Forget everything you know about Brad Mehldau, who rose to fame via contemplative classical-leaning reimagingings of pop songs at an acoustic piano. This isn’t that. It isn’t even jazz, but rather a deep-space exploration into mostly forgotten synth sounds — combined with a very modern low-end courtesy of hip-hop-ish percussionist Mark Guiliana.
Sure, somewhere embedded in the boisterous street poetry of “Hungry Ghost,” or amidst the frantic energy of “You Can’t Go Back Now,” you might catch a whisper of what came before, a hint at the focused perceptiveness Mehldau brought to his next-gen, often determinedly gentle take on jazz. But, really, that’s grasping at straws. The intent on Mehliana: Taming the Dragon, just released via Nonesuch, clearly isn’t to swing, but to experiment — to push at the boundaries until they give. And not just the boundaries of the music, but (as on the gurgling title track, with a free-form spoken narrative; or the space-funk of “Sassyassed Sassafrass”) of the playing itself.
It’s no small task, given that much of this fusion ground has long since been trampled into dust. A lengthy period of live collaboration imbues the project with a sense of interlocking narrative heft, however, even if the bulk of it feels strictly improvisational. Mehldau and the relentlessly funky Guiliana are speaking the same language, even if it sounds brand new to anyone who thought Mehldau had gone off the deep end by attempting something so brash as 2010′s epic Highway Rider suite. For them, Mehliana, which is as open ended as it is fun, as rambunctious as it is utterly free of the prescriptive framework of so-called jazz, well, this is probably an exercise in ear-melting outrage.
There’s a sense, though, if you put those surface arguments aside, that Mehldau has finally found a space where he can challenge himself — having so firmly established his own voice, his own style, even his own tics, in straight-ahead circles. Within Guiliana’s taut, propulsive cadences, Mehliana: Taming the Dragon uncovers the humor in his playing again, the impish creativity — successfully dynamiting, along the way, what had typically become a why-so-serious demeanor. And it makes those rare moments of relative stillness, those times (as on the gorgeous “Dreamer”) when Mehldau’s more familiar piano figures move to the fore, all the more revelatory in their stark beauty.