Thursday 14 March 2013
Gig Review: Mehliana at Howard Assembly Room, March 13th
Review by Benji Powling
This new project from Brad Mehldau and Mark Guiliana, collectively calling themselves ‘Mehliana’, is something of a super group within the jazz world but their concert, though largely improvised, was rooted in DJ culture and electronic music far more than jazz. The broad musical palette also spanned delicate, folk-like melodies, funk and all-out prog-rock whilst still managing to retain a sense of character and unity. Nonetheless, despite the impressive breadth of genres and the high level of technical proficiency I still felt as if they were finding their feet within this particular duo medium.
Mark Guiliana is a musician well versed in this genre of music, as has been documented with his group Beat Music, and this was apparent. However, as far as I know this is Mehldau’s first foray into electric music and despite his phenomenal facility and creativity it did feel as if he was testing the waters in this performance rather than performing in a setting he is entirely comfortable in, such as we are used to seeing him with his long standing trio or in his celebrated solo performances. What he was playing was for the most part superb, but his constant switching between his two synths and Fender Rhodes, while initially seeming creative, quickly began to appear restless. His constant need to be playing at least two of these instruments at once felt a little like he was over compensating for the minimalism of the duo format. One of my favourite moments in the concert was in the last few bars of the encore when we felt the sheer relief of Mehldau placing both of his hands on the Rhodes for a few final chords, and I feel that the music craved this simplicity a little more often.
Not that I am damning his use of his well-documented ambidexterity; his Bach style arpeggios in 5/4 spanning the Rhodes and one of the synths was sublime and, in one piece of technical showboating, he kept an ostinato in 7/8 on the synth bass whilst simultaneously playing incredible cross-rhythms on the Rhodes which held the audience, and apparently Mark Guiliana, captivated.
I found his choice of synth sounds to be a mixed bag. There were some very effective uses of expansive, Weather Report-esque washes, some crunchy synth-bass very reminiscent of Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters and, in one particularly righteous prog-rocker towards the end of the set, some sounds that wouldn’t have been out of place in Yes or Gong. But in a good way. However at other points, particularly in Mehldau’s solos that began every piece, some of the synth pads conjured up images of cut-scenes from 1980s gothic sci-fi movies or late night Channel 4 horror spoof Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place. Not in a good way.
Mark Guiliana’s performance was astonishing and in my eyes he embodied the perfect drummer. He showed his incredible technique without sounding mechanical and in fact I felt his drumming to be so varied, creative and expressive that I think he brought more light and shade to the music than Melhdau, despite playing an instrument incapable of sounding chords or definite pitches. He was also metronomically accurate without sacrificing his great feel, and at times he actually limited himself to purely being the metronome, keeping a steady pulse on the rim of the snare and giving Mehldau space to hold the limelight, before unleashing astonishing salvos that spanned the whole kit. Guiliana also brought some sound samples to the group, played as a back-drop to their improvisations. At times these added effective textures and atmosphere to the music but were at other points distracting, particularly when spoken word was involved. I failed to see any connection between the music and the text and felt that the words were adding nothing to the music.
Taking risks is an integral part of being an improvising musician and we must commend both men on this, particularly Brad Mehldau as this was truly new ground for him. But as is with the nature of experimentation, I did not feel the concert was entirely successful. I struggled with some of the synth sounds as I mentioned above and I felt the improvisational balance between the two musicians to be a little too heavily weighted towards Mehldau, who began every single piece and seemed to lead the majority of the improvisations. I also thought that Melhdau’s rather unsubtle quotations from the jazz standards ‘Turnaround’ and ‘Ornithology’ grated with the rest of the set and seemed rather forced.
Despite this, these are too incredibly proficient and accomplished musicians doing something they love, and this was apparent in the music and in the reaction of the audience who for the most part enjoyed an exciting and mostly very successful concert.