REVIEW: Brad Mehldau/Kevin Hays: Modern Music

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Friday September 30, 2011


Brad Mehldau/Kevin Hays: Modern Music
By: John Fordham

As he showed at the Wigmore Hall in duet with mandolinist Chris Thile recently, the US piano star Brad Mehldau treats one-to-one musical encounters as invitations to creativity outside his comfort zone; chances to explore worlds between contemporary idioms of very different kinds. This piano duet reunites Mehldau with old associate Kevin Hay ‘” but there’s a crucial non-playing third member in contemporary classical composer Patrick Zimmerli, who was originally engaged as the producer but ended up significantly shaping the music. This fascinating session is therefore not only a mix of jazz and modern compositional materials (pieces by Zimmerli, Steve Reich and Philip Glass join the pianists’ own originals), but an exploration of what happens when a non-jazz composer’s approach shapes the frameworks for improvisation. On Zimmerli’s title track, for instance, with its steadily pecking motif and churning chordal undertow, the pianists are required to improvise on their left hands while sustaining an intricate written part on the right. Though the whole session feels like a sympathetic and open dialogue, the arrangements constantly shift the goalposts for the players ‘” so that Mehldau’s Unrequited sounds both classical and pure Mehldau simultaneously, Zimmerli’s prodding Generatrix stretches under the players’ pressure but always snaps back, and Ornette Coleman’s Lonely Woman is opened on ghostly, ambiguous four-hand chords before the famous theme is introduced in the low register. It’s full of surprises, and without any of a jazz-piano duet’s occasional tendency to clutter.

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