Issue #118: After Bach by Brad Mehldau

June 18, 2018

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After Bach by Brad Mehldau
Released On March 9, 2018
Released By Nonesuch Records

This Week’s Selection Chosen By Kira Grunenberg

Brad Mehldau is a jazz pianist; except for the times when he’s not. Mehldau resides primarily in, and is most known for, his expertise in the jazz piano realm. Yet, if After Bach (Nonesuch Records, 2018) is the first you’re hearing of this musician, hearing praise of jazz music a pretty significant bit of confusion will probably ensue. Putting it briefly, Mehldau is one of those greats, not unlike Yo-Yo Ma, Herbie Hancock, or Chris Thile, who, despite being best known for a particular genre set, can freely move about the music realm because, Mehldau has developed such skill that listening to any record with his name in the credits means hearing a pristine and impressive musical performance. What genre Mehldau decides to explore at any given time has reached a point of irrelevance, at least as far as doubt or “wheelhouse skepticism” is concerned. (Just take a listen to the portmanteau titled duo, Mehliana, which brought together Mehldau and acclaimed drummer, Mark Guiliana, in 2014.)

After Bach is Mehldau’s newest solo effort and its title is mostly self-explanatory. A record focused on the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, this 12 track LP is titled as such because every one of the five Baroque compositions from Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier (four preludes and one fugue) is followed by an original piece from Mehldau. After, Bach. Get it? All jokes aside, this classical exploration is worthy of attention for many reasons. Despite Bach being one of the founding greats in classical music and one of the more well known in modern pop culture’s relationship with classical repertoire, those who haven’t found themselves taking the time to really analyze Bach’s form of composing are missing out on a world of complex patterns and amazing harmonic structure that extends beyond the sheer sound of harpsichords and organs, or the sight of many small notes on a piece of manuscript paper.

It’s true that the time period in which Bach wrote came with sets of musical expectations and what would come to be known as qualities of the period — hence the style being relatively easy to identify in a macro sense. And the intricate but melodious nature of The Well-Tempered Clavier‘s themes definitely don’t sidestep the hallmarks of ornate motifs, busy passages, and neat and tidy voicings for the parts played by Mehldau’s two hands across many octaves on the piano. The real treat of this album comes in listening to it all the way though, in order, without stopping. The contrast of Mehldau’s astute execution of Bach’s works, partnered with modern interpretations and variations on each, gives the fundamental pieces new perspective. Not only is it interesting to look for where and how Mehldau places a thematic reference point in his original half of After Bach‘s pieces but hearing something original against something that has been performed countless times, on countless classical records, by countless talented pianists, provides a new contextual lens for how to process and evaluate Mehldau’s capabilities with the piano, as opposed to just placing this Well-Tempered Clavier against the myriad of others and solely comparing expressiveness via technical application and instrument specific character.

This isn’t to say that fascination can’t be derived from taking the album apart out of order of course. Mehldau’s own writings, when given their own mini-playlist, make After Bach feel like a shrewd neo-classical EP that present him as a genius of subtle blending between formal Baroque form and modern improvised decisions. “Flux” is a terrific standalone piece that feels relentless but controlled and despite the fidgety title, provides clear lines of partition between its traditional (structured, repeated motifs and rhythms, cleanly resolving cadence at the ends of phrases) and contemporary elements (accidentals and intervals between notes in the right hand melody that create an off-kilter flow to the part, which is probably where the title seems more applicable). The piece is definitively not Baroque but also clearly highlights its lifeline thereto. “Rondo” is much more straightforward in its homage to the main theme of the Clavier‘s “Prelude No. 3 in C# Major,” but delivers a twist with its momentum, established by a decidedly modern 5/4 time signature. The dynamic softness, paired with the sustain heavy and slower tempo “Ostinato” is like an momentary respite from the otherwise often hectic character of The Well-Tempered Clavier and even of Bach’s writings overall. Nevertheless, it takes skill in compositional application — knowing when and where to change dynamics, add accents, change chords, resolve melodies and harmonies — to keep an ostinato (using a repeated pattern — think the cello part of “Pachelbel’s Canon in D“) based composition sonically gripping. Then again, returning to the album’s strength in sequential performance, the closing original piece, “Prayer For Healing,” really does act like a restorative finale; not only with its own sense of grandiosity (long held notes and chords against extended measures of rest) but also with a lightened bout of self-contained contrast between the extreme ends of the piano. Ultimately in doing this, the finale doesn’t feel as though it requires bookended perspective in the track list. Listeners are left with a summation of sorts for the many intriguing dimensions After Bach can offer: dexterous execution of tradition, bold but well thought out modern musical creativity and, though simplest of the conclusions, a refreshing presentation of classical repertoire that stands a strong chance of bringing in ears new to either classical music, Brad Mehldau, or maybe even both.

Kira Grunenberg (@shadowmelody1)
Prolific Sonic Scribe & Unifier

One of the most influential modern pianists creating music in the vein of one of the most influential composers in world history.

In The Lives Of The Great Composers, Harold C. Schonberg writes that Bach, in comparison with his contemporaries, “eclipses all. His vision was greater, his technique unparalleled, his harmonic sense frightening in its power, expression, and ingenuity.” He also points out all that we don’t know about how Bach’s music was performed in its own time: how embellishments were used, what the unwritten rules were about phrasing — even the pitch of his instruments is in question. Schonberg’s conclusion is that “At best the conscientious musician can, after much study, make an informed guess.” Perhaps this is why the Baroque master’s work is so protean, with adaptations for jazz quartet and electronics, among many others, and transpositions of his pieces for nearly every instrument under the sun. Musicians often use Bach’s music as part of their practice routine and it’s easy to see something like that leading to Brad Mehldau’s After Bach, in which he plays excerpts from The Well-Tempered Clavier and follows them up with his own inventions on the melodic and harmonic themes from the originals. I say “inventions” and not “improvisations” because he’s not jazzing up the work of the great master, but rather exploring alternate paths in a neo-Baroque style. Both his technique and the recording are a little gauzy so you don’t get that sense of overload that can result from an hour of Bach. Instead, the vibe is ruminative, almost as if you’re having a private audience with Mehldau as he communes with one of his muses. Now, I’ve known about Mehldau for a long time but never felt particularly grabbed by his work, whether he was playing pleasant post-Marsalis jazz or adapting popular songs to his style (although his Nick Drake is surprisingly effective). So I’m somewhat surprised that the last two tracks, “Ostinato” and “Prayer For Healing,” which are perhaps the most Mehldau-esque, are my favorites. The latter even achieves some of the spare grandeur of Erik Satie, a composer who is one of my touchstone artists, firmly making the connection between Bach and Modernism. How about After Satie/ next time, Brad?

Jeremy Shatan (@anearful)
Prescient & Appreciative Musical Omnivore

I felt a childlike sense of wonder when exploring Brad Mehldau’s After Bach, right down to the album art. There’s a whimsical nature to the proceedings — indeed, the spiral staircase seems infinite — that seems impossible to escape. But at the same time, why would you want to? Much of this record is lovely and soothing (although, the middle third or so of “Dream” is creepy, and the final third is rather unsettling in places), so I suppose it’s odd that a recurring thought this week has been that horror trope of a mirror image acting by itself or differently than the original. In the case of many of Mehldau’s complementary compositions to Bach’s originals, though, it’s not a scary reflection — just a different one. For example, “Prelude No. 10 in E Minor” is the original and is, let’s say, a kid smiling and waving to the mirror. The reflection, “Flux,” might be that kid enthusiastically jumping up and down at the idea that there’s someone to play with. Similarly, “Fugue No. 16 in G Minor” could be a hyperactive child spending an impossible amount of energy due to a sugar overload, while “Ostinato” is the much-needed nap and the resulting fantastical dreamscape. All this is to say, After Bach is a dizzying affair from my perspective as a non-musician, and I can’t imagine it’s much different to those who are. A child’s perpetually awestruck view of the world is something worth envying, especially as a cynical adult. That Brad Mehldau is able to conjure such a feeling out of me with just a piano is itself astounding.

Steve Lampiris (@stevenlampiris)
Sure, Let’s Go With That

I’ve always found the idea of Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier interesting, mainly because Bach was suggesting a more pleasant, harmonious tuning with it than was the norm in his time — and apparently, that tuning has become the basis for modern piano and keyboard tunings. Or so the story goes; during my research for this little blurb here, I wound up on The Well-Tempered Clavier Wikipedia page, and oh goodness it is apparently orders of magnitude more complicated than I ever understood. But I’ve never been a classical music geek; the stuff sounds pleasant as background music in bookstores that play NPR on weekday mornings, and that’s about the extent of my understanding. But jazz pianist Brad Mehldau is apparently heavily influenced by classical music, and by J.S. Bach in particular, which explains the reason why he dug deep into The Well-Tempered Clavier for After Bach, his 2017 solo album. On this album, he spends the majority of the album first reproducing five selections from The Well-Tempered Clavier, and then riffing on each in turn with an improvisational re-interpretation in his own style of the preceding Bach piece. I liked the idea, and hearing what Mehldau did with it. The Bach pieces themselves are more of a stage-setting for each of the five “After Bach” pieces that follow them, but they do prove that Bach was onto something with his approach to tuning, as each of them is very pleasing to the ear. However, it’s the intricate twists and turns of the improvisational interpretations that really makes this album an intriguing listen, as they see Mehldau’s jazz background interact with the conventions of 17th century classical piano in ways that challenge the listener used to hearing classical music as a strictly composed and rigidly reproduced form. Apparently in Bach’s time, improvisation was a big deal for keyboardists of the Baroque era, though that has changed significantly in later eras of classical music’s evolution. That kind of rigid reproduction can be fascinating to recreate the sounds and tastes of prior eras, but I think the fact that so little room is left in modern classical music for any sort of interpretation or deviation from the form in any significant way is part of what keeps it from feeling like truly living music, and therefore might be why I have been hesitant to really dig into the form. Hearing Mehldau find a new approach to classical music through the medium of jazz-based improvisation makes this all so much more interesting for me. There’s a lot more to unpack here than I would have expected; I’m looking forward to repeated listens.

Drew Necci (@buzzorhowl)
Insightful Scholar Of The Underground

A jazz genius in his own right, Mehldau’s ability to not only blend into the classical world, but enhance it is truly spectacular.

Without being a musician yourself, appreciating the complexities of neo-classical or jazz music can be challenging. If your focus has been on the predictable layering and relatively simple repetitive constructs of popular music, it’s hard to know what to make of the swirling flurries of notes that constitute the art of improvisational jazz. At its most accessible, it often features a rhythm section, or multiple instruments playing off patterns and following along in a manner that offers the listener a place to comfortably sit for the ride, a rail against which to rest. The chemistry between musicians can play as much of a role in band dynamics as the tuning of their instruments. Here on After Bach, it’s just Brad Mehldau and his musical piano monologs, first reviewing the classics and then noting the inspiration that results from each. There is no indication where he’s going, no signposts along the way, because he’s alone. There is nobody else to turn to. He has indulged in translating his impressions of Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier into methodically composed responses. His path is not straight forward, or predictable. There are no easy melodies playing the heart strings in manipulative ways. Whether Bach or Mehldau’s responses, there are no large sections of highs and lows or fasts and slows. The listener has a single option — get lost within it. Follow or lose the trail and bumble along. These are detailed conversations and expressions in musical form. Like the most interesting dinner parties, the nuances are complicated, intricate, sometimes playful and sometimes challenging. The focus changes, the subject matter meanders, lulls and sometimes jumps the shark entirely. Like fleeting emotions, phrases flutter, soar, and dissipate often before he can fall into something as rudimentary as repetition. On “Pastorale,” he seems to stop at odd time signatures, resting when he should be charging. He plays with time as much as he plays with notes as if correcting himself, as if rethinking it. Perhaps it didn’t mean what you thought it did? Perhaps it meant so very much, but only for a fierce moment. it simply doesn’t matter anymore. Notes are as fickle as hearts and minds. Here is a composer who has excelled at attention to detail to such a degree that a 45 second passage at the last third of the track seems to almost play two conflicting directions. On one hand, the melancholic sound of reflection and on the other, an almost whimsical hopefulness tells the story that things really aren’t as bad as Mehldau’s other hand has suggested. They are arguing, conflicted, but still delicately and gently stepping. Mehldau is difficult to anticipate which is the very nature of music with strong dynamics. And like life itself, there may or may not be a resolution. Certainly, the 11 minute “Prayer For Healing” comes close to at least reaching out, assuring the listener that they’ve arrived somewhere recognizable and casual. A lot has happened and it takes a while to sort it out. After Bach is a journey worth taking but like any journey that asks you to grow through the experience of others, nobody will necessarily hold your hand.

Darryl Wright (@punksteez)
Lovechild Of The Music & Technology Marriage

I’m having a hard time figuring out what to say about this album, but it’s not because of any flaw in the music. The music is, to be sure, incredibly beautiful and executed flawlessly to my ears. And that’s where I stumble, actually. I am frustrated because I want to be insightful about the variations that Mr. Mehldau is holding up next to the original work. But I lack the vocabulary to write about it and I also lack to immersion in the genre to know what to think about it. And it’s frustrating but it’s also exhilarating. If this was an album based around the works of The Beatles where he played a Beatles song on one track and then a song that responded to the Beatles song on the next track, I would know the source material very well and could therefore see the changes and responses and alterations he was making. Since I don’t have nearly as strong a background in Bach (Bachground?) as I should, I can only hope that in repeated listens I can start to see the games he’s playing over the course of the album. I really enjoyed this somewhat disorienting experience exploring an entirely different time zone from my wheelhouse.

James Anderson (@unabashedjames)
Devoted Docent Of Musical Concepts

I have to say when I saw the download link for this album, I was slightly taken aback by the title. “After Bach,” I thought, “now that is a tall order for any musician.” As I listened to the album, I saw that it was not the big bravado piece I was anticipating. My initial thoughts, based solely off the title, were that this album was somehow claiming that Brad Mehldau is the next Johann Sebastian Bach. I couldn’t have been more wrong and if I had stopped there, I would have never experienced this masterful album. For those of you unaware of Bach’s contribution to music, Bach is one of the most iconic composers and pianists that humanity has ever had good fortune to experience. Bach’s pieces provided a strong basis for a plethora of genres including modern jazz and bebop. To summarize, Bach was a gift to the human race. A musical demi-god that you should know about. Clearly, Brad Mehldau and I share the same appreciation for Bach and his works because Mehldau’s After Bach is a vibrant tribute to his work. Performing Bach’s original compositions and adding in time for some Bach inspired originals, Mehldau honours the style and pose of one of time’s greatest musical geniuses. However, it’s not all about Bach, Mehldau is a musical demi-god in his own right. The jazz pianist has such a profound understanding of the pieces he performs that he is able to create new pieces that compliment Bach’s compositions. He does this so eloquently that someone who is unfamiliar with Bach’s work wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. The pieces’ sound like they were always meant to be together, lost in time but now reunited: here is Bach and After Bach.

Erin Calvert (@erinpcalvert)
Elder Goth In The Making

I can’t be the only one who was told as a child that listening to classical music was good for the mind. And wouldn’t you know it, After Bach really got me thinking! Let’s first get the obvious out of the way — Brad Mehldau is top shelf all the way. A virtuoso for sure. The concept of the record is pretty interesting as well. It’s a serve and volley from past to present; a clever interplay between the inspiring and the inspired. But what really got me thinking were two things. One, I don’t listen to classical music enough, and in hearing it for the first time in a while, I immediately picked up on so many common links between the music then and now. No matter what the technological advances, certain chords are always going to sound good progressing into one another. Certain keys tickle certain emotions, no matter if it’s a harpsichord or a key-tar. The other thing that really got me thinking was how would composers like Bach have created differently if they were privy to even simple recording and amplification technology? Would they have written music differently, with totally different dynamics, had they known that they could put a microphone right next to the tuba’s and another directly over the woodwinds? And as a modern artist, like Mehldau, are you obligated to remain as close to bare-bones as possible in the recording process to maintain an aesthetic link to the original composition? Sorry if that’s a bit existential for everyone. Maybe sometimes OYR can stand for Off Your Rocker?

Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford (@jclyde757)
Steadfast Hip-Hop Historian & Creator

Bach has always cast a long shadow on the musical world, but with this ambitious work, scholars need to begin noting Mehldau’s own impressive shadow he’s cast.

While my three-year-old daughter and I were driving in the direction of a decidedly and delightfully unhealthy Father’s Day breakfast, she asked of Brad Mehldau’s After Bach, “Why is he not singing?” I started responding by saying “He’s not singing because he’s concentrating on playing piano,” but my Dad Brain couldn’t resist an agenda-laden addendum, born out of a cocktail of guilt and concern over how much TV she watches and many times I typically have to snap her out of a daze when she’s getting dressed in the morning in front of episodes of PAW Patrol and PJ Masks. “It’s good to do one thing at a time,” I said. (Lame.) The irony struck me later. Mehldau is never, ever doing just one thing at a time. He’s a master of being in two places at once, starting musical conversations between texts (I bet I’m not the only Off Your Radar contributor who has gone through periods of obsession with his Radiohead interpretations, and don’t get me started on his version of “Exit Music For A Film“); between instruments (I loved the combination of piano and mandolin on Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau, especially their take on Gillian Welch’s “Scarlet Town“); and maybe most notably between the genres he’s so adept at weaving together: classical and jazz. The sequencing on After Bach brings out this quality beautifully, bouncing back and forth between interpretation and extrapolation. Dedication and improvisation. And always with a clarity of purpose and execution that invites you to listen, learn, compare, and feel amazed at what music at its most joyfully technical can sound like. To my daughter, if she reads this at some point in the future, I’d like to offer a new, two-part addendum: This was an amazing Father’s Day. And doing two things at once can be cool — just ask Brad Mehldau.

Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds

As it was a weekend of celebrating dads everywhere, I’d just like to wish everyone a Happy Father’s Day! Music has always been where my Dad and I connect most and as I get older, the more thankful I am that his music taste has influenced my own. That being said, this album probably wouldn’t be one we would jam out to in the car, but personally I love instrumental music. I say that time and time again and I love that I had this album to wind down with after a crazy week. With summer getting into full swing, it’s easy to get caught up with everything — making the most of a short season (in Canada anyways) and not taking any time to relax. Listening to classical music always calms me right down, and I needed that today. There is a reason it’s called classical, right? It’s that style that never truly goes out of style. Right? I loved that the tracks just all blended together and created one long beautiful melody. Every now and then I just need a little break, and this album really helped me relax, clear my head, and reset. A very beautiful piece of art.

Chelsea Kostrey (@chelseakostrey)
Retrophile & Festival Enthusiast

The concept of reactionary music isn’t something a modern music fan should be unfamiliar with. From “” and “God Bless America” to “Killing Me Softly With Your Song” and “Empty Chairs” (not “American Pie” as people think), musicians have always been writing music inspired by or in response to other moving works. Pick any major hit from the last 30 years and you can probably find a dozen great songs it has sired, some hits in their own right while others probably should have been hits. (In the should have been hits side, here’s Jennifer Nettles’s “That Girl,” which was an answer to Dolly Parton’s classic “Jolene“). If this “reactionary” music is so trite though, then why aren’t there more albums like After Bach, in which Mehldau performs selections from The Well-Tempered Clavier and follows them with works he created from the same line of musical thinking? Well, there is a great deal of stigma involved. Release a record full of cover songs and you may placate a portion of your fanbase, but critics and others won’t objectively hold it up to your other work, even though it can take just as much effort to reimagine an iconic work as it does to create one. Ryan Adam’s successful full album cover of Taylor Swift’s 1989 may signify that the tide is changing, though it’s clearly not happening anytime soon. Until then, After Bach has gifted us a great template in appeasing both sides, something you’d expect a prolific artist like Ryan Adams would have stumbled onto by now. Leave it to Brad Mehldau, who once upon a time was a revolutionary in the jazz world for injecting the modern pop formula into his post-bop sound thus grounding a sound that was veering towards excess rather than emotion. Even for those not versed in the classical or jazz world, After Bach is a rousing piece of work that helps modernize Bach (to a degree), and also give classical legitimacy to Mehldau’s own work. Sure, there are some jazzy ascends and familiar progressions, but it’d be hard-pressed to listen to “Rondo” (just Rondo, not Rajon for those who bleed green like myself) in no context and not accept that it’s just another Bach great compositions. (Who really knows them all off the top of their head?) With context though, you really see Mehldau’s talent burst forth, specifically towards the end of the record where his own creations begin to outgrow their spiritual parents (“Ostinato,” “Prayer For Healing“). It shows not only the reach Bach has three hundred years later, but also the ingenuity and innovation Mehldau has had his entire career.

Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart

Next Week’s Selection:
Frenching The Bully by The Gits
Chosen By Erin Calvert

Off Your Radar Newsletter

Editor: Doug Nunnally

Contributors: James Anderson, Hannah Angst, Laura Burroughs, Erin Calvert, Catherine Dempsey, Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford, Dustin Gates, Kira Grunenberg, Davy Jones, Chelsea Kostrey, Steve Lampiris, David Munro, Drew Necci, Jeremy Shatan, & Darryl Wright

Logo By Matt Klimas


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