Modern Music: Brad Mehldau, Kevin Hays & Patrick Zimmerli (Nonesuch)

Placing the pianist Brad Mehldau into a particular genre or category seems tricky; being defined as a jazz pianist seems limited for his output and extensive work since the 1990s, including  curation of Jazz series at the Wigmore Hall here in London. The recent release from Nonesuch Records of ‘Modern Music’ yet again shows the diversity of his work. Modern Music is the first recording of Mehldau with pianist Kevin Hays and includes jazz and contemporary classical works arranged by the composer Patrick Zimmerli, and also includes some original songs. Mehldau, Hays and Zimmerli had followed each other’s careers but this disc represents their first recorded collaboration. The liner notes include an interview with the three musicians and set the scene for how this collaboration came into being.  It all started with a telephone call that mentioned Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen (originally for 23 strings) which didn’t make it on to the final disc but it includes an original work by Mehldau, Hays and Zimmerli amongst the other arrangements for two pianos the trio made.

Brad Mehldau - Photo by Michael Wilson

Brad Mehldau – Photo by Michael Wilson

‘Crazy Quilt’ is the first track by Zimmerlin featuring restrained energy and full of head-bopping rhythmic patterns. The rhythmic impetus slows for sensitive and imaginative solos, yet quickly returns to the feel of the opening. Improvisatory at times yet clearly structured with keen awareness of pace, and virtuosic technique from both. Mehldau’s ‘Unrequited’ follows and makes a good contrast in its reflective and introspective character. Long expressive melodic lines carry over colourful harmonies and a transparent texture gives clarity, allowing the intriguing chord voicings to come over well. ‘Generatrix’ (Zimmerli) follows well and the angular patterns make this an exciting piece, with solos that fit effortlessly with the enduring character of the piece. This piece is shaped with skill, the sections flowing organically yet unexpectedly at the same time as the material seems to go one way yet goes somewhere completely different.

One  can hear Pärt and Gorecki in Zimmerli’s delicate ‘Celtic Folk Song’; it opens with sparse music focusing on the higher tessitura of the piano and oscillates between this higher music and an expressive melody lower down the piano. The excerpt from ‘Music for 18 Musicians’ (Steve Reich) seems utterly appropriate to be featured on this disc as the aesthetic fits well with the surrounding works. Hays and Mehldau demonstrate precise rhythmic control, colouring the material with a beautiful tone and expressive shaping of the material. The dynamic shaping was paced superbly well – and one can hear how effective the acoustic of Mechanics Hall, Worcester, MA (where the disc was recorded) at allowing the detail of the music to speak with clarity. ‘Lonely Woman’ (O. Coleman) opened with dense harmonies and a rhythmic freedom that balanced the relentless movement of the Reich. One could hear glimpses of Ravel and Debussy in the colourful piano textures, and the jeu perlé passage work contrasted well with the lower octaves. The first solo was supported by muted piano chords – a striking colour change to the previous material – before returning to the intensity of the music near the start of track. This was a real highlight for me on the disc; imaginative harmonies, unexpected shifts in colour and texture and expressive lines exploiting the potential of the piano.

‘Modern Music’ (Zimmerli) placed the repetition of minimalism alongside the harmonic gestures and voicings of jazz. The piece progressed with imaginative shifts and changes in the material and kept one listening with intent throughout. Hays’ ‘Elegia’ gave a window of introspectiveness near the close of the disc but the rhythmic intrigue of the previous works on the disc was never far from the surface and this piece built in intensity right to its close. They made a brave choice in finishing the disc with an arrangement of an excerpt from Philip Glass’ String Quartet No. 5; it seemed to capture the aesthetic of the whole disc yet perhaps made for a more emotionally intense rather than rhythmically vibrant end to the programme.

An attractive disc, presented beautifully and with interesting liner notes, and great that the two pianists are panned one to the left, one to the right, so one can appreciate the individual contributions yet hear the synergy in their music making. A consistent and creative programme, with contrast yet balanced and particularly held together by the arrangements of Reich and Glass.

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