After a late rehearsal and a brain lapse, I got to Mehliana's long-awaited show half an hour late. I walked into Astral greeted by Brad Mehldau's synth pad. His electric duo with drummer Mark Giuliana was one of my must-hears this year.
Mehldau used a grand piano, Moog Little Phatty (or Sub Phatty), Wurlitzer, and presumably the Prophet 08 which is blinking away in the duo's viral videos. Quickly during the second set I realized that Mehldau's playing in this duo is not drastically different than his brilliant solo piano work, just that it is orchestrated across four different keyboards. While most of the music was drawn (presumably) from Taming the Dragon, there were a couple of times I thought Mehldau would pull from his bag of covers. The only non-original was a version of "My Favourite Things" that emerged out of some broken beat groove. The perpetual ostinatos were now on a growling Moog, and the cascading lines on Wurly. I wasn't always a fan of his sonic choices; each instrument was assigned a role that didn't really change throughout the set. The bass had a long filter decay, almost flatulent, that muddled the complexity and precision of Mehldau's left hand. The Prophet was relegated to these long attack, long release, filtered sawtooth pads which grew to be a tad redundant towards the end of the set. The pads could have been a little more lush and layered for my tastes - more high end, more stereo spread, more ear candy. The biggest difference is Mark Giuliana, whose interactions with Mehldau were highly responsive. Giuliana has an ear for colour, with two snares and a smattering of cymbals, and his allusions to various subgenres of electronica recontextualized Mehldau's improvisations. Mehliana is a meeting of two brilliant improvisers; if Mehldau becomes as adept at synth programming as he is at pianistic virtuosity, this dragon will breathe some real fire.
After Mehliana's conclusion, I entered Gesu to the sound of roots reggae, courtesy of pianist Monty Alexander and the Harlem-Kingston Express. Alexander was joined by two rhythm sections - one representing Harlem, and the other, naturally enough, representing reggae. Of course, when Obed Calvaire is the drummer on the "jazz" side, there's bound to be some crossover. I was stunned by how seamless the transitions from roots and dub to swing were, Alexander cueing the changes from the middle of the band. He's got a real handle on the 60s soul-jazz piano sound when he wants to swing, and sat deep in the cut when it switched to reggae. As I've had to write for double rhythm section thanks to guitarist Gary Schwartz recently, I was very curious on how Alexander utilized the two bassists and drummers - Calvaire and Karl Wright often sounded like one drummer, while double bassist Hassan Shakur played high-register melodies over Courtney Panton's dubby low end. Both Alexander and Shakur are fond of quoting other melodies in their solos, which got to be a bit much by the end. Shakur's final solo turned into a potpourri of various E-minor licks: I counted "The Pink Panther," "Eleanor Rigby," "People Make the World Go Round," and "Good Times" all back-to-back, after which Monty Alexander abruptly ended the set. That many quotes were both his cue - and mine - to leave for the night.