Brad Mehldau Trio
Carving out a niche amidst a crowded field of jazz pianists can be a daunting process. Practically every conceivable pianistic approach invites comparisons to the reigning deities, whether it’s Oscar Peterson (patron saint of the chops-laden blues) or Hank Jones (guardian angel of the tastefully lyrical). Taking the road less traveled may result in an unknowing alliance with out-jazz icon Cecil Taylor. Pigeon-holing happens, and it stinks.
Brad Mehldau is a pianist with such an individual style that critics are generally at a loss for comparisons. This places the thirtysomething free thinker in excellent standing with the jazz intelligentsia. Jazz may be a young art, years-wise, but when covering old standard ballads such as “More Than You Know,” and “The Very Thought of You,” interpretive originality is generally a thing of the past. Not so with Mehldau, especially with adept bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard by his side. On the latter title, Mehldau haltingly states the melody and keeps the tempo slow, using his sophisticated harmonic sense to create high tension where there normally is little. Bass and drums eventually lay out while the pianist freely explores numerous rhythmic and harmonic variations, adding a good bit of excitement to what seemed destined to be a contemplative study. The tune wraps up with an allusion to the tune’s melody while the packed house at the Village Vanguard erupts in loud approval.
Considering its complexity, Mehldau’s music is surprisingly affecting. Showcasing standards, originals, and a pair of interpretations of contemporary pop (his take of Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” clocks in at 23-plus minutes), this two-CD set creates an intense mood unto itself. Whether the tempo is breakneck and driving or slow and relaxed, this highly reciprocal trio’s methods are always cunning without forsaking an inherent earthiness. Seeped in traditions both jazz and classical, the only acceptable categorization for the intelligent sounds herein is “Mehldau Music.”
- James Rozzi