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Brad Mehldau: Elegiac Cycle

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Some of the most profound works in music and poetry have been elegies-expressions of sorrow, lamentation, loss. The piano literature is rich in elegiac music by Chopin, Schumann, Beethoven, Brahms. Bill Evans and Bud Powell made important elegiac statements. It could be argued that pieces like J.J. Johnson’s “Lament” and Benny Golson’s “I Remember Clifford” are, in the strict sense, elegies. Now comes young Brad Mehldau with an entire album of elegiac compositions and solo piano improvisations. This is a bold step for a young artist who has launched a promising career, and for his record company, for that matter. The risk is obvious; in a formula-ridden world, the music fits no formula. Mehldau has built his growing acceptance within the piano trio format. Who will buy his collection of solitary reflections and ruminations? Close listeners, perhaps, for there is much to reward them.

Mehldau is least successful in Elegiac Cycle when he is approximating his 19th Century heroes-that is, when he is closest to Brahms, to Chopin. He succeeds best when he reaches deepest into his jazz sensibility and finds-in the cases of “Trailer Park Ghost” and “Memory’s Tricks”-expression akin to the spirit of Lennie Tristano. It is unlikely that anyone, including Mehldau, knows where his music is headed as he develops, but his sixth album (his fifth for Warner Bros.) is an intriguing stop on the way. If you buy it, be sure to read Mehldau’s essay about the music. It may not explain everything he attempts, but it is an additional look inside a fascinating mind.