming that implies crude percussive samples and keyboarding that includes the colorful range of the modern synthesizer.
The first track of Taming the Dragon starts with Mehldau narrating the events of a strange dream. The synthpad-backing alternates between major and minor qualities, paralleling the speaker’s effort to uncover the meaning of his dream. Frustrating bursts of synth-funk break the story, followed by ascending key changes as the speaker approaches enlightenment. The narrative’s colloquialisms contrast with Mehldau’s musical sophistication which boldly suggests the depths of weirdness to which he is willing to travel for the next hour.
The track “Luxe”, represents much of what this album is about. Beyond its delayed rhodes, un-balanced bass phrasing and insistently syncopated drums, a familiar harmonic language can be unearthed. When Mehldau begins to improvise with a sawthoothy synth lead, he solos just like he would behind an acoustic piano, often driving his melody in and out of bitonality with furious lines that will leave your ability to breathe suspended for moments after his phrases are resolved. Speaking of sawtooth leads, they allow Mehldau to explore sustain differently. His improvisations have always balanced space and rhythm tastefully but here he opens up, indulging in the synthesizer’s ability to statically grind on longer notes rather than letting them thoughtfully decay as he might on a piano. When Mehldau does favor acoustic piano as a solo voice, it comes with layers of synth timbres and densely syncopated drum textures stacked on top.
Underneath the chaos, Mehldau’s vocabulary is often contemplative. In my listening experience, hearing his musical voice exposed through all of the complexity is what taming the dragon is all about (although I think “Mehliana” had a different theme in mind). Sometimes Mehldau clears away the layers in moments of intimate solo piano. At other times, it is important to welcome the madness as a characteristic of both experimental electronic music and modern jazz to hear that Mehldau is saying a lot of the same things musically that he does in his other works. If this electric groove infused re-skin of Mehldau’s’ usual sound is the album’s only accomplishment, it is reason alone to enjoy.