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Brad Mehldau is primarily known for his understated acoustic chamber-jazz efforts. Yet one would be hard-pressed to find someone capable of blending the seemingly incongruous primary influences of the pianist’s latest release, Jacob’s Ladder — the progressive rock of Rush, Yes and Gentle Giant mixed with Christian scripture — into such a cohesive fusion of vocals and electric and acoustic instrumentation.
Luca van den Bossche’s delicate treble vocal starts the opening “maybe as his skies are wide” (named for lyrics by late Rush drummer Neil Peart to the band’s rock anthem “Tom Sawyer”), leading to a tranquil mix of electronic programming, Mehldau’s piano and glockenspiel, and Mark Guiliana’s drums. That tranquility is soon broken by “Herr und Knecht (Master and Slave),” with Guiliana’s drumming and Tobias Bader’s German vocals approximating the progressive metal band Tool along with Mehldau’s blend of synths and electric and acoustic pianos.
Mehldau presents Gentle Giant’s “Cogs in Cogs” as a three-part suite, with the keyboardist playing a bank of various instruments (e.g., Fender Rhodes, harmonium, Moog synthesizer) on feels classical and choral, electronic and world music. Rush’s title track receives a similar three-part treatment, with its opening Bible reading the most overt among otherwise subtle scriptural references throughout. Meanwhile, a reverential reading of the Canadian trio’s “Tom Sawyer” features vocals and mandolin by Chris Thile and solos by soprano and tenor saxophonist Joel Frahm.
On “Heaven,” the disc’s four-part closing suite, Mehldau sings backup with Becca Stevens and contributes drums and percussion, as well as keyboards; the mix is further layered with chants by Cécile McLorin Salvant, and a reading of Yes guitarist Steve Howe’s outro to “Starship Trooper” by Pedro Martins.
Jacob’s Ladder may be a case of fusion ADD, but so were rare gems like Weather Report’s 8:30 and David Fiuczynski and John Medeski’s Lunar Crush. — Bill Meredith