Brad Mehldau: Jacob’s Ladder review – prog rock and Bible stories make for unique, ingenious jazz | Brad Mehldau


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.

Brad Mehldau: Jacob’s Ladder album artwork
Brad Mehldau: Jacob’s Ladder album artwork

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.

Also out this month

On Gaya (Trouble in the East Records), the prizewinning Berlin saxophonist/composer Silke Eberhard uses an enhanced “XL” version of her Eric Dolphy-celebrating Potsa Lotsa band in a global-jazzy way on collaborations with South Korea’s Youjin Sung, a virtuoso on the region’s zither-like gayageum. Eberhard’s warmly ingenious band writing occasionally jars with the gayageum’s brittle, exclamatory plucked sounds, but Gaya nonetheless rings with enigmatic melodies, provocative harmonies and bursts of street-vibe hustle.

Wayne Shorter’s Panamanian pianist/composer Danilo Pérez showcases his exciting multinational Global Messengers group on Crisálida (Mack Avenue), playing two new suites bridging Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, African American and Latin influences, Panamanian dances, Spanish rap and imaginative reworkings of what the blues mean in the globalised 21st century.

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