Brad Mehldau,
Elegiac Cycle
(Warner Brothers, 1999)

Those of us who know Brad Mehldau's work constantly look for new CDs by this fine young artist, and so far we've been graced with an excellent debut album, as well as three increasingly meritorious Art of the Trio albums, with bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jorge Rossy. Mehldau's piano work is quirky and adventurous, at times showing such disparate influences as Andrew Hill, Monk, Herbie Nichols and Keith Jarrett, while truly retaining his own distinctive voice.

With his first solo album, Elegiac Cycle, that voice becomes even more pronounced, and announces Mehldau as one of the most cerebral pianist/composers currently working, while producing a work of great beauty and haunting melody. This is not music that swings, but music that once again extends the boundaries of what we have come to think of as jazz.

Elegiac Cycle is nearly neo-classical in its way, and I don't mean "classical" as in Ellington and Armstrong, but as in Schumann and Satie. These are harmonically daring and rhythmically challenging flights into a realm in which only Keith Jarrett (among jazz pianists, at least) has had any success. They evince a classically trained background, but with the improvisational feel of the finest jazz. "Elegy for William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg," for example, has a sweet, swinging rhythm like that of vintage New Orleans, and "Trailer Park Ghost" has a rollicking left hand that often approaches barrelhouse and keeps the piece rolling consistently throughout its nine-plus minutes.

But most of the individual parts of this cycle are slow and thought-provoking, invoking the mood established by the suite's subtitle: "vita brevis ars longa." Long, discursive, and sweeping, "Goodbye Storyteller (for Fred Myrow)" is one of the most gorgeous new solo piano works I have heard in years, and that can be equally said of "Memory's Tricks," "Rückblick," "Lament for Linus," and nearly everything else on this album. Themes recur throughout, as well as musical phrases that threaten to transform themselves into well-known classical motifs, but never do (for example, the beginning of "Rückblick" harkens to Beethoven's "Für Elise"). The entire work is one of beauty, high craftsmanship, and true feeling.

The ideal companion to the music is the essay that Mehldau has written on the theme of the affirmative power of art, and its ability to help us to come to terms with our own mortality, an essay which should surely be printed and anthologized so that it can be more widely read (and in a larger typeface than the tiny print that CD inserts have necessitated). At one point, he states: "Music doesn't just represent time, it moves through time, and the listener experiences that passing. ... The process of improvisation is a kind of affirmation of mortality: Even in the moment you're creating something, it's already gone forever, and that's precisely its strength. Improvisation would seem to solve the problem of death by constantly dying as it's being born. It scoffs at loss, and revels in its own transience."

But there is humor in Mehldau's writing as well. Bewailing the "fetishistic obsession with 'Masters'" that infects many contemporary jazz critics, he sets forth what one must do to become a "Master":

A.) Imply, with the help of Yes-Men, that you are nothing short of a Messiah; B.) Rise from prolonged, unexplainable obscurity; C.) Have a good portion of your work recorded before 1965; D.) Die.

To which I would add only one additional method: Write and perform, in your youth, a work of the quality of Elegiac Cycle. Repeat as needed.

[ by Chet Williamson ]

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