It’s not a profound statement to say that the Hebrew Bible has been an incredible influence on the arts. For millennia, creative people from all walks of life have looked at (and into) the ancient words and applied, transmogrified and adapted the holy writ into lasting contributions of aesthetic wonder. Indeed, it seems that every verse from the Bible — whether we know it or not — has seeped into our culture through literature, theater, cinema and, yes, even jazz music. The necessity for all these outlets of outsider interpretation affords us the opportunity as a society to reinvestigate the themes of the Bible through unique lenses; a necessity in dire times.
One of the most recent and invigorating explorations of Biblical themes comes in the form of piano virtuoso Brad Mehldau’s latest album, “Finding Gabriel” (Nonesuch). Mehldau is a chameleon who defies genre, often switching between wild interpolations of Bach études and Radiohead covers with ease. On “Finding Gabriel,” we find the Jewish musician in a moment of pique. Not satisfied to record another trio session or solo compilation, Mehldau instead moves into a realm of the analytical, the esoteric, the experimental and the spiritual.
In press materials, Mehldau mentions that his close reading of the prophets inspired this record. “Finding Gabriel” is, at a basic level, a fresh take on using the medium of jazz to speak out against contemporary problems that afflict the nation. Take the opening track, “The Garden.” Lush synths cascade on an ostinato pattern as a chorus of voices wordlessly guide the listener on a journey through the higher echelons of Creation. The tension builds as the chorus gets steadily louder until — suddenly — the drums begin crashing in at a breakneck speed. The blast of a trumpet, expertly played by the inimitable Ambrose Akinsmusire, then fills in the rest of the sound space, providing a clarion call that reorients us back to the messiness of the present.
The album then proceeds to switch off between collaborative tracks and Mehldau working as a one-man band. Throughout the record, Mehldau utilizes jazz as a springboard to explore deeper ideas about the limits of music as both instigator and catharsis. The Mehldau we hear on “Finding Gabriel” is in a political mood, atypical for him. This is an artist filled with a righteous anger toward a global totalitarian creep and the triumph of ignorance over critical thought. On the album’s standout track, the dark and dystopic “The Prophet Is a Fool,” Mehldau posits that a certain, orange-hued figure prominent in today’s culture is exploiting people… to their detriment. “He speaks for them,” a man explains to a child as they talk about a rally they’re witnessing. “They’re just scared… He weakens them.” A free-flowing and scorching tenor sax, courtesy of Joel Frahm, provides a welcome contrast to the organized terror of the track’s setting.
While “The Prophet Is a Fool” is the album’s most political track, there are traces of the old-time religion sprinkled throughout. Borrowing its title from the Book of Job, “Proverb of Ashes” is a polyrhythmic romp through the tribulations of righteous people forced to comprehend an unstable world. The sounds akin to gamelans on “O Ephraim” lends to Mehldau’s utilization of diverse instruments to build a unique quilt of sound that disorients. Here the listener’s attention is focused on disparate moods that somehow fit together, like perfect puzzle pieces. And on it goes.
From its first notes, “Finding Gabriel” is a revelation. Mehldau has continued his streak of using the keyboard to move souls. And by going against the grain, he pushes jazz to exciting, lucious and unexplored heights. By patently ignoring a traditional musical interpretation of the prophets of old, Mehldau spins a jeremiad of his own. It is, therefore, somewhat ironic that he turned his attention to the ancient words of the Bible to do so: “What has been is what will be.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9) Meldau’s corpus of work transcends “jazz” and moves toward a non-categorized music, one that playfully turns expectation on its head, does a jig and then astonishes with its heft and pure tonal power. “Finding Gabriel” is no different, and is a most welcome addition to the artist’s impeccable catalog.