Trouble in Mind
We often use the term “in the moment” or talk about most jazz compositions never rendered quite the same way twice, especially live. Another factor, though less discussed, is the circumstances leading up to and surrounding a recording. These are all critical elements in gaining appreciation for this solo piano work from Elan Mehler. At first, it surprised me to see this appear on the Sunnyside label as Mehler heads his NewVelle Records that caters to vinyl lovers. (See our coverage on these pages of albums from Mehler, Dave Liebman, Michael Blake, and Nadje Noordhuis). Mehler is both a well-respected pianist and bandleader who has seldom or ever been captured this way, alone at the piano as his emotional world was caving in.
Mehler was returning to New Orleans where he had already recorded albums by Irma Thomas and Little Freddie King, attempting on this trip to capture the late, great pianist Ellis Marsalis. His plane was diverted, causing a sleepless nine-hour layover in Austin, TX before resuming the flight to Crescent City. On top of this uneasiness, Mehler was still dealing with a breakup. Arriving at a redesigned state of the art studio in a transformed church, Mehler found the environs empty except for engineer and co-producer Ben Chace who urged Mehler to play the lone piano while he rolled the tape. So, what resulted was a rather cathartic, emotional purge of blues and well-known pieces from the likes of Mingus, Ellington, and Bill Frisell mixed in with Mehler’s own originals. In the liners, Mehler expresses it this way, “…So this is me, three weeks before the pandemic shut down the world, bone weary, playing some of my favorite songs at a beautiful cavernous studio in New Orleans.”
Befitting all that had transpired, Mehler begins with Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood,” improvising and embellishing around the familiar melody in unhurried fashion with the use of space practically serving as a duet partner, inspiring him to express and elevate his own creativity in the slow stepping requisitely dark (downright haunting left-hand chords) in the blues structured original “Esplanade Blues.” Mehler begins to emerge in alternating bright and moodier tones, so typical of most Mingus compositions on “Alice in Wonderland,” retaining that deep bluesy element before shifting into a more spiritual, folk-like, reverent vein in Frisell’s “Justice and Honor.” The brilliance of all this is that it’s completely a stream of consciousness with nothing written down in one sitting.
With his comfort level growing and his mood lightening somewhat, he delivers a touching original, “There at The Heart,” penned for his daughter before stretching his limbs and releasing lingering anxiety in the blues chestnut, title track that most NOLA pianists are likely adept at even as youngsters. The opening chord to Ellington’s “In My Solitude” may be the darkest one in the set, with Mehler proceeding to deliver the tune in a tantalizingly slow meditative delivery. Splinters of light appear in the Green/Heyman standard “Out of Nowhere” before he veers from initial restraint to free expression in his own “I Should Have Prayed for Rain.” The next two pieces are ideally suited for this session – a somber, reharmonized version of “My Funny Valentine,” more emotive and deeply bluesy than most (a feat in itself). His pauses shortly after the four-minute mark are especially effective. Given the church setting, a requisite version of Ellington’s most pensive of tunes, “Come Sunday,” equally chilling, follows. Mehler concludes with his “Scheme for Thought,” a mix of contemplative lines and the type of harmonically advanced playing heard on his trio rendered NewVelle release There Is A Dance, as if to put the blues and his demons behind him and step forward anew, except for those final two chords which represent a bit of wary (and weary) caution.
Shut out any outside noise or distractions and put this on, in the late evening. It will undoubtedly be one of the most stunningly emotional solo piano sessions you’ve heard.
- Jim Hynes
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