Photo: Michael Wilson / Nonesuch Records

Brad Mehldau Spans Many Musical Forms on ‘Finding Gabriel’

Jazz pianist Brad Mehldau creates another hybrid project built on a layering of keyboards, drums, woodwinds, voices, and strings—with a gloss of politics and religion along the edges. Occasionally brilliant.

Finding Gabriel
Brad Mehldau
17 May 2019

Brad Mehldau has created a unique work in Finding Gabriel, one that layers keyboards, singing, singular instrumental voices from guests Ambrose Akinmusire (trumpet), Joel Frahm and Chris Cheek (saxophone), Mark Guiliana (drums), Sara Caswell (violin), Becca Stevens and Kurt Elling (voices), strings, and horns. While Mehldau is acclaimed as a jazz pianist, particularly through the work of his acoustic trio, projects that move beyond that genre have been highlights of his work as well. On Largo (2002), he collaborated with producer Jon Brion to use rock grooves and woodwinds to find a fresh sound beyond “jazz”. Taming the Dragon (2014) is a collaboration with Guiliana that used keyboards and piano as well as drums to find a sound related to electronica. Duos with singers Renee Fleming and Anna Sofie von Otter or mandolinist Chris Thile took him into classical or bluegrass song forms. Mehldau is not and has never been just a jazz pianist strictly “in the tradition”, though he certainly knows it well.

Finding Gabriel, then, does not stand entirely alone. But it still stands apart—in both appealing and confounding ways.

The sounds on this recording have been chosen, composed, and arranged with great care. There are beauty and grace to the sonic layers that can’t be denied. Mehldau uses a piano, yes, but also an array of synthesizers, Hammond organ, Fender Rhodes electric piano, xylophone, and his own voice. Digital percussion with a hip-hop feeling is mixed in, but Guiliana’s drumming is critical where it is used. There are spoken word bits, harmonized wordless vocals, woodwind rushes, and string ensemble arrangements. But, with all these ingredients mixing in, the flavor of the music is generally smooth and singular. Mehldau’s cooking is with purpose.

“Striving After Wind”, for example, creates a bed of groove with a drum machine, synthesizers, wordless singing, and an echo-tinged Rhodes that Mehldau uses to probe the sonic space. Historically, the track evokes the early 1970s Herbie Hancock sextet in some ways, but it also draws on more contemporary hip-hop. The harmonized singers layer intriguing harmonies above the more static synthesizers to suggest otherworldly spaces. As the voices reach higher and further beyond our expectations for any one genre, the track rises above its precedents to feel new.

Even more compelling in this way is the opening track, “The Garden”, which includes a carefully orchestrated long-form melody for Mehldau’s acoustic piano in conjunction with voices and synthesizers. The track is cushioned by the subtlest woodwind arrangements imaginable and propelled by the muscular drumming of Guiliana, who begins with a thumping kick drum, then explodes into a fiery barrage from his entire kit, which in turn fuels a slashing trumpet solo from Akinmusire. The track ends with woodwinds, kick drum, and voices alone, all the keyboards pulled out of the mixture, as if Mehldau were demonstrating to us the way that his composition can stand apart from his own playing. “O Ephriam” begins as a solo piano piece demonstrating interlocking patterns in each hand, which them picks up voices and patterned electronic drums. Over this, Mehldau’s Rhodes creates a hip improvisation that both is very tonal and wanders off the path in delicious ways. The mixture of textures and ideas on these several tracks alone demonstrate the power this album can carry.

The same ingredients, however, can also fall flat. “Born to Trouble” begins with a funky piano pattern over clacking percussion, but the arrangement develops into a slightly cutesy blend of synths and voices. “St. Mark Is Howling in the City” resembles “The Garden”, with Guiliana again entering thunderously on drums, this time offsetting a string arrangement that interacts with patterns of piano and synthesizer. Mehldau’s writing for strings is bold and rhythmic, sometimes consonant and sometimes piquantly dissonant, but in places, it seems simply like out-of-place 20th century chamber music. The track never gels the way “The Garden” does.

