Brad Mehldau ‘Finding Gabriel’ 2LP/CD (Nonesuch) 3/5

With his latest album ‘Finding Gabriel’, Brad Mehldau looks for meaning in this frustrating era. It’s thought-provoking and fresh but melancholic and reverential. ‘Finding Gabriel’ was inspired by the current political environment in the States but also Brad’s interpretations of the Bible. At times, vocalists have been employed for choral connotations, adding a new dimension to the synths and beats. Despite being a spiritual and philosophical work, it’s no sermon and thankfully the music does most of the talking.

According to Brad, the compositions began with his discovery of a synth called the DSI Oberheim OB-6 to which he joined the powerful drums of Mark Guiliana, and the pieces’ layers and textures grew from there. Mark and Brad have already collaborated on their 2014 duo album ‘Mehliana: Taming of the Dragon’ and seem to have a fruitful and vibrant relationship.

That versatile and retro OB-6 synth is used on almost all tracks and has a pivotal role on the bleak ‘The Prophet is a Fool’, acting as the bass and supplying a terrific, driving riff. Opening with distant chants of ‘Build that wall’, the political message is driven further by a speech of a man explaining to a child the mindset of Trump-loving Republicans and the fear that leads them to focus on the construction of a border wall. Brad clearly has something to say here and isn’t going to pussyfoot to make a defiant stand.

Brad’s use of a range of synths is excellent, the ‘Therevox’ theremin-like keyboard appears almost as often as his main OB-6 and beautifully harmonises with the eery vocal melody sung by Becca Stevens and Gabriel Kahane on ‘The Garden’. The arrangement on this track becomes increasingly raucous before Ambrose Akinmusire gives a writhing trumpet solo over the forbidding bass synth. There are some real head-banging sections on this varied album; energised by the drumming of Mark Guiliana.

The brilliantly titled: ‘St Mark is Howling in the City of Night’ reaches euphoric moments but the energy drops; leaving a sense of dissatisfaction. However, the tune quickly creates interest with an avant-garde orchestral string arrangement clashing with naïve piano melody. In this section Mark’s drumming flips into a rigid lifelessness devoid of compassion, as if grasping for order from the desparate strings of Sara Caswell, Lois Martin and Noah Hoffeld.

Becca Stevens sings like an angel on ‘Make it all go away’, while Kurt Elling scats with verve and soul but as a combination, it feels rather saturated.

The album is in places reminiscent of David Bowie’s last album ‘Blackstar’, which too conjured images of dystopian ritualism. Mark’s urgent drumming also featured on that album. Brad has obviously taken influences from more alternative artists as well and wasn’t afraid to calm the mood and move away from more improvised contexts. However, it ends rather strangely with a bible reading from Brad himself over the tame ‘Finding Gabriel’. While the satire is sharp earlier in the album the piety has worn thin by this point and makes for a misjudged ending to a sporadic set.

Fred Neighbour

Read also:
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Brad Mehldau Trio ‘Ode’ (Nonesuch) 4/5
Brad Mehldau ‘Highway Rider’ 2CD (Nonesuch) 4/5