Album review

Brad Mehldau – ‘Jacob’s Ladder’

Brad Mehldau – Jacob’s Ladder
(Nonesuch 7559791346. Album review by John Bungey)

Well this is an extraordinary album, not extraordinarily good, not extraordinarily bad – just extraordinary. Being the manager of Brad Mehldau‘s record label must require an indulgent heart. While the pianist has recorded some of the best jazz trio albums of recent decades, he has regularly headed off-piste into rock music (Largo), club beats (Mehliana: Taming the Dragon) and classical (multiple times). Luckily, Mehldau is with Nonesuch, where such detours seem to be waved through.

Still, you wonder how the pianist pitched his latest: Jacob’s Ladder is a prog rock-theological-synthesizer concept piece featuring covers of Yes and Rush and the words of Jehovah. It veers from the sublime to the bracingly ugly, from manic to serene.

Mehldau says that Jacob’s Ladder reflects on scripture and the search for the divine inspired by the progressive rock he loved as a teen – kind of God meets Gentle Giant. The album starts with an ethereal taste of a tune by Canadian prog titans Rush. Tom Sawyer melds a boy treble, broken beats, fluttering piano and synths into gentle loveliness, but the mood is rudely shattered by a clattering keyboard work-out, Herr Und Knecht, which resembles Emerson, Lake & Palmer at their most diabolical. The screaming vocals add a touch of Teutonic metallers Rammstein. Mehldau is clearly not making The Art of the Trio Vol 4 here.

However, the mood calms as Mehldau plays some Chopin-esque piano before the playful three-part Cogs in Cogs suite. Here the programmed drumming and electric keyboards recall his Taming the Dragon project. For part II Mehldau introduces a lira da gamba, an antique stringed instrument. With Becca Stevens‘s high-altitude vocals and a tricksy time signature the mood floats between vintage Renaissance and vintage Yes.

Double Fugue is just that, played on period synths before a full version of Tom Sawyer. The 1981 Rush anthem is imaginatively reworked as Chris Thile, a regular collaborator, sings and plays mandolin abetted by multiple keyboards, power drums and fluting boy treble.

After a brief and lovely Latin-tinged interlude, it’s time for the main event: Jacob’s Ladder (I hope you’re keeping up here). Anyway, if you’ve wanted the bedtime tale from the Book of Genesis recited in Dutch and English on record, here it is. After Mehldau improvises on piano over beats, the music becomes steadily stranger. Amid washes of synth and wandering sax come snatches of dialogue (may be Dutch again, Google Translate was baffled). Finally comes a sudden massed yowl of pain (nope, no real idea).

The good news is that this is followed by what Mehldau calls his vision of heaven, which fans of Yes will be delighted to hear is soundtracked by a good lump of Starship Trooper from The Yes Album of 1971. Again a prog-rock warhorse finds a new spring, imaginatively rearranged with harp and a wordlessly angelic vocal from Cécile McLorin Salvant and ending with a rhapsodic sign-off from Mehldau’s Steinway.

This clearly is not an album for the faint-hearted and will cleave opinions. An overcooked lockdown self-indulgent mess or a ringing declaration of faith through music? Certainly, there seem to be at least three albums fighting to get out here (none of them jazz). Me, save for the Teutonic metal moments, I’ll keep listening. It’s self-indulgent – of course it is – but that was the routine accusation against the prog rock pioneers who inspired the record, and whose work often sounds just fine half a century on. And like an ancient prog album, it’s perhaps best appreciated with a lyric-filled gatefold LP sleeve on your lap, some oversized headphones, and the herbal tobacco of your choice.

Jacob’s Ladder is released on 18 March 2022

LINK: Brad Mehldau’s Bandcamp

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