Brad Mehldau is not simply one of the true greats of jazz piano, but one of the most interesting composers, collaborators and creators in the contemporary music scene.
Every release of his is special, and this year we are fortunate to have two in close succession, the brilliant quartet album RoundAgain with Joshua Redman, Christian McBride and Brian Blade and, the subject of this review, Suite: April 2020, an intimate solo set comprising twelve pieces improvised in response to the lockdown of March/April 2020, plus three concluding bonus cover versions.
Suite: April 2020 appeared digitally almost immediately back in the late spring, and the physical CD album arrived this Autumn:
How often in a lifetime does an album perfectly encapsulate the moment?
The best way to introduce this particular album is in Mehldau’s own very personal words:
“Suite: April 2020 is a musical snapshot of life the last month in the world in which we’ve all found ourselves. I’ve tried to portray on the piano some experiences and feelings that are both new and common to many of us.
In ‘keeping distance,’ for example, I traced the experience of two people social distancing, represented by the left and right hand — how they are unnaturally drawn apart, yet remain linked in some unexplainable, and perhaps illuminating way. As difficult as COVID-19 has been for many of us, there have been moments of revelation along the way. ‘stopping, listening: hearing’ highlights that moment as well.
I’ve pointed to some of the strong feelings that have arisen the past month or more: ‘remembering before all this’ expresses a bittersweet gut-pain that has hit me several times out of the blue, when I think back on how things were even just a few months ago, and how long ago and far away that seems now; ‘uncertainty’ hits on the feeling that can follow right after that — a hollow fear of an unknown future.
There’s also been a welcome opportunity to connect more deeply with my family than we ever have, because of the abundant time and close proximity. The last three pieces hit on that connection — the harmony we find with each other, making meals together or just horsing around. ‘Lullaby’ is for everyone who might find it hard to sleep now.
Neil Young’s words in ‘Don’t Let It Bring You Down’ have always been counsel for me, now more than ever, when he instructs: ‘Don’t let it bring you down / It’s only castles burning / Find someone who’s turning / And you will come around.’ Billy Joel’s ‘New York State of Mind,’ a song I’ve loved since I was nine years old, is a love letter to a city that I’ve called my home for years, and that I’m far away from now. I know lots of people there and miss them terribly, and I know how much that great city hurts right now. I also know that it too will come around.”
The track titles reflect these themes:
- I. waking up
- II. stepping outside
- III. keeping distance
- IV. stopping, listening: hearing
- V. remembering before all this
- VI. uncertainty
- VII. – the day moves by –
- VIII. yearning
- IX. waiting
- X. in the kitchen
- XI. family harmony
- XII. lullaby
- Don’t Let it Bring You Down
- New York State of Mind
- Look for the Silver Lining
The album clocks in at around 41 minutes, and takes us on a sonic and artistic journey from catharsis to pure bliss.
How have you been?
It’s a question that I have regularly asked my students during the online video lessons that have replaced their usual face to face sessions at my studio, and the most typical answer (which I can myself echo) is:
Up and Down.
If this has been a common human response, and I believe it has, then Mehldau’s pianistic outpourings are a perfect embodiment of our shared experiences this year.
Waking Up perhaps looks back to the pre-COVID age, opening the album with simplicity and optimism. Stepping Outside perpetuates the sense of hope in the presence of growing dissonance. The world around us starts to unravel.
In Keeping Distance the hands are not only socially distanced as Mehldau warns, but the music is a curiosity of polytonality and apparently disconnected timing. And yet both hands, when one focusses in isolation on them, appear to have their own inner emotion and character. That they ultimately fit together to make such a superb piece is testament to Mehldau’s unique genius.
The Suite as a whole reminds me of Janáček’s On an Overgrown Path with its delicious mixture of melodic simplicity and impressionistic fancy. Uncertainty in particular suggests itself to me as the bluesy reincarnation of the latter’s The Barn Owl Has Not Flown Away with its open harmonies and piano figurations.
Meanwhile, yearning seems equally an expression of personal trauma and a tribute to the omnipresent influence of Keith Jarrett in modern jazz.
The central part of the Suite contains its darkest moments, but Mehldau’s jazz sensibilities and certainties soon return to focus, in the kitchen with its simple blues vamp and family harmony finding assurance in gospel tones. The closing lullaby is simply gorgeous, a truly comforting conclusion.
What can we say about the Suite as a whole? These are miniature snapshots of a world in motion, of humanity in all its uncertainty and in time of existential crisis, and yet rooted in hope and emotional energy.
The three cover versions which conclude the album provide Mehldau with ample opportunity for lyricism, which he exploits in an unforced and understated way. Here is a pianist who at this stage in his career has absolutely nothing to prove.
Mehldau managed to organise a swift recording session at the Power Sound Studios in Amsterdam, completing the album in just two days, April 23/24, 2020.
Paul Pouwer assisted as engineer, while Danilo Cosucci sorted out the Steinway D on which Mehldau wove his magic. Pouwer also went on to master the results, and as with all Mehldau’s work, the CD is released by Nonesuch Records, a Warner Music Group company.
Given those spontaneous conditions it’s perhaps no surprise that the recorded sound is not the richest or best I’ve heard this year. But here it doesn’t matter even a bit.
The CD arrives in a gatefold cardboard sleeve, and includes a foldout insert showing an artist photo and a more moody landscape/still life.
What makes any music great? Perhaps this is the perennial question that artists and listeners alike spend a lifetime contemplating.
One thing I believe we can acknowledge with a degree of certainty is that all music has its time and its place. In the case of Suite: April 2020 the time is self-explanatory, and place it seems to me is deep within the sensibility of every piano and music lover around the world.
Nor is this music for lovers of one genre of another. Here is music which bypasses such partisan and banal segregation and speaks directly to the soul. This isn’t simply the latest addition to Mehldau’s already distinguished catalogue; it is the album of and for humanity in this hour.
Recording of the month? More like the artistic statement of the year.