Sunday, September 4, 2011

Brad Mehldau and Mark Guiliana at the Falcon, Marlboro, NY: An Unexpected Evening of Free Improvisation

Photo by Ralph A. Miriello
About 75 miles due north of New York City in the Ulster County Hamlet of Marlboro, New York is the Falcon. Perched adjacent to a wonderful waterfall, this lovechild of transplanted Staten Islander Tony Falco, is a barn-like two story music and art performance space that also just happens to be a pretty fine restaurant. Despite the venue being a one and one half hour drive from New York City, it is Tony's hospitality and his vision of creating an inviting environment for the musicians that makes it work. It has become a safe house of sorts, a place where musicians are able to try new ideas outside the expectations of their mainstream audiences. It can also act as a convenient place for musicians to warm-up in preparation, on their way to gigs  in  New York City. There is no cover charge for the music, only a donation box where patrons are expected, but not required, to make a donation to the performers. The entire proceeds go to the musicians. It is the vibe of the place, the good sound system and the sentiment of the owner that has allowed the Falcon to attract some top name artists without a guaranteed gate.
Falcon Owner Tony Falco photo by Ralph A. Miriello

With the ominous threat of hurricane Irene lingering in everyone's mind, the originally scheduled August 27 th show of drummer  Eric Harland's group with guitarist Julian Lage and pianist Taylor Eigsti  was cancelled because the train service from New York city was suspended and the musicians were unable to make the trek. Rather than disappoint, the Falcon deftly shifted Sunday's performance of  the duo of pianist
Brad Mehldau, who lives in nearby Newburgh, NY and the drummer Mark Guiliana to Saturday night and suspended Sunday's performances in anticipation of the storm.

It was a rare chance to see the eclectic pianist and the frenetic drummer in an intimate setting. In speaking to Mr. Mehldau shortly before his set, I asked him what music he had planned for his upcoming set. He indicated that it was to be an evening of pure improvisation without any prearranged play list. The stage was set with an acoustic grand and a Hammond B3, but Mr. Mehldau was having none of that on this evening.  It was a purely electronic set with an electric piano, two keyboards and a laptop computer providing the instruments Mr. Mehldau would be employing. The only acoustic instrument on the stage was Mr.Guiliana's drums set.

The evenings entertainment started off with a slam poet from Galway, Ireland named  Stephen Murray. The comedian read aloud several of his humor drenched poems to the gathering crowd. He was well received especially when he requested Mr. Mehldau to accompany him on piano to the reading of one of his poems.

Mark Guiliana photo by Ralph A. Miriello
The music began with Mr. Mehldau sampling a droning electronic organ-like sound from his left hand on one of his keyboards creating an eerie space-like overlay. Mr. Guiliana waited in concentration as he appeared to be  channeling what to expect from Mr. Mehldau's explorations. Guiliana started out with a syncopated beat pattern that seems to perfectly flow with what Mr. Mehldau is playing. Mehldau in turn is inspired to create his own syncopated and funky left hand ostinato, while his right hand starts to play an almost otherworldly synthesized sound that is loaded with echo and reminds me of
Lonnie Liston Smith's dablings from back in the seventies.
Brad Mehldau Photo by Ralph A. Miriello
 The two musicians feed off each other with Mehldau setting the table and Guiliana adding the garnishments in a sympathetic interchange of ideas. Guiliana is an intense drummer whose every action seems to be charged with electricity. His energy level is so high that I found myself shaking my leg wildly trying to follow the syncopated beats he was producing. He is like a Van Der Graaf generator that you may have witnessed in physics lab, electrifying everything that is within its vicinity-making your hair stand on end. Mehldau, by contrast, is a player whose outer countenance is calm and mellow no matter how kinetic his playing may become. He gets enveloped by what he is playing and flows along with the music in a way that is very organic, meditative and expressive. The contrast between the two was stark but made for some interesting music.

The second number was started by Guiliana who played an odd, beat while a recording of what sounded like a political speech was played over an amplifier. Mehldau started off with a repeating line on electric piano while Guiliana maintained his multilayer-ed beat. The pianist expanded his right hand playing to include some dashing runs up and down the keyboard, that included some creative changes in the electronic sounds of his keyboard. Mehldau has a complete and masterful independent control of his two hands that allows him the ability to produce some wonderfully creative juxtaposed sounds.
Brad Mehldau and Mark Guiliana  photo by Ralph A. Miriello
On the third song Mr. Mehldau starts off adjusting his computer to preset designations of the electronic sounds he wishes to use. Mr. Guiliana creates a frenzied beat pattern that lays the carpet out for Mr. Mehldau's combination of eerie organ-like sounds, mixed with runs on the electric piano and even a hint of harpsichord thrown in for good measure. This could easily be the soundtrack to a horror film. There are swells and lulls in the intensity of the music that add greatly to the experience. The recorded speech is re-introduced into the piece as Mehldau and Guiliana change tempo and start slowly building a dynamic that is hypnotic in its sway. The two musicians build the e tension back up into a frenzied well spring of ideas that overflow with spontaneity.  Guiliana is especially intriguing to watch. The drummer seems to have internal battles within himself as his motion is both frantic and precisely controlled. Very intriguing stuff.

There were a total of six separate musical pieces punctuated by pauses and applause during the one hour and twenty-six minute set. The evening was an almost continuous experiment in free improvisation and interactivity.  Despite the appreciative audience, this was not, for the most part, music that one would necessarily put on their cd player. It is, however, music that needs to be experienced to be fully appreciated. My words do little to convey the true effect that experimental music like this has on one who witnesses it first hand. It is to be present for the conception of an idea, to by privy to the creative process of a musician during moments of true spontaneity. It is a rare and powerful experience. As creative artists Mr. Mehldau and Mr.Guiliana leave themselves naked to their audience, as nothing is apparently rehearsed. They are like trapeze artists who are working without a net, fraught with danger, but open to limitless possibilities. It is precisely why such venues like the Falcon need to be supported and encouraged, so they can provide the forums that allow for such wonderful trips into the unknown.

It is hard to say what may become of this evening's musical explorations between Mr. Mehldau and Mr. Guiliana, but suffice it say that we are all enriched by them tinkering with the possibilities.

After hurricane Irene hit the next day, the Falcon experienced a washout of their lower level parking area as the adjacent waterfall reached flood levels. Fortunately the performance space was unscathed but the damage to the retaining walls and parking area will need to be repaired. A trip to the Falcon is sure to be a wonderful experience and will help support the "live" music we all love.


  1. Is there any way to find audio or video of this show?

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Hey guys. Spoke to Mark G. about the possible availability of the tape and he said it was only for their personal use. Sorry to disappoint.

  4. There is a tape on his Facebook or Youtube :)