More confusing still are several songs that use spoken word elements to address contemporary politics. “The Prophet Is a Fool” contains some exceptional playing by Akinmusire over a Guiliana/synth bass groove Mehldau sets up with a brilliant horn arrangement and Guiliana’s delicious stop-start drumming. Joel Frahm takes a tenor sax solo here, as well, that rips up the track. But it all starts with a dialogue between two characters (they sound like a parent and child, though the use the phrased “fucked over” kind of suggests otherwise) talking about a Trump-ian demagogue who wants to build a wall and whose followers are dangerous. “They have guns. Lots of guns. And they’re not for hunting.” The music is compelling, but its relationship to these voices isn’t clear or compelling. And the politics here is facile and too on the nose to be interesting.

“Make It All Go Away” begins with one of these voices saying the phrase of the title, with the music after that creating a synthy power ballad vibe that is filled out with another wordless vocal arrangement. The arrangement makes way, eventually, for wordless vocal improvisations from two of the most distinctive singers in the music: Becca Stevens and Kurt Elling. Stevens’s contribution, perhaps, fits the tone of the piece better, as her ethereal timbre seems to grow out of the ensemble. Elling is the superior vocal improviser but, like a great jazz instrumentalist, he is immediately and distinctly himself in phrasing and feeling. As a listener, you suddenly find yourself wondering, “What is Kurt Elling, with all his jazz singer mannerisms, doing in the middle of this chiming electronic landscape?” Elling sounds great, but it’s his presence on the track that seems curious, particularly when the track ends quite suddenly after his scat solo.

“Proverb of Ashes” features Elling as well, though more uniquely. A different high-pitched voice at the top of this groover recites “I pledge allegiance to America” as Guiliana creates a righteous, upbeat syncopation to lift synth and piano layers. Quickly, Elling is in the mix, scatting again, this time through some electronic distortion and in a back-and-forth with other vocal whoops and cries. The track comes off as joyful and difficult at once, perhaps a metaphor for what Mehldau is trying to say about the Pledge and the country. The composition resolves into a cleanly recorded piano pattern, over which harmonized voices sing like a jazz choir.

Finding Gabriel is not just about politics—it is also set up to be a reading of the Bible, an investigation of that book’s stories and ideas. Only the last, title track makes this explicit through a spoken word section in the middle, as a voice asks for guidance and tells the story of encountering Gabriel in a vision. The music accompanying this story is a culmination of what the album has provided already: Guiliana’s propulsion, piano and synthesizer creating beautiful patterns that overlap and circle, ingenious compositional elements expressed on synth, strings, voices. Careful listening to almost any of compositions is rewarding. “Finding Gabriel” is orchestral, pop-ish, ruminative, and rich in melody and harmonic motion.

It can be confounding, however, to try to put together the whole of this project. It is lush, and it is angry. It is religious, and it is political. It makes room for several unique individual voices, but the spaces they occupy too often seem uncomfortable or random. The writing for woodwinds and strings is brilliant, but it does not always feel connected to the larger mission of the particular composition.

All of which is to say that Finding Gabriel sounds like an ambitious experiment by one of our most creative American musicians. When it works, when the elements are focused together, it stuns and sounds lovingly new. When things aren’t quite adding up, the parts are still beautiful or daring, interesting at a minimum. The territory is hard to define, as the electronica this evokes would be unlikely to include this kind of writing for ensembles of voices, winds, or strings. The jazz it evokes doesn’t sound nearly this composed. It contains hints of other genre-less projects—Pat Metheny’s “Orchestrion” projects sound a bit like this, but barely, and some of the recent work of pianist/composer Vijay Iyer overlaps with this project—but there is nothing to compare to this music.

I want to hear more music like this, even if I’m not eager to listen to all of Finding Gabriel on repeat. I want to hear more music that reaches the way this music does. And I’m glad that I’m not sure quite what it is reaching for.

RATING 6 / 10