Brad Mehldau Trio, Barbican, London
By: Mike Hobbart
Inspirational original compositions made up the bulk of this set from the influential pianist’s trio.
Brad Mehldau’s first piano-trio releases set pithy reconstructions of Thelonious Monk alongside elegiac readings of Beatles classics, and made the work of Radiohead and Nick Drake acceptable material for the jazz repertoire.
But at this performance, the first cover, Cole Porter’s “It’s All Right by Me”, came as an ovation-winning encore, while the meat of the performance presented new compositions with working titles — “a blues, sort of” opened, there was “a waltz, sort of”, and the second number was a rhythmic figure worked out by drummer Jeff Ballard: “I came up with a melody,” said Mehldau.
Not that there was anything slapdash about the material. The themes integrated precisely voiced block piano chords with acutely matched thrums from Larry Grenadier’s bass, while bittersweet melodies danced over counterpoint riffs, and unison lines appeared as if by magic. The only criticism was that the band seemed a little stiff in the theme when compared to the interplay that followed.
Mehldau’s influence on contemporary jazz piano is not limited to expanding the repertoire. His bittersweet left-hand melodies, clusters of dense mid-range chords and ability to conjoin the angularity of Monk with classical romance are a source of inspiration for the current generation of jazz pianists.
Here, the Mehldau aesthetic dazzled from the outset. The first number compressed Monk, Bach and the blues into a functioning whole, the second was full of rhythmic twiddles and that majestic left hand, and the third was a waltz with a pretty theme supported by a swish of drums — the piece sparked to life when the pulse tightened mid-solo.
At first, the highlight moments were all Mehldau’s. His first solo delivered a succession of mesmerisingly minute variations on a tricky theme, while on the minor-key “Strange Gift” his blues inflections were soulful and cliché free.
Drummer Ballard delivered a series of solos in his ungainly yet effective style, but it was Grenadier, working closely with the pianist throughout, whose solos roused the crowd later in the set. The first, on the rhythmically unusual “Green M&Ms”, was melodic and agile; the second followed the shape of the lovely Mehldau ballad that ensured the encore. “It’s the first ballad I’ve written that I want to play on,” said Mehldau. “And I’m 46.” Mike Hobart
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