Brad Mehldau Trio: Progression -- Art of the Trio Volume 5

Maurice Bottomley

Brad Mehldau Trio

Progression -- Art of the Trio Volume 5

Label: Warner Bros.
US Release Date: 2001-09-18

The sleeve notes to Progression aren't going to do much for jazz's reputation as too highbrow for its own good consisting, as they do, of a long, densely argued and heavily Foucauldian essay. Its theme is the relationship between Music and Language and it attacks, among other things, the supposed autonomy of the former. It does so, in that unwieldy Cultural Studies way, against Elitism and in the name of Democracy. Quite what the purpose of this is I cannot conceive but as the CD format renders the type almost too small to read it hardly matters. The Death of the Author is taken seriously enough in that no one is credited with this innovation -- one I seriously hope does not catch on. I presume Mehldau himself is behind the piece. If so it is by some miles the least of his talents. Incidentally, I hope he realises the damage done to the cause of the arts -- popular or otherwise -- by critical work based on Discourse Theory and other legacies of the post-1968 school of anti-humanist critics.

Fortunately, the music more than makes up for this folly. I would say that it speaks for itself but the whole purpose of the essay is to disprove such transcendent, romantic tosh. Whatever, it gives a passing imitation of eloquence and communicativeness, bourgeois constructs though they be. Seven albums into his career and Mehldau is now at the top of his game. Less daunting than anything his CV (let alone his liner writing) might suggest, Progression offers over two hours of keyboard improvisation at the highest level.

Almost equally divided between self-penned numbers and standards, nothing here serves to diminish the growing suspicion that Mehldau may well be the most significant piano talent to emerge in recent years. His mastery of both the slowest and the most speedy of tempos, his ease with the trickiest of time signatures (plenty of 7/8 and 7/4 pieces to marvel at) and an unusual freedom in the left hand have been duly noted and rightly praised. All these treats are here in abundance but it is his take on other people's material that impresses particularly on this date. There is nobody currently playing who interprets standards quite so beautifully, creatively and logically. He does not tear them apart in the normal post-Coleman fashion but seems to be able to analyse and tease out hitherto unexplored possibilities in even the most familiar tune. It is a remarkable talent and, for me, is a greater gift than his, not inconsiderable, compositional prowess.

The other, and equally significant facet, of this way with the re-routing of material is that Mehldau is able to extend the range of what is available to the jazz repertoire. Pop and rock have had a fairly sorry recent history in the hands of jazz players -- not least in the work of Mehldau's former employer, Joshua Redman. Incredibly Mehldau has the knack of choosing the right tunes or, more probably, is just able to adapt almost anything to a jazz treatment. The selections are refreshingly different and, initially at least, the performance's highlights. No surprise that Nick Drake's melancholy "River Man" makes a good impression, Andy Bey showed the way on that one. "Cry Me a River" has also been visited with success, notably by Gene Harris, but who would have thought "Secret Love" would yield such riches? Not even Sly Stone got the tune to work for him as fully as Mehldau does.

When we get to more obvious evergreens the results are just as striking. "It Might As Well Be Spring" is taken at furious pace but retains all its charm while "The Folks Who Live on the Hill" has all its tweeness removed and all the intricacy of its structure carefully elaborated. If this all sounds like a very technical exercise, it does not come across as such. True, Mehldau is not the most expressive, heart-on-his-sleeve player but there is real affection in his readings and a sense of exhilaration in the discovery of new avenues to stroll along.

Comparisons, which apparently he resents, have been made with his work and that of Keith Jarrett and Bill Evans. The Jarrett I can't see at all, but on the slower numbers it is Evans he most readily recalls. However, there is a cheekiness in approach and a power on the uptempo jams that sets Mehldau at some distance from jazz's foremost piano introvert. This live performance is recorded at the Village Vanguard, the scene of Evans' 1961 triumphs, so the drawing up of a balance sheet is hard to avoid. The pluses are by no means all on Evans' side. Also, for all its complexity, Progression is as easy to listen to as plenty of concerts with a fraction of its ambition. "Secret Love" remains "Secret Love" but you no longer feel guilty for liking it. This is no mean achievement.

Larry Grenadier (bass) and Jorge Rossy (drums) make up the trio. They are adequate to the task but I can't say I really noticed them. The star is certainly Mehldau and it is no exaggeration to say that the two hours you spend in his company fly past. Don't let the hype around Mehldau put you off; it is a more orthodox set than some jazz fans will claim. Nobody who is comfortable with mainstream piano stylings from Tatum onwards will find anything here off-putting. There are few weak patches and if I have ignored the pianist's own tunes it is not that they are substandard at all, just that the "covers" have a rare appeal. Extended listening would, I suspect, show him to have a major contribution to make in the writing area. "Dream's Monk" is a good candidate for further investigation. A tribute to Thelonious -- that is segued into from a dynamic version of "The More I See You" to make twenty minutes of jazz magic -- it contains as many twists and turns as a classic mystery yarn.

Piano trios are a staple of jazz history. Forget the Foucault and the attempt to turn Mehldau into a rarefied Post-Modernist. He is very much of our time but mainly he is an unusually accomplished player who brings out elements in songs that you hoped, but barely believed, could be there. In that, he is the latest in a distinguished line that stretches back to Earl Hines and probably beyond.

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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