PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

Music

Mehliana: Taming the Dragon

The duo of jazz pianist Brad Mehldau and drummer/electronic musician Mark Guilana creates complex soundscapes that are compelling, goofy, and complex.


Mehliana

Taming the Dragon

Label: Nonesuch
US Release Date: 2014-02-25
UK Release Date: 2014-02-25
Amazon
iTunes

Duke Ellington was fond of the phrase "beyond category", which suggests that music – particularly when it's good – ought not to be hemmed in by labels. Ellington was also fond of saying that there are only two kinds of music: good and bad. So, let's agree from the start that the music on Taming the Dragon by the duo Mehliana (comprised of jazz pianist Brad Mehldau and percussionist and electronic musician Mark Guiliana) is not jazz, it's not electronica, not rock, not nothin' at all that you have a name for. And while listeners who come to this disc expecting music similar to Mehldau's acoustic jazz trio music, or like anything else they know, will be surprised and likely disappointed, the truth is that this is fascinating, carefully worked out, riveting music. That's good. And while I've pushed away the "jazz" label, I'd go so far as to call it – in its careful orchestration and unique textures – Ellingtonian. Beyond category.

These dozen tracks contain lots of crazy sounds: keyboards and drums, sure, but also samples, spoken word recitations by the artists, spoken words samples, and plenty of digital and synthesized sounds that aren't exactly "keyboards". Mehldau plays more synthesizer and Fender Rhodes electric piano here than he does concert grand. And Guiliana might be anywhere here, it's hard to say. Half the tunes are credited to Mehldau, the other to the duo. Whatever the distinction, it seems like this is music that could not have been made by any other two people on this earth. How many jazz records can you really say that about? How many records of any kind?

Some of the pleasures here have precedents that "regular" Mehldau fans may relate to. So, "Sassyassed Sassafras" is a workout for Mehldau's hip Rhodes and some buzzing synth over a simple four-bar chord pattern that is supported by irresistible funk drumming. It's like a '70s fusion workout on Zoloft: a happy-feet keyboard feature that contains enough virtuosity that you can really dig it, appealing as it is. "Sleeping Giant" is a moodier piece in a somewhat similar vein –somewhat reminiscent of Weather Report, with Mehldau's Rhodes playing in a cool, texture-rich counterpoint with a low, dark-sounding synth that brings Joe Zawinul to mind. "Swimming" is a more dancing piece that has a jazz fusion sound, with a complex drum pattern matched by keyboards that rotate around in a cool, prog-rock-ish pattern. The melody is more Chick Corea than Zawinul. All three of these tunes were written by Brad Mehldau.

Most of the record is harder to pin down. And that's the part of the record that is more interesting and original and wondrous. The title track is also by Mehldau, but it's a whole 'nother thing. Mehldau recounts a dream in which a guy – a blend of Joe Walsh and Dennis Hopper – drives him around LA in a convertible that becomes a van and then becomes a space ship. In between passages of narration, the band kicks in with rock-funk drums and a highly vocalized synth bass line that jumps around in a slippery way. Joe Walsh/Dennis Hopper tells Mehldau, "You put something' out there, there's consequences." During the narration, there are just breezy chords and hi-hat patterns, brief high synth lines, then the voice – put through a high-pass filter – getting philosophical on you: that Joe Walsh is you, as is the guy in a little sports car who cuts you. All parts of you, part of the dragon that's you. Is it trippy? Yup. But smart too.

Some of the funky instrumental stuff is still remarkable. “Gainsbourg” is a tight funk drum pattern over which synth and acoustic piano both spin thrilling melodies, even as the shifting grooves are peppered with spoken word samples in French. “Just Call Me Nige” is built around a thrilling bass-synth pattern that locks in over very busy but grooving drums. Mehldau features the Rhodes again, but it is the thrill of hearing it suddenly sync up with the bass synth or another keyboard pattern that really gives this piece its joy.

There are some sensational mood pieces here too. “Elegy for Amelia Earhart” sets up a flow of synth sounds and chords that let Mehldau play searching melodies on his Rhodes, like a question slowly being spoken in notes for which the answer is only implied. The incorporation of Earhart’s recorded voice makes the song ghostly. The closer, “London Gloaming”, uses washes of portentous synths over a martial drum pattern to give Mehldau a different, spooky groove. And it leaves you feeling unsettled but eager to hear more music.

When Taming the Dragon is done, you’re not sure what you’ve heard. That’s good. It suggests possibilities. All reports are that this duo, live in concert, is even more astonishing and creative. Why not? The spirit all around this music is busting out beyond category. It couldn’t have been made 20 years ago – it’s of its moment. Its joyous and strange and fun.

More, please!

8

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

'A Peculiar Indifference' Takes on Violence in Black America

Pulitzer Prize finalist Elliott Currie's scrupulous investigation of the impacts of violence on Black Americans, A Peculiar Indifference, shows the damaging effect of widespread suffering and identifies an achievable solution.

Music

20 Songs From the 1990s That Time Forgot

Rather than listening to Spotify's latest playlist, give the tunes from this reminiscence of lost '90s singles a spin.

Film

Delightful 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day' Is Good Escapism

Now streaming on Amazon Prime, Bharat Nalluri's 2008 romantic comedy, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, provides pleasant respite in these times of doom and gloom.

Film

The 10 Best Horror Movie Remakes

The horror genre has produced some remake junk. In the case of these ten treats, the update delivers something definitive.

Television

Flirting with Demons at Home, or, When TV Movies Were Evil

Just in time for Halloween, a new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber presents sparkling 2K digital restorations of TV movies that have been missing for decades: Fear No Evil (1969) and its sequel, Ritual of Evil (1970).

Music

Magick Mountain Are Having a Party But Is the Audience Invited?

Garage rockers Magick Mountain debut with Weird Feelings, an album big on fuzz but light on hooks.

Music

Aalok Bala Revels in Nature and Contradiction on EP 'Sacred Mirror'

Electronic musician Aalok Bala knows the night is not a simple mirror, "silver and exact"; it phases and echoes back, alive, sacred.

Music

Clipping Take a Stab at Horrorcore with the Fiery 'Visions of Bodies Being Burned'

Clipping's latest album, Visions of Bodies Being Burned, is a terrifying, razor-sharp sequel to their previous ode to the horror film genre.

Music

Call Super's New LP Is a Digital Biosphere of Insectoid and Otherworldly Sounds

Call Super's Every Mouth Teeth Missing is like its own digital biosphere, rife with the sounds of the forest and the sounds of the studio alike.

Music

Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.

Film

15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.

Music

Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.

Music

Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.

Music

Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.

Music

Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.

Music

Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.

Film

The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.

Music

British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.