Friday, June 15, 2012

Brad Mehldau's dizzying piano play should delight all on Ode

Brad Mehldau is a name that should elicit cheers from anyone with at least a passing knowledge in modern jazz. The celebrated pianist swung for the fences on 2010's Highway Rider, which featured elaborate arrangements incorporating a full jazz ensemble. Ode sees Mehldau return to his trio, which also consists of bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard.

Ode is something of a concept album. That is, most songs were written as a celebration to a particular someone or something. The music found here is very joyous; it's easy to get lost within its upbeat and celebratory nature, which makes it the perfect springtime or summer soundtrack. Mehldau's playing is warm and full of life, as each song takes its time developing. He'll spend a good chunk of time building a few separate movements, and then he may strike with a crescendo of lighting fast rolls to close out a track, as he does on "26."

Sometimes he may get clever and sneak them in between progressions, like on "M.B." and the title track. "Dream Sketch" is the first instance we see Mehldau break away from this approach. It's much more calm, subdued, and slow developing, but it provides a nice change of pace. Mehldau said it was inspired by music he heard in his head during an afternoon nap.

"Bee Blues" is a track that should thrill any lover of the good old school 50s and 60s bebop outfits. When Grenadier gets a chance to show off, it sounds like he's pulled a page straight out of Jimmy Garrison's book from A Love Supreme. Eventually, you get this vibe like these are a bunch of cool cats sitting around pouring out melodies in a smoke filled room. The way jazz was meant to be.

On "Stan the Man," however, it's Ballard who gets a chance to show off. He establishes his beat, and then goes into a snare roll which he plays off of masterfully. The cymbals ting and clang as he moves around his kit, adding a little accent here and there. All the while, he's never losing track of that original snare beat. As for Mehldau, he does his part by playing the track at about twice the speed of the rest of the cuts here. It's a fast and frenetic; it jumps in, kicks you in the nuts, and then leaves.

"Wyatt's Eulogy for George Hanson" establishes a different attitude entirely. If you're familiar with Easy Rider, the song title is indeed a reference to Jack Nicholson's character in said film. It opens sounding like a funeral dirge: Mehldau's gentle keystrokes are complemented by Ballard's somber cymbal rolls. The bass comes in later and creates an ominous and unsettling mood.

Nearing the close of the album is "Aquaman," a fun piece about Mehdlau's favorite childhood superhero. It's always fluttering around, moving from one place to another, never lingering in one spot too long.  Brad amazes with his ability to keep a steady rhythm with his left hand while reeling off dizzying solos with his right.

This leaves us with the two tracks inspired by Mehldau's family. "Twiggy" showcases the romantic fervor with his wife Fleurine, while "The Days of Dilbert Delaney" speaks to the joy his son Damien brings him. The two tracks bear a certain level of compositional similarity; both open sounding thoughtful, pensive and moody. It's like Mehldau is trying to compose his thoughts here to make sure he gets his message just right. "Twiggy" eventually explodes into a flurry of solos accented by thunderous drum rolls, while Delaney remains a touch more composed. It's accented by sudden, euphoric stabs that seem to cry out the joys of watching your son grow into a man.

After blazing trails on Highway Rider, it was probably necessary for Mehldau to scale things back. But what a job he's done. Not only is his virtuosity displayed here, but he also proves himself a great thinker by giving each piece a specific dedication. This way, each song has its own distinctive feel while also ensuring that the album doesn't deviate from its core theme. Ode is an album that shouts toward the heavens and raises a triumphant first in the air, and when Mehldau celebrates it's cause for music lovers of all varieties to stand up and cheer.

Score: 84/100

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