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Brad Mehldau: Finding Gabriel (Nonesuch)

A review of the pianist's Old Testament-inspired album

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Brad Mehldau, Finding Gabriel
The cover of Finding Gabriel by Brad Mehldau

In the beginning, Brad Mehldau plays a simple synthesizer melody, ringing with felicity and melancholy, like church bells celebrating simultaneous marital and funereal rites. Over the next seven minutes the song builds as instruments and voices join the repeated phrase until the music crescendos into glorious, frantic chaos. “The Garden,” the first track on the pianist and composer’s new album, Finding Gabriel, establishes the biblical nature of music at the outset. The record’s 10 tracks take inspiration from Old Testament verses that Mehldau details in the liner notes as instructive in reading our current political and cultural moment.

The palette that Mehldau uses on “The Garden,” varied as it is, also informs the sound throughout the record. On “O Ephraim”—one of three tracks in which he handles all the music himself—Mehldau’s piano oscillates between sunny and meditative as his voice hovers in ethereality overhead and a synthesizer hums like a heartbeat in the background. He invokes chaos and cacophony again in tracks like “The Prophet Is a Fool” and “Proverb of Ashes,” two of the record’s most politically explicit songs. On “Prophet,” Mehldau samples chants of “Build that wall!” from the president’s rallies to create the emotional starting point for towering, power-chord synths and Mark Giuliana’s crashing assault on the drum kit that drive Joel Frahm’s explosive soloing.

The specific political references can seem ham-handed at first, but they fit when one listens to them in the context of the record as a whole and understands them as inspirations for the composer’s vision. Even when Mehldau finds Gabriel on the title and concluding track, the pleas that fall on waves of foreboding choirs and leaping ivories furnish no clear answers. But, as the saying goes, the Lord works in mysterious ways.

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Jackson Sinnenberg

Jackson Sinnenberg is a broadcast journalist and writer based in Washington, D.C. He serves as an editor for Capitalbop, a non-profit that focuses on presenting live jazz and covering the D.C. jazz scene through grassroots journalism. He’s covered the city’s local jazz scene since 2015 but has covered national and international jazz, rock and pop artists for a variety of publications. He graduated from Georgetown in 2015 with a degree in American Musical Culture and will gladly argue why Kendrick Lamar is a jazz musician. Follow him @sinnenbergmusic.