Brad Meldhau on brilliant form at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival, plus all the best jazz and folk of 2017
By: Ivan Hewett
Brad Mehldau is an aristocrat among jazz pianists. He doesn’t stoop to dazzling finger-work to seize our attention, or reach into the piano’s innards to make odd sounds (a practice that seems to be almost de rigueur among jazz pianists these days). When he loped on to the stage last night, he welcomed us to “this beautiful and very spiritual venue”, gesturing round the lofty space of St Andrew’s Hall.
This doesn’t mean the gig was austere or lacking musical rewards. It’s just that the rewards were in small subtleties that might pass you by, if you weren’t playing very close attention.
In the first number Gentle John (a homage to jazz guitarist John Scofield) the restless descending bass under the melody was balanced by an equally restless rising bass in the “middle eight”, but Mehldau didn’t make a big deal of this. One was aware of it subliminally, as part of the number’s gentle charm.
This was a number from the trio’s recent album Blues and Ballads, a return for Mehldau to acoustic jazz after a long excursus into electronic keyboards. One sensed a man savouring the pleasures of a straightforward blues sequence and a curving melody, after a long absence. One would never have thought jazz piano’s stern philosopher could write a delightful almost-sentimental ballad, with strong echoes of Bill Evans. Yet it duly arrived, in the penultimate number, enlivened with a shapely, classically restrained solo from bassist Larry Grenadier (he and drummer Jeff Ballard share Mehldau’s distaste for empty virtuosity).
At the opposite pole was a new number, as yet untitled, which played with a very dark rising four-chord sequence. It was ingenious, to be sure, and the final breaking out into harmonic sunlight was brilliantly stage-managed, but the pay-off didn’t compensate for the overall dourness. Much more rewarding was Green M & M’s, based on a rushing five-beat bass pattern which – unlike the static jazz bass patterns one so often hears – danced through a dozen harmonies in as many seconds. The virtuosity with which all three players flung opposing rhythms against this pattern was simply astounding. Just as rewarding were the supple and harmonically searching variations Mehldau conjured on Lennon & McCartney’s And I Love Her. Here Mehldau often spun two improvised lines at once, showing that his acquaintance with Bach is now rubbing off on his jazz. Like all the best artists, Mehldau never stops growing.
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