Brad Mehldau/Kevin Hays: Modern Music

Michael J. West reviews Brad Mehldau & Kevin Hays' 'Modern Music'

Modern Music, a lovely duet session by pianists and contemporaries Brad Mehldau and Kevin Hays, would seem to offer few surprises. It’s a lyrical, harmonically dense album by two players known for their lyricism and harmonic density. In fact, Mehldau and Hays’ synergy here is such that it’s often hard to tell the pianists and contemporaries apart. (Hint: Hays has a lighter touch and natural lilt.) But their collaboration also includes a below-the-title third partner, classical composer/arranger Patrick Zimmerli, whose involvement perhaps explains the record’s curveball-its classical inclination.

Not that the tracks are conservatory standbys; most are Zimmerli originals, with one contribution each by Mehldau (“Unrequited”) and Hays (“Elegia”). The latter aren’t jazzy, though. “Unrequited” employs a Bach-like cadenza and, while it moves into idiosyncratic harmony, it adheres to a stately sonata articulation and rigid time. “Elegia” evokes Satie in its delicacy and atmospherics; though it briefly suggests a looser rhythmic feel, it then doubles down on the classical lockstep.

The remainder is from the minimalist repertoire-excerpts from Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians and Glass’ fifth string quartet-and Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman.” The last selection is an apparent oddity, but not in the way it’s performed here: Zimmerli uses a foundation of minimalist repetition and drives the melody on immense, crashing chords that transform Coleman’s plaintive melody into a six-minute opera. It’s a startling interpretation, and an original one. Modern Music may not swing, but it still finds new ways for jazz piano to express itself.