It doesn’t seem that long ago that Brad Mehldau was angering jazz purists with his 2002 experimental album Largo, only to follow it up with the more apologetically conventional Anything Goes two years later. That would be pianist/composer/bandleader’s last gasp for Warner Brothers before jumping to Nonesuch, a child company of the Warner conglomerate, that same year. According to the press release for Variations on a Melancholy Theme, Mehldau has spearheaded 17 releases under the Nonesuch label since 2004. A quick glance on the internet shows me that, both inside and outside of the label, they’re actually low-balling it. Brad Mehldau is a terribly prolific writer and performer, yet he doesn’t seem to have the reputation as one.
Aficionados of modern jazz from all over the world will gladly bend your ear for any length of time to praise the consistent quality of his music. Yet, somehow, the fact that he manages to release a significant amount of new material in a short amount of time and with a variety of ensembles and collaborators takes a backseat to his other accolades. Perhaps that’s as it should be. Sometimes, the listening public will get caught up in the notion that rapid turnaround times from recording artists mean they are superior to any of their peers who take a five-year breath between releases. The less we focus on how fast someone works, the more we can focus on the music itself.
Having said all of that, it’s still impressive that Mehldau was able to set aside enough time to compose a suite of jazzy classical music for piano and chamber orchestra and take it out on the road in 2013. Eight years later, Variations on a Melancholy Theme sees its release on Nonesuch, further extending the pianist’s quiet winning streak of exceptional recordings.
For Variations on a Melancholy Theme, Brad Mehldau teamed up with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, an ensemble known for the way it democratically functions without a conductor. Aside from the piano, there are 38 members in all; 11 violins, four violas, four cellos, two double basses, two flutes, two clarinets, two bassoons, three horns (French?), two trumpets, one trombone, one timpani, and two percussionists. As one may have guessed from the title, the theme is stated in the first track and is then followed by 11 numerically titled variations. A short cadenza then precedes a lengthier postlude. It isn’t until after the encore track, “Variations X & Y,” that we hear any applause. The main theme is barely two minutes in length, and a majority of the variations are even shorter than that. But Variations on a Melancholy Theme, despite the shifts in style and meter, has a flow that can only be described as natural.
Two things that Mehldau says about this recording hit the proverbial nail on the head. The first is, “I imagine it as if Brahms woke up one day and had the blues.” The other is the concluding paragraph from the album’s liner notes: “The melancholy theme itself has a wistful character, perhaps a feeling of resignation. There is some sense of finality and ending to it already when heard for the first time. As I composed, a narrative challenge emerged, namely, how to embark on a story that begins with a conclusion.” These two nuggets of information will tell you all you need to know about Variations on a Melancholy Theme.
The initial theme is a perfect cross-section of late 19th-century classical music when impressionism expanded Western harmonies and early 20th-century Tin Pan Alley when said harmonies pointed the way to blue notes in easy-going melodies. As for the feeling of finality, this same main theme does indeed sound like something that should being playing over the end credits to some bittersweet film about urban despair. Taken on its own as a miniature waltz, the ease and symmetry of the piece make it hard to believe that this melancholy melody never existed until 2013.
From here on out, the theme is rolled around, flattened out, scattered about, swept back up, and adorned with heavy string arrangements and even a 5/8 time signature. The overall mood seems to go through shifts that, at least on paper, should ring as inappropriate as far as “melancholy” is concerned. In just 44 seconds, “Variation 5” sets the scene of “The Rite of Spring” depicted as a happy picnic. Following that is a 50-second piano solo full of thick piano chords played with a syncopation owing more to late 20th century modern than anything Brahms would have conjured.
The seventh variation (slightly) turns back the clock to a 12-tone accompaniment. The theme is easier to recognize when the eighth variation starts, but the orchestration becomes denser by the second. The solo piano movement designated as the “Cadenza” sounds like Mehldau is searching for what would logically come next had the theme been larger than the two-part form (A1A2B1B2). The “Postlude” stretches the melodic pieces even further with deep, sustaining strings and quickly mounting brass lines. There are many rises and falls packed into these six minutes, giving Variations on a Melancholy Theme a conclusion more melancholy than its theme.
But as stated before, the “Postlude” doesn’t get the last word. “Encore: Variations X & Y” finds Mehldau soloing once again, putting a brighter, if not necessarily happier, spin on his theme. If you are familiar with Mehldau’s previous live solo performances like Live in Tokyo, Live in Marciac, or the 10 Years Solo Live boxset, then you’ll already be familiar with his Keith Jarrett-inspired approach to piano improvisation where all 88 keys are utilized and both tempo and rubato rule the time in equal measure.
The truly great thing about Variations on a Melancholy Theme is that it rewards casual as well as careful listening. If you can pinpoint the theme emerging from each variation, great. If not, it hardly matters. No matter your level of education or musicianship, Variations on a Melancholy Theme is still a treat to hear, from top to bottom. To have Mehldau release such top-tier material after 27 years of recording, the deal is only sweetened.