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.