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Despite the calmness distinguishing most of composer and pianist Brad Mehldau’s music, his artistry tends more toward poetic punk than nouveau bebop. He has already proved his commitment to making music beyond the functions of mere entertainment in his series of deeply personal Art of the Trio albums. On those records, Mehldau has explored the repertoires of John Coltrane, Cole Porter, and Rodgers & Hart, as well as a handful of noteworthy originals, with improvisational gall verging on self-indulgence. He doesn’t simply interpret songs; he re-examines and reconstructs their entire architecture to his own liking.

Mehldau’s introversion transports his music into a netherworld where antiquity and modernity meet. Even when he’s improbably retooling material by such artists as Radiohead and Nick Drake, the compositions receive such a stylistic overhaul that their temporal contexts become obsolete. Listening to his expressive reconfigurations is, at first, an exercise in wonderment, but it can slowly grow daunting as Mehldau’s extravagant improvisations become objects of “ugly beauty.”

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The 28-year-old Mehldau returns as one of his generation’s most unabashed romantics with his latest album, Elegiac Cycle, a stirring suite of solo piano originals. Departing from his usual trio format, he confronts new technical challenges; he now must take total responsibility for the compositions’ rhythmic foundation as well as their harmonic and melodic structure. It usually takes decades for jazz musicians—trained in group interaction—to master the art of performing alone. Creating antiphony and rhythmic tension can be particularly difficult, but Mehldau’s prodigious skills triumph with extreme clarity.

Compared with his trio recordings, Elegiac Cycle represents Mehldau’s most inspired, if foreboding, listening experience to date. The album’s esoteric themes and, more pointedly, its pathos are so severe that about halfway through the suite, you’re damn near ready to slit your wrists. But emotional impact is exactly what makes Elegiac Cycle so stunning. The rueful “Resignation” sums up most of the album with both its title and sense of loss.

Technically, Elegiac Cycle reflects less of Mehldau’s jazz vocabulary than of his European classical training. It’s a truly soulful work, but it hardly swings, and it goes nowhere near the blues. The spirit of jazz, however, informs Mehldau’s sparkling improvisations. His impeccable dexterity allows him to create passages that overlap as they progress at breakneck speed. When Mehldau paces himself languidly on sullen pieces like “Goodbye Storyteller (For Fred Myrow)” and “Lament for Linus,” his sparse single notes seem to fall pensively, like the first snow of winter. But when he free-falls into full-throttle improvisation, as in the suspenseful “Trailer Park Ghost” and the midsection of the wistful “Memory’s Trick,” his rapid flurry of notes becomes a blizzard.

Elegiac Cycle gestated mainly during an extended visit to Germany, where Mehldau went to study the language, read King Lear, and concentrate on playing solo piano. His self-imposed exile could easily be viewed as an act of rebirth, a reconciliation of his European classical influences. It also provided a much-needed retreat from an unhealthy lifestyle, which included a widely publicized heroin addiction that nearly threatened his career.

The album meditates on the passing of artistic ideals, cultural icons, and the millennium. An avid reader and sharp cultural commentator, Mehldau has always sown his music with highbrow literary references and displayed his own poetic bent in provocative liner notes. He indicates his love of Beat poetry—and, in turn, the Beat writers’ love of jazz—in “Elegy for William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg,” with a simple nod to Thelonious Monk. “Lament for Linus”—the elegized Linus of Virgil’s Aeneid—betrays his fondness for Rainer Maria Rilke’s idea that “perception of beauty is just the beginning of terror.” And alongside his witty analyses of 20-somethings on the current jazz scene, Mehldau throws in excerpts from Thomas Mann’s notes to Death in Venice and Doctor Faustus.

Sounds heady. In the hands of someone less musical, Elegiac Cycle could have resulted in nothing more than pretentious piffle. Fortunately, Mehldau’s demeanor and articulation ground the music with tremendous humanity. His mastery of mood brings out the angst and alienation of marginalized Americana in “Trailer Park Ghost” and evokes the conflicting emotions of advanced age in “Memory’s Tricks.”

Elegiac Cycle marks a brave move for Mehldau: While most of his contemporaries are still mimicking their elders, Mehldau reckons with and forgoes established notions of jazz. He manages to issue a soulful critique of his generation’s artistic impulses without appearing anxious to be too hip himself. CP