Friday, August 04, 2006

moving in with brad (part 2)

Had House On Hill come out straight after AG, I certainly would not have bought it. Now, however, looking back on the Rossy period seems pertinent. Two of the tracks were recorded the day before Day Is Done, creating an odd, Janus-faced moment, but the seamless blend between sessions 2.5 years apart confirms the necessity of change. "August Ending" and "Fear And Trembling" (the two tracks from the later session) do point towards a new mood, but I think it took Ballard to make it explicit. My first impression was that the album was strong and that I needed to get Anything Goes: I'd probably be better able to appreciate its qualities now. Then, listening further, a few things started to bother me: the tracks drag on a bit (but it wouldn't be Mehldau without a bit of bloat) and, especially, the sequencing is puzzling.

The first five tracks are micro-variations on a particular musical place, skewed slightly more sad or Latin or dissonant; the differences are audible but not really impactful, and therefore their succession becomes a bit monotonous. The sequence of "Boomer" and "Backyard" is emblematic of this: the end of the former sounds a whole lot like the beginning of the latter. "Backyard" has more of a feminine, soft-focus elegance once it gets going, but the difference isn't that big.

"Boomer" also makes Rossy play a back-beat, but all evidence available to me shows that that's not really his strong suit. Rossy is amazing at varying and implying rhythm through texture and colour. While a swing-derived (or, at least, cymbal-based) beat gives him ample room to do that, a drum-focused back-beat doesn't.

The last four tracks inject the much-needed variety (unfortunately, no one listens past track 5). "Happy Tune" is precisely that, carried by a dancing bass line and a buoyant groove that shows that Rossy can play a fairly static groove, if it suits his cymbal-driven nature. "Fear And Trembling" is angsty and unsettled: just before the 4 minute mark, a melodic ascent ends not in release, but in chords that imply a drop, and is followed by a theme recapitulation that sounds shattered. "Embers" has a Nick Drake-ish head and a lot of quite melodic improvising that's far from cloying. "Waiting For Eden" slows the tempo down a bit. By the end, it seems that what's been waited for isn't quite what arrives.

I'm not sure how much of my reaction is due to sequencing and how much to the compositions themselves. It seems odd to front-load a CD with a lot of similar stuff and open it up at the end, but maybe Mehldau had pointedly decided to write improvisatory vehicles rather than songs.

The liner notes are long and great. I like them because Mehldau really forces himself to expose his thoughts clearly and methodically; his arguments develop inexorably and forcefully. He focuses on music (Bach, Brahms, Monk, Mehldau's own trio) and references to philosophers are kept to a minimum. I think that Mehldau's discussions of the head-solo-head form and of the tensions between composition and improvisation, to take just two of his topics, while not revelatory, lay a very strong foundation that any critical discussion can build upon.

The two bars of "Boomer" that are reproduced in the liners are interesting, too. They show a 7/4 used in a way I'd never thought of: instead of emphasising the seven beat meter, the piano's left hand plays four groups of 7 16th notes and the bass plays four double-dotted quarter notes. So the bass is playing four regularly-spaced notes per bar, creating the illusion of 4/4. The effect is that, if you unsuspectingly try to treat it like a regular 4/4, or even an off-kilter one, you'll feel something's wrong, without quite being able to say what. It's a cool way of creating a vague uneasiness.

Now, I'm waiting for a second Ballard trio album that reflects their growth and then, hopefully, something entirely different from Mehldau. Maybe that "something entirely different" is Love Sublime, but I'm still hesitant to get that. Any opinions on it?