Brad Mehldau – Suite: April 2020
(Nonesuch. Vinyl/ Streaming. Review by Dick Hovenga*)
Lockdown can also be a source of inspiration. Forced to stay at home, pianist Brad Mehldau wrote twelve new pieces which he has transformed into an impressive ‘lockdown suite’. The new album Suite: April 2020 also has three other tracks, interpretations of well-known songs that were going around in his head during that strange time. All in all it is a highly impressive piece of work.
As is widely known, Mehldau has for several years been living between New York and Amsterdam with his Dutch-born wife and family. During the lockdown, they were ‘stuck’ in Amsterdam. Inspiration took hold and he felt an imperative to go straight ahead and record twelve newly written pieces while they were still fresh. He did this in Amsterdam’s Night Dreamer studio, which has developed an international reputation for the quality of its direct-to-disc recordings. (It was made fully compliant with coronavirus standards for the session.)
Each of the 12 individual pieces that make up Suite: April 2020 has a title describing the specific mood or situation that Mehldau was in when he wrote it. Time and again these are striking musical observations. It is as if the titles have been added to paintings, pointers to the moods in which the compositions were written, although each also then invites a personal interpretation by the listener. The thread which unites and connects the 12 pieces is an atmosphere of melancholy. Memories combine with a sense of uncertainty and unease about the future, reflecting a world in standstill, in which the pause button has been pressed. These ideas come together really beautifully.
It is always exceptionally fascinating to hear Mehldau play. There is real emotional power in his compositions, which lean just as hard on classical structures as they do on the freedom of jazz. The opener, waking up, ushers in a whole palette of different moods, whereas in keeping distance he gives musical form to this newly-discovered ‘discipline’ that affects us all. Remembering before all this is a heartwarming piece full of melancholy. Uncertainty and the day moves by have a restlessness combined with a strange kind of resignation. In compositions like in the kitchen, family harmony and lullaby, the final compositions of the suite, he finds happiness and peace in being obliged to to stay at home.
These are 12 pieces that reflect on this time, and do so in a particularly appealing way. They carry an overwhelming emotional charge but also have a purity and honesty about them. They stand up on their own as music, but also have a sense of fascinating completeness as an observation of this era, particularly when listened to as a whole. And of course, the scale of what Mehldau can do musically is unbelievable; his playing is phenomenal throughout.
The album comes to a close with three extra pieces written by other people. Naturally, a composition like Neil Young ‘s Don’t Let It Bring You Down is in particularly safe hands with Mehldau. Alone, at the piano, he does a wonderful version. Billy Joel’s New York State of Mind resonates too, given his relationship with the city. The beautiful melancholic twists and turns in the song combined with Mehldau’s playing make it work especially well. The loveliest of the three extra tracks is the album closer, Mehldau’s reworking of Jerome Kern’s Look for the Silver Lining. What wonderful sadness there is in this song; and the way Mehldau plays it is heartbreakingly beautiful.
Suite: April 2020 is above all about the 12 compositions he wrote during his unexpected stay at home and indoors. It is an extraordinary musical statement at a special time. An absolute masterpiece.
Suite: April 2020 was released on 12 June and is currently available in a special vinyl version, with all proceeds going to the Jazz Foundation of America’s COVID-19 Musician’s Emergency Fund, helping American jazz musicians. A normal version of the album (on vinyl and CD) is going to be released, but not before September.
Categories: CD review