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Brad Mehldau: Live in Marciac

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Brad Mehldau
Live in Marciac
Nonesuch Records
2011

If there's any (relatively) young pianist ready to take the torch from Keith Jarrett
Keith Jarrett
Keith Jarrett
b.1945
piano
when it comes to solo performance, it's Brad Mehldau. In the space of (again, relatively) a few short years, from his mid-1990s emergence with saxophonist Joshua Redman
Joshua Redman
Joshua Redman
b.1969
saxophone
through his early—and, some might suggest, rather precocious, were they not already so well-formed and mature—Art of the Trio series, the 40 year-old pianist has emerged as a player of comparable virtuosity and ability to mine the furthest ethereal reaches of improvisation, regardless of context. Still, beyond superficial reference points, there's more to distance Mehldau from Jarrett than there is to link them together. Live in Marciac is only Mehldau's third full-on solo piano recording, and it demonstrates just how far he's come since Live in Tokyo (Nonesuch, 2004).

Unlike Jarrett, Mehldau doesn't start with a blank slate when he hits the stage. Instead, he combines original material with older standards and imaginative reworkings of more recent pop songs (another difference, since Jarrett's interpretive interests largely date half a century ago or more)—in this case Kurt Cobain ("Lithium"), Radiohead ("Exit Music for a Film") and The Beatles
The Beatles
The Beatles

band/orchestra
("Martha My Dear")—to build sets where form provides a clear open door to freedom. Still, despite the sometimes apparent complexity of Mehldau's music suggesting stronger adherence to structure than to unfettered abandon—contrasting Jarrett's Faulknerian ability to compose spontaneously in stream-of-consciousness-like fashion—the lines are blurrier than they might appear, especially when taking into account Mehldau's almost unprecedented left/right hand independence, and single-hand techniques that allow him to accomplish things that would seem impossible for a sole, two-handed pianist.

"Things Behind the Sun," reprised here from Live in Tokyo, best highlights Mehldau's structural and improvisational growth. Opening Tokyo with a relatively faithful, brief and self-contained rendition of Nick Drake's simple song and memorable melody, here Mehldau places the tune mid-set on this two-CD/one-DVD set. Taken at a brighter clip, he expands it to nearly double Tokyo's length, with a driving left hand that alternates between staggering contrapuntal passages and a propulsive rhythm where Mehldau does, with one hand, what most pianists require two to accomplish. Watching his performance of the song on the DVD—beautifully filmed with multiple camera angles that make clear how he what he does, even if it's also enough to send most pianists packing for the hills—is even more thrilling, even for the non-pianists in his fan base. Segueing seamlessly into "Litihium," Mehldau discovers Cobain's inner gospel as much as he does the late Nirvana singer/guitarist's inner Bach, building to a thrilling, fugue-like interlude, improvising over a motoring bass line before ultimately returning to Cobain's theme, successfully evoking its energy while adding, at times, almost unfathomable layers of detail.

But if it seems that Mehldau has become overly tied to contemporary material and knotty interpretations that are custom-suited to his remarkable virtuosity, a painstakingly spare version of the Fain/Webster chestnut, "Secret Love"—stripped bare from trio versions on both Art of the Trio Vol. 5: Progressions (Warner Bros., 2001) and Complete Friday Night Sets (Nonesuch, 2008)—reveals the pianist at his most vulnerable, his most fragile, even as he peppers its poignant melody with unexpected low register punctuations and hints of unsettling dissonance.

The audio program features a bonus encore of pianist Bobby Timmons
Bobby Timmons
Bobby Timmons
1935 - 1974
piano
' "Dat Dere," from Art Blakey
Art Blakey
Art Blakey
1919 - 1990
drums
and the The Jazz Messengers' The Big Beat (Blue Note, 1960),ensuring that Mehldau's allegiance to the jazz tradition remains clear and intact, while the DVD 's added feature allows viewers to switch angles between an onscreen transcription and shots of the pianist's hands during his own "Resignation." Another reprisal from Progressions, this is yet another chance to truly appreciate the distinctive techniques that allow a tune with such challenging formal structure to be conceived and executed by one man with but two hands.

It's sometimes difficult to hear real change in an artist, once they establish a clear voice and achieve a certain degree of critical and popular acclaim, but with Live in Marciac it's possible to actually see the seemingly impossible feats of two-handed pianism that Mehldau has been honing, in the public eye, for nearly two decades. With a number of other outstanding recent solo recordings from pianists as diverse as Matthew Shipp
Matthew Shipp
Matthew Shipp
b.1960
piano
, Fred Hersch
Fred Hersch
Fred Hersch
b.1955
piano
and Gwilym Simcock
Gwilym Simcock
Gwilym Simcock
b.1981
piano
, Live in Marciac stands out as a signpost on Mehldau's evolutionary path, and proves that, far from coasting on the considerable laurels on which he could easily rest, he's continuing to grow as a writer and an interpreter—but, most importantly, as a performer, as he leaps from one significant plateau to the next.


Tracks: CD1: Storm; It's Alright With Me; Secret Love; Unrequited; Resignation; Trailer Park Ghost; Goodbye Storyteller (for Fred Myrow); Exit Music (for a Film). CD2: Things Behind the Sun; Lithium; Lilac Wine; Martha My Dear; My Favorite Things; Dat Dere. DVD: Storm; It's Alright With Me; Secret Love; Unrequited; Resignation; Trailer Park Ghost; Goodbye Storyteller (for Fred Myrow); Exit Music (for a Film); Things Behind the Sun; Lithium; Lilac Wine; Martha My Dear; My Favorite Things. DVD Special Feature: transcription of "Resignation," viewable separately or onscreen while track running.

Personnel: Brad Mehldau: piano.

Record Label: Nonesuch