“The world is, the world is / Love and life are deep / Maybe as his skies are wide.”
When watching a short documentary about making Rush‘s masterpiece album Moving Pictures, one man in the industry singled out the above stanza from “Tom Sawyer” as pure stoner talk. Jazz pianist Brad Mehldau uses the same stanza as a basis for the first track of his progressive jazz album Jacob’s Ladder. I’m not sure if there is a sub-genre known as stoner jazz, but Mehldau may have tapped into it here. Progressive rock and modern jazz don’t make for strange bedfellows, but Jacob’s Ladder adds just an additional pinch of “what?” and stirs it all together into a bipolar frenzy.
Aside from blending modern jazz with progressive rock, the main thread running through Jacob’s Ladder is a spiritual one. “We are born close to God,” Mehldau writes in the album’s liner notes, “and as we mature, we invariably move further and further away from Him on account of our ego.” Luca van den Bossche, who takes the vocal lead on “Maybe As His Skies Are Wide”, mimics a child’s voice while singing Geddy Lee’s vocal melody again and again. “Jacob’s Ladder begins at that place closer to God with the voice of [a] child, and then moves into the world of action,” explains Mehldau. As the album moves further from the voice of innocence, the music becomes a tangled web of progressive rock covers, progressive-sounding originals, and originals that interpolate themes from progressive rock. Whether this arc is symbolic of humankind going astray or not, I cannot tell. One thing is for sure, Mehldau has never made an album quite like this one, and that’s certainly saying something.
For Jacob’s Ladder, Mehldau enlists help from a dizzying number of people. There’s vocalist/mandolinist Chris Thile, drummer Mark Giuliana, saxophonist Joel Frahm, vocalists Tobias Bader, Becca Stevens, Cécile McLorin Salvant, and way too many other names to list in a single review. I attempted to count the names credited across the album, but I lost track somewhere around 23. And Mehldau doesn’t just stick to the piano, either. He also plays the Fender Rhodes, various Korg and Moog models, the harmonium, the glockenspiel, the Mellotron – sometimes all within the same song. As you can probably tell, a lot of sonic ground is covered within these 70 minutes, making Jacob’s Ladder just as frustrating as it is impressive.
In addition to the “Tom Sawyer” interpolation, Mehldau tackles themes by Gentle Giant, Yes, and Periphery and weaves them into various suites. Technically, Rush are represented three times, including a nod to their 1980 song “Jacob’s Ladder” and a full-blown cover of “Tom Sawyer”. Thile’s lead vocal for “Tom Sawyer” is quite the distracting mismatch through no fault of his own. While the band take things to a spaced-out rock ‘n’ roll edge during the section that is usually Alex Lifeson’s guitar solo, Thile’s soft and polite delivery makes it sound like he just wandered into the wrong studio. Gentle Giant’s “Cogs in Cogs” makes its way into the middle of a three suite movement where Mehldau bookends it with his own variations titled “Dance” and “Double Fugue”.
Yes’ “Starship Troopers” receives a similar treatment towards the end of the album by smooshing it in the middle of an extended piece named “Heaven”. “The record ends with my vision of heaven – once again as a child, His child, in eternal grace, in ecstasy,” Mehldau explains in the liner notes. And if you’re wondering who Periphery is, they fall under the progressive metal umbrella and have been active since 2005. Mehldau bilingually covers their song “Racecar” in English and Portuguese, simmering it down to an off-kilter waltz.
Non-jazz elements are just as prominent in the mix as the traditional jazz ones. On “Herr und Knecht (Master and Slave)”, Mehldau’s thunderous piano is galvanized by Guiliana’s double kick beat, brewing a perfect atmosphere for Bader’s German screaming. The Emerson/Wakeman-inspired synth leads offer a bit of relief, but the listener remains in choppy waters. “(Entr’acte) Glam Perfume”, a piano-harp-vocal piece that sounds like it came from the early Romantic period, is a highlight allowing for some falling action after the turbulent “Herr und Knecht”.
The “Jacob’s Ladder” suite begins with the spoken word “Liturgy” movement, combining six voices reciting a passage from Genesis in Dutch and English. Wind sound effects woosh by in the background as the voices are manipulated in subtly eerie ways. After covering a portion of Rush’s “Jacob’s Ladder”, making it sound more spacey than anything the Canadian trio ever achieved in 1980, the cycle is concluded with “Ladder”. The peace of “Liturgy” is upended by bass clarinetist Joris Roelofs slinging around something that sounds like the trumpet line from Ives’ “The Unanswered Question” and a small choir of voices provide the soundtrack for a reading from the books of Peter, Revelation, and Pslams.
There is yet another angelic choir waiting by the time the listener gets to “Heaven”. The wordless female vocal lines may seem like a lazy way to symbolize a divine presence. Still, Mehldau makes up for it with his command of keyboard technology and a tendency to think outside the usual jazz guidelines. If one were to disregard the heavy-handed preaching, they would find a prog jazz album that is, if not necessarily uneven in quality, uneven in temperament. It makes for an eclectic mix but could potentially wreak havoc on an unsuspecting listener just looking for another jubilant crossover release. Best to know where you stand first.