Mehldau hasn’t found Gabriel, but he does channel the heavenly host.
Finding Gabriel is a dangerous proposition. In the Torah, Bible and Quran, Archangel Gabriel comes to earth to deliver visions unto prophets. It gave apocalyptic sights to Daniel, forecasts the birth of Jesus Christ and proclaims Mohammed a prophet. And it seems to be pretty chummy with musicians too, with that trumpet of proclamation that blew on a Behemoth record and on a “Twilight Zone” episode.
But for Brad Mehldau, he seems to accept he hasn’t found Gabriel. Instead, he’s desperately trying to delve into clairvoyance to get a better idea on just what the hell is happening in the 21st century. Finding Gabriel is an odd duck in the modern jazz cannon, a deeply political album that speaks its ideals rarely, instead focusing on music that envelops.
Mehldau begins with a synth line that that could have moped its way into A Moon Shaped Pool. And throughout Finding Gabriel, Mehldau recasts Radiohead’s electronic paranoia. Non-analogue sounds add eeriness and unnerving dissonance, a sense of untrustworthiness that pervades even through the prettiest passages. Even the cozy “Striving After Wind,” which takes a page from Anderson .Paak’s tripping soul, eventually melts into a cacophony of howling voices and static-laced electronics, bringing a formally welcoming track into hellfire.
Throughout, Mehldau uses an angelic chorus. These Singers Unlimited perfected, cooed voices are treated as another layer of texture rather than a narrative device. They add a smooth undercurrent even during Mehldau’s most dire segments, but with the obvious political ideology at play, it feels like a misstep not to let some poetry ring out in these gorgeous pipes.
Instead, Mehldau keeps his words for “The Prophet Is a Fool” which a bit on the nose, though it’s hard to gage what the political rabble-rousing balance on a mostly instrumental album should be. A skit dominates the song with Mehldau and a kid witnessing a Trump rally with chants of “Build that wall!” forming the track’s bedrock. The authoritarian feeding frenzy around hate and a slogan is well deconstructed, but the indulgent vibe of the song sticks out like a sore thumb.
Most of the album is decidedly high-stakes, but in Mehldau’s measured, thoughtful approach. It’s rare we start at 11; instead he ratchets up the tension with subtle twists of distortion, dissonance and dynamics. When he does let loose, it’s a sight to behold. Album centerpiece “St. Mark Is Howling in the City of Night” begins with Vangelis synths and a kitchen sink assembly of instruments weaving in and out before a funky drum beat clatters down. Violins break into a mad jig soon afterward. It feels nearly opulent in its maximalism, but is well-deserved. On the opposite end is the languid “Deep Water,” similarly carried by a string section, but more concerned with imbibing a feeling of sanctuary. In the midst of blats of ugliness, it’s all the more stunning to hear “Deep Water” ascend.
Mehldau’s range of jazz is wide and varied, but two contemporaries come to mind in the winding path of Finding Gabriel. The most obvious is Christian Scott, whose Stretch Music also actively turned the genre into putty, and whose mix of fiery political oratory with beautiful stretches of brass would have been a perfect guest here. But when saxophones fly out like descending angels, the psychedelic jazz of Yazz Ahmed is impossible not to hear. These three are connected by more than genre. They are all explorers, Ahmed tracing the roots of her lineage, Scott railing against unjust systems and Mehldau linking apocalypses of the past with modern troubles, all on the same canvas. All are searching for unobtainable answers. Mehldau hasn’t found Gabriel, but he does channel the heavenly host.