Being a highly proficient musician within a particular genre is one thing; maintaining that skill level across various genres is something else entirely. For more than 20 years, pianist Brad Mehldau has been firmly ensconced in the latter category. His inventive and masterful piano skills have resulted in satisfying excursions into the jazz trio format (his Art of the Trio series, not to mention Introducing Brad Mehldau, Anything Goes, Day Is Done), solo recordings (Elegiac Cycle, Live in Tokyo, Live in Marciac), full-band chamber-jazz (the Jon Brion-produced Largo and Highway Rider) and even psychedelic jazz fusion (Mehliana, his trippy collaboration with drummer Mark Guiliana). And that’s just skimming the surface. It seems odd that a pianist with Mehldau’s talent and discipline has yet to dive headfirst into the classical realm unless you count Love Sublime, his 2006 song cycle with lyric soprano Renee Fleming. With After Bach, he can check off that box as well.
As is the case with many Brad Mehldau projects, After Bach contains something of a thematic twist. It’s not only interpretations of four preludes and one fugue from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier; each piece is followed by an original Mehldau composition inspired by its Well-Tempered counterpart. In his elaborate liner notes to After Bach, pianist/composer (and Nonesuch label-mate) Timo Andres explains that much of Bach’s work took the form of improvisation, but over time his reputation as a composer overtook all other aspects of his work. “During his lifetime,” he writes, “it was the virtuosity and complexity of these improvisations for which he was most admired… some three centuries after the fact, Brad Mehldau takes up this tradition and applies it to a frustratingly unknowable aspect of Bach’s art.”
Taking these modern-day interpretations even further, Mehldau bookends the project with two standalone compositions, the first being “Before Bach: Benediction”. It opens the album with the kind of stately discipline that recalls Bach’s The Art of Fugue, but as with most of Mehldau’s interpretations – from the Beatles to Nick Drake to George Gershwin – the composition veers off into an intoxicating haze of dissonance. He’s not going off the rails by any stretch; it’s still a highly complex piece with purpose and logic, particularly when it lands back into the same sober elegance where it began.
It may come as a surprise to longtime Mehldau fans that his interpretations of the Bach compositions are not as freewheeling and idiosyncratic as they could be. One might even expect the odd meters and audible humming that come from a Glenn Gould recording. But apart from an occasional relaxation in tempo, “Prelude No. 3 in C# Major” is very much a scholarly yet sonically rich take on Bach. Its Mehldau-composed companion piece (“After Bach: Rondo”), however, takes odd turns, such as a brief excursion into a 20/16 time signature and harmonic shifts that blur the lines between major and minor keys.
The stately elegance of Bach’s “Prelude No. 1 in C Major” is well-complemented by “After Bach: Pastorale”, even as the atmosphere of Mehldau’s composition is more stark and ruminative. Additionally, the buoyancy of Bach’s “Prelude No. 10 in E minor” is mirrored nicely by the slightly more energetic, circular style of “After Bach: Flux”, with the chromaticism of Mehldau’s composition giving the song an additional edge. Here, as in all of After Bach, Mehldau underscores his ability to make a Bach interpretation album without succumbing to the route of “jazzing it up”. That is not to diminish the accomplishments of classical-jazz hybrid pianists such as Claude Bolling and Jacques Loussier; it’s simply refreshing to hear Mehldau approach Bach’s music with such a unique, uncompromising take.
As “Before Bach: Benediction” opens After Bach, “Prayer for Healing” closes the set, and it’s particularly noteworthy in that it provides a respite from the symmetry and complexity of the tracks that precede it. The simple, gentle, almost gospel-flavored composition is perhaps – as its title implies – a call for harmony in a painful, difficult world upended by strife and terror. It doesn’t necessarily divert attention from Bach’s fussy contrapuntalism. It merely provides a different interpretation of the power of keyboard-based composition. We share our turbulent world with Brad Mehldau, and while his work may not explain the turbulence, it goes a long way in helping to stave it off.