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Of all the qualities for which composer, keyboardist and multi-instrumentalist Brad Mehldau earns praise (and there are plenty), among the most important but least mentioned is his restless spirit. Even when he’s working on a conceptual effort such as Finding Gabriel, which was inspired by Biblical verses about a certain archangel, he seems preternaturally incapable of sticking to a single path. He clearly feels duty-bound to explore every possibility he encounters, and tagging along with him proves fascinating. This time around Mehldau’s ax of choice on most cuts is the OB-6 polyphonic synthesizer, which presents him with a wide array of orchestration options. But he doesn’t stop there. Mehldau also employs other synths, Fender Rhodes and acoustic pianos, as well as assorted string and brass players plus singers whose voices are used to provide instrumental color rather than to deliver messages — although he does that, too, on “The Prophet Is a Fool,” an unnerving, chaotic number during which two speakers talk about a despot who uses fear and guns to attain mass obedience. One guess as to who might have inspired it.
The members of the supporting cast are consistently stellar. Trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and tenor saxophonist Joel Frahm, augmented by a heavenly chorus supplied by Becca Stevens and Gabriel Kahane, raise “The Garden,” the first track here, to an even higher level. Later, Stevens and the unmistakable tones of Kurt Elling turn “Make It All Go Away” into a deeply moving interlude — and throughout, drummer Mark Guiliana excels at finding the ideal beat for each moment.
At its foundation, though, this is Mehldau’s show, whether he’s throwing an unexpected vamp into “Born to Trouble” or getting philosophical amid the many twists and turns of the title track. The variety of his playing is as inspiring as his subject matter.—Michael Roberts https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TqxfdNm4gZQ