American pianist Brad Mehldau and drummer Mark Guiliana have just released Mehliana: Taming the Dragon, a fantastic electric duo recording for the Nonesuch record label. With Brad Mehldau on synthesisers, Fender Rhodes and piano and Mark Guiliana on drums and electronics, the pair generate a strong groove reminiscent of the sound of “avant-groove” trio Medeski Martin & Wood but also of the prog-rock and funk-jazz fusion from the 1960s-1980s.

Brad Mehldau & Mark Guiliana - Mehliana: Taming the dragon (2014)
Brad Mehldau & Mark Guiliana – Mehliana: Taming the dragon (2014)

This might sound like a new departure for Brad Mehldau whose musical output remains essentially focused on the acoustic piano either as a solo artist or in a trio formation, but the pianist is an innovator at heart. Having covered extensively the great American songbook, Brad Mehldau is a prolific composer too. He has also explored classical music and revisited the contemporary rock and pop repertoire by covering songs from Radiohead, Nick Drake, The Verve, The Beatles, Nirvana, Massive Attack or Pink Floyd. And then his 2002 recording Largo saw the pianist experiment with electronica and jazz-pop with a prepared piano and electronic effects.

A highly creative drummer and composer, Mark Guiliana fronted his own “experimental garage jazz” trio, performed in recent years with Avishai Cohen and Meshell Ndegeocello amongst others and played alongside Tigran Hamasyan and Dhafer Youssef in 2010 for the Abu Nawas Rhapsody tour.

Keyboards and drums sounds like an unusual pairing, but a short essay on Brad Mehldau’s website sheds light on the musician’s lifelong interest in rhythmic analysis and drumming:

Rush - Signals (1982) featuring "Subdivisions"
Rush – Signals (1982) featuring “Subdivisions”

When I was in sixth grade, I had a band – a power duo with my best friend Bill who played drums, called The Rolling Pebbles. Bill did most of the singing, but I had a couple of vocal features, and one was Subdivisions from Rush. Bill and I were nuts about Rush, and that was the title track of their latest record at the time, and the first single. “Subdivisions” was the first song I played that used the odd time signature of 7/4. It planted the seed of all things “7” in my brain and I followed up much later, exploring that rhythmic meter in the jazz format with my trio. Brad Mehldau – Rock hemiolas

The essay explores the musician’s fascination with hemiolas (“A hemiola in classical music is usually understood as a repeated pattern of four in the context of a meter of three or six” writes Mehldau) in the music of Brahms, Dave Brubeck, Led Zeppelin or Rush and goes a long way toward explaining how much of Brad Mehldau’s music is anchored in the polyrhythmic and keyboard-driven music of prog rock.

The duo’s music is best enjoyed live, and Nonesuch have released to date three live videos of the pair in action (Just call me Nige, Sleeping giant and Hungry Ghost below), all beautifully captured in October 2013 at Largo in Los Angeles: