Brad Mehldau Trio Review: 'Searching, Storytelling Jazz At It's Finest'

The Guardian
By: John Fordham

South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker maintain that if two scenes in a show can’t be linked by a “but” or a “therefore” then you can’t tell an interesting story. It seems to be a conviction that pianist Brad Mehldau, one of contemporary jazz’s great improvising tale-tellers, feels deeply. Mehldau is a master of bringing familiar-sounding narratives to forks in the road, and of then unveiling the tangential anecdotes, disputes and conversations that follow from taking new diversions. He reminded a sold-out audience at London’s Barbican of that seductive art in a riveting two-hour set, the penultimate gig of a brief UK tour.

Unlike the group’s recent Blues and Ballads covers album, the programme was dominated by original pieces. Mehldau perched sideways on a stool in habitual contemplative posture, gently rubbing his hands together, watching his partners for action. Drummer Jeff Ballard began a brittle medium groove and Larry Grenadier a throbbing bass vamp, and Mehldau set off on a sharply accented, melodically roaming piano line, with hints of blues phrasing – he later announced it as “a blues, of sorts”. As usual, he played peering at the floor, as if clues to his next phrase were inscribed there. Bursts of terse linear playing were divided by gifted contrapuntal improvisations, with boldly contrasting left-hand figures spinning off the increasingly urgent propositions of the right. Ballard played a shapely percussion break of crisp, hooky episodes, before the piece wound up on a brusque three-note snap.

Mehldau announced “a waltz, of sorts” that proceeded in a succession of lurching and gently eddying figures marked out by Ballard’s taut brushwork, and then played Strange Gift – a slowly rising left-hand line shared with Grenadier’s bass, with a rising Spanish-tinged melody punctuated by repeated single notes and trills. A fast theme with a skipping left-hand figure was followed by a ballad (“I’ve finally written one, at the age of 46, that I can get behind”) that began close to the shape of a classic Broadway song, and brought an evocative Grenadier solo of gracefully linked melodic shapes and surging double-time. Being Mehldau’s kind of ballad, of course, it kept changing. It grew bluesier, then swinging, then veered into a passage of contrasting dissonances – strange, ringing chords, slow-hit poundings, glassy clinks.

Three encores embraced fast bebop, country blues and a less ambiguous ballad, with the classic It’s All Right With Me delivered in streams and fragments over a fast bass walk that became a superb bass solo of vaulting intervals, blues turns and unexpected swing licks. This version of Mehldau's Trio is 12 years old now, but both its repertoire and its methods stay memorably fresh.

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