CD Review: Brad Mehldau, Mark Guiliana: Mehliana- Taming the Dragon

Brad Mehldau, Mark Guiliana: Mehliana- Taming the Dragon
(Nonesuch STCD 400220 CD Review by Alison Bentley)

Mehliana is Brad Mehldau (Fender Rhodes, synthesisers) and Mark Guiliana (drums and effects), recording here the electronic music they’ve been touring for several years. Mehldau sets things firmly in the 1970s in the first track, Taming the Dragon- he narrates a dream sequence: a Dennis Hopper/Joe Walsh-like character is driving him round, protecting him from another, violent driver who wants to destroy him. But both characters are part of himself, and he can use the destructive character. ‘I think of it like taming the dragon…that’s where you get your power want to make friends with him and harness his power so you can use it…’ Cue wild space-age synth sounds from Mehldau, with a strong suggestion of Herbie Hancock’s 1974 album Thrust. But Guiliana’s drumming puts this album in the present, and the fusing of 60s/70s keyboard sounds with modern jazz and electronic drum styles is breathtaking.

Luxe has repeated Fender Rhodes phrases dripping with delay effects (memories of Terry Riley or Soft Machine), interspersed with Guiliana’s impossibly fast drumming, full of electronic-style beats. It settles into a fast funky 7, with gunky synth bass lines. You Can’t Go Back Now opens with the lyrical piano Mehldau is perhaps best known for, before exploding into Amen breaks on the drums. It’s a sci-fi collage of spoken words and sounds, with dark synth bass. Yearning keyboard phrases remind us what a Romantic and virtuosic pianist Mehldau is.

Several tracks use spoken word samples.The Dreamer has a slower, triphop feel, full of Radiohead-like layers of sound- like Mehldau’s cover of their Paranoid Android, but electronic. The piano theme, short and very sweet, drifts over the dreamy sounds of the Moog Synthesiser. The narrator muses over gentle piano: ‘The dreamer…will remember, when he awakens, that there was this music, that there must be music like this somewhere, even if it is only in dreams…’ Elegy for Amelia E sent me back to listen to Mehldau’s 1999 solo piano Elegiac Cycle, where Jarrett-esque lyricism mixes with Classical piano styles.Elegy for Amelia E has many of those qualities, but played on Fender Rhodes. Synthesised choral sounds recreate the atmosphere of 2001 Space Odyssey, while a 1930s recording of aviator Amelia Earhart’s famous speech crackles in the background. The effect is ethereal and definitely elegiac. Gainsbourg reworks the chords of Serge Gainsbourg’s 1968 song Manon, with samples of Gainsbourg’s vocals smouldering behind jazz piano and Guiliana’s powerful hiphop.

The Sleeping Giant dozes to Tangerine Dream-esque swirling synth sounds, before awakening slowly and humorously  to gravelly, blues-inflected bass riffs and a funky back beat. Hungry Ghost touches the heart with its beautiful Fender Rhodes solo, hissing drum ‘n’ bass groove in 7, and cadences that could almost come from Bach’s era. The spacey mood continues in Swimming: it begins with overlapping, watery keyboard phrases, dubstep drums and layers of prog-jazz sounds. London Gloaming’s gentle hiphop alludes to Radiohead’s Gloaming, a mellow late night groove where jazz chords float in the distance.

Just Call Me Nige has Guiliana at his most dragonish- his amazing energy combines Elvin Jones textures with an undertow of dubstep, over Mehldau’s buzzing bass line.Sassyassed Sassafrass, however, has some good-time, laid-back Hancockian Fender Rhodes, with some of Mehldau’s jazziest playing on the album- over looped chords and grungy bass sounds.

The electro-rock that Mehldau introduced into his Largo album has been taken much further in this new project. Guiliana calls his own music ‘experimental garage jazz’. It’s intriguing to hear this alongside Mehldau’s experimentation with classic synthesiser sounds. The dragon has been tamed, but not too much: there’s plenty of power as well as pathos in this highly original album- and extraordinary musicianship.

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