Taming The Dragon
USA NONESUCH STCD 400220 CD (2014)
Marking a more significant departure from his ‘institutional’ activities than other recent releases – enough to polarise long-term admirers anyway – pianist Brad Mehldau busts out the Rhodes and synths for an energetic jazz-funk team-up with rhythmist Mark Giuliana, their surnames fused into a dubious portmanteau for a maiden voyage that may be more ‘meh’ (or Medeski) than melody for some, but the guys are clearly on a mission to put ‘fun’ into ‘fusion’ from kick off time. The moody drizzling of (soon-to-be ubiquitous) synth wash of the tone setting opener ‘Taming the Dragon’ releases snatches of a cooler-than-thou narrator’s dream epiphany, bookended by brief blasts of liquid electro-funk. Reading between the lines, Mehldau wants to contextualise this stylistic departure as resulting from inner struggle rather than self-indulgence: the eponymous ‘dragon’ being human energy, which can either be ‘tamed’ into creative enterprise, or surrendered to more destructive pursuits.
Judging by the results, the boys not only tamed their dragon, but have hidden in it their spurs: a hell-for-leather approach that pays off on tracks such as the peak chasing ‘Hungry Ghosts’, a clumsy devotee to the euphoric fusion mountaineering of our friend Squarepusher, right down to the furious drum work. It’s a style the duo tinker with at several points to varying degrees of interest, though amid sufficient diversity to mitigate stagnation for the most part. Guiliana’s an adventurous drummer and a fine foil, plus his electronics fit many of the tunes so snugly that Mehldau must have felt at times like he was back in one of his trusty trios.
Still, for all its abandon there’s a disconcerting overconfidence that could have been neutered a tad. The tribute track ‘Gainsbourg’, which fuses phrases from Serge’s ‘Ford Mustang’ and ‘Manon’ with a Gallic-tinged version of the ‘new’ sound is not as virtuous as it needs to be to transcend its initial clunkiness. And while keeping my distance from those who unequivocally disapprove of an artist’s off piste antics, I can only agree that each and every spoken section – few in number they may be – might have been excised without deliberation. Still, as more of a personal effort than a forum for innovation, warts and all are to be accepted, not that I expect they’ll keep this off too many ‘Best of 2014’ lists.