Mar 13, 2014

Music Review: "Taming the Dragon" by Mehliana

By Rron Karahoda

As soon as I heard that pianist Brad Mehldau and drummer Mark Guiliana had teamed up I became very excited. Throughout their separate careers they’ve established that they’re just not like other musicians; They know their history and understand the traditions that helped them develop but they’re skilled enough to play without those weights on their shoulders. The result of their collaboration is a very solid first outing and comes across as honest exploration of their music and more importantly, each other.

One of my biggest impression of Taming the Dragon is that it inhabits a space between electronic jazz, and what I can only call jazz house. Given that Mehldau is usually known for his relative mastery of the acoustic piano trio, this album comes as a surprise and shows that even to masters like Mehldau and Guiliana the world of electronics is a very different beast. Played on a Fender Rhodes keyboard, a Prophet 8 synthesizer (among others), and drums the kind of sound, along with a post-bop.

In the opening song, as well as throughout the album, there are narrations that smack of earlier club and house music in which a generic male announcer drops a punchy (often politically charged) line that both centers the given song but is also rendered absolutely meaningless. The effect is different here, because although the content is heavy-handed in the way that the lyrics to Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories are heavy-handed, these words give us a platform from which to jump into the Fender Rhodes-fueled world that Taming the Dragon inhabits. They’re a little cheesy, and so too can be these 70’s sounding instruments but Mehliana use this to their advantage to get you settled into undoubtedly modern songs like “Luxe”, “Hungry Ghost” and even a reharmonized version of Serge Gainsbourg’s “Manon” (admittedly the least compelling of the three).

“Luxe” manages to get into a fast-paced 7 beater and entices us with little bits of melody here and there before going into a full-blown exploration of the Fender Rhodes that with Giuliana’s impeccable drumming engages the whole of one’s imagination. It’s dense yet perfectly spaced. Another song, “You Can’t Go Back” is littered with  lines throughout the song, and although it has Mehldau open with the kind of pianism he’s known for the real takeaway is Giuliana’s playing. It’s a modal approach where he gets to sit on fewer chords at a time and the space opens up to a host of sounds at mechanical speeds that transforms the drum from a rhythmic fulcrum into a living entity with ups, downs, moods, and quirks. The best part is that it is not limited to “You Can’t Go Back”, the whole album gives Giuliana the room to express what the drums can be, as much as he’s needed to maintain the pulse of more open songs like “The Dreamer”.

My only complaint with this album is that the electronics are almost too clean at times and give Mehldau’s flourishes an almost sterile quality when I can tell that the opposite is true. Just take “Hungry Ghost”, one of the strongest songs in the album as an example The entire album is expressive and if they, as Mehliana want to continue with an electronic sound they might need more sensitive equipment. The tones from the Rhodes are beautiful and so distinctive but just as they’ve modernized the sound by giving them a new context they might want to modernize just what that sound can do being it by weighing it, modifying the attack or decay a little, artificially create overtones, something. Personalize it, as they have done with this music. They can do great things between the two of them and I am excited to see where they take themselves next.

Grade: B+

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