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Elegiac Cycle. Brad Mehldau.
Complete Transcriptions and Analyses, by Philippe André.
Editions Outre Mesure, 36 Rue Pascal, F-75013, Paris, France.
Bard; Resignation; Memory's Tricks; Elegy for William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg; Lament for Linus; Trailer Park Ghost; Goodbye Storyteller; Rückblick; The Bard Returns.
Analysis frequently forms part of any contemporary university course in music. And what variety we find: harmonic analysis, semiotic analysis, and several other types - even analysis using mathematical fractals. Particularly favoured during the last fifty years is the technique developed by the Austrian Heinrich Schenker (1868-1935). All musical analysis lies between description and prescription. The fact that many types of analysis exist gives us the hint that no single analytical process prevails, though by the 1980s Schenkerian Analysis had become one of the main methods taught by progressive North American music colleges and university music departments. Today, the predominance of the Schenkerian approach, and its use as a sort of senior common-room badge of withitry, is in decline.
Though none of these types of analysis excludes it, few analysts have approached jazz. Few jazz educators value the types of analysis favoured by the establishment. Notable exceptions are Henry Martin's Charlie Parker and Thematic Improvisation (Scarecrow Press, 1996), and Thomas Owens' Bebop (OUP, 1995). To consider jazz from any analytical perspective requires one to work from a transcription, a good transcription in itself being an analytical statement. One could write a substantial thesis about published jazz transcriptions, to consider their use and misuse, their history, the writing of them, and the quality of what is published and available, the good, the bad and the inaccurate. A strength of Philippe André's book is that the transcriptions are provided alongside the analysis, to be studied in conjunction with hearing the recordings. The transcriptions are given in full notation, on two staves, with no chord symbols. Of course, one could simply enjoy playing, or attempting to play, the transcriptions. No CD is provided, but Mehldau's recordings are widely available.
Commentary is printed in the form of a parallel text, French and English, more than fifty pages altogether. Some of the comments are by Mehldau himself, some are by Philippe André, in English. The suggestions for reading take a wide cultural perspective, recommending specific works by William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Goethe, Homer, Jack Kerouac, Thomas Mann, Ovid, and Rainer Maria Rilke. The conceptual unity of Elegiac Cycle is described as being 'distilled in the themes of different tracks. The pieces are all constructed on the basis of two very short melodic motifs.' This statement is discussed in detail, looking at two 'foundational' melodic ideas. 'Foundational' is the author's word, a typical André neologism. Here it refers to a musical anagram, a play on the letters of Mehldau's first name. Brad becomes Bard, and by similar processes - of mirroring, stretching, contracting, ordering, etc. - the nine tracks of the album make use of nothing but these basic materials.
Philippe André's book merits consideration by all serious students of contemporary jazz piano.
John Robert Brown