Note: NPR’s First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify and Apple playlists at the bottom of the page.
The jazz pianist Brad Mehldau has always been concerned with balancing a handful of musical priorities: dynamic fluctuation, tension and release, the play between a crisply stated idea and one that’s projected or implied. All of these are factors on Finding Gabriel, Mehldau’s ambitious new album. What helps nudge it into strange new territory is a fixation on voice and breath.
This might not seem like the key detail on a swing-for-the-fences opus that references Old Testament prophets and other Biblical arcana; collides retro-futurist synthesizers with horns and strings; and interpolates an all-too-familiar slogan from a political rally. We’ll get to all of that. But when you spend some time with Finding Gabriel, you begin to understand how much faith Mehldau has placed here in human vocalization, as a call to communion in troubled times.
He’s no stranger to composing for vocalists, notably classical sopranos Renee Fleming and Anne Sofie von Otter and next-wave troubadour Chris Thile. But the tactics on this album are pointedly different — more about using the voice literally as an instrument, wordlessly, for texture and color. Mehldau even ventures his own singing to this end: his voice seems to be the first that you hear during an album overture, “The Garden.”
The next two you hear, layered as a chorus, belong to Becca Stevens and Gabriel Kahane, a pair of inventive singer-songwriters conversant in jazz and classical music (and much else besides). Their massed “ahhs” build to a crux four minutes in, when drummer Mark Guiliana crashes in with a destabilizing breakbeat, kicking the song into overdrive. Then trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire enters the fray, personifying the heraldic angel of the album’s title before yielding to a waft of woodwinds: flute, saxophones, bass clarinet.
This is a lot to process, especially if your frame of reference for Mehldau’s music largely revolves around acoustic post-bop in a trio setting. But you’ll find precedent for this hybridist vision in his uncategorizable albums Largo and Highway Rider, and in his 2014 release Taming the Dragon, featuring a knockabout synth-and-drums hookup with Guiliana. You’ll also find it in the work of artists Mehldau admires: on “Born to Trouble,” for instance, Kahane’s entrance (two and a half minutes in) suggests a fond homage to the classic Pat Metheny Group.
All of these experiments in form and content somehow converge in Finding Gabriel, which feels both impeccably crafted and wildly out on a limb. Mehldau has said that he originated a lot of the album’s songs on an instrument new to him: the OB-6 polyphonic analog synthesizer. He combines that distinctive sonic element with acoustic and Fender Rhodes pianos as well as various other synths, including one that mimics a Theremin. On a few tracks, like “O Ephraim,” he works alone, as a multi-tracked one-man band.
The song titles aren’t arbitrary: even while he was playing with new toys, Mehldau was seeking out old wisdom — from the Biblical prophets Daniel and Hosea, along with the Book of Psalms. His reason for doing so involves our present sociopolitical state, as he makes almost painfully clear on a track called “The Prophet is a Fool.” Opening with the sound of a crowd chanting “Build that wall,” it sets up a stylized conversation between Mehldau and a frightened child.
“Who’s he?” asks the boy, after a snippet of the demagogue behind the slogan.
Mehldau replies: “He’s just their voice. He speaks for them.”
The anti-Trumpism of this exchange is jarring, as it’s meant to be. It might be an unfortunate feature on a track that otherwise involves a flame-throwing tenor saxophone solo by Joel Frahm, and another commanding rhythmic turn by Guiliana. Still, it’s telling that Mehldau identifies his sworn enemy in terms of a voice. He’s working something out here.
The following track, “Make It All Go Away,” begins with the sound of a deep exhale, before Mehldau speaks the title phrase, in a tone somewhere between exhaustion and disgust. Becca Stevens, one of two featured voices in the song, puts a lot of breath into her delivery, as if to soothe; Kurt Elling, the other prominent voice, sounds more like a horn, with his whooshing arabesques.
There are other pivotal moments on the album — including two highlights, “Deep Water” and “St. Mark is Howling in the City,” that feature violinist Sara Caswell at the front of a small coterie of strings — but none that cut more to the core of Mehldau’s tortured message. He’s embattled and exhausted, losing faith and looking for answers.
The album closes with its title track, in which Mehldau formulates a plea for divine intervention. Addressing the angel Gabriel, he requests a sign. No literal answer is forthcoming, not here. But as with most of the pieces on Finding Gabriel, Mehldau provides an accompanying scripture. This one, from Daniel 9:23, is a reassurance.
It’s quoted in the English Standard Version: “At the beginning of your pleas for mercy a word went out, and I have come to tell it to you, for you are greatly loved. Therefore consider the word and understand the vision.” The sound of this album has a lot to do with Mehldau’s response to this command, as a form of inspiration — a word rooted in both breath and spirit, and a force that moves in mysterious ways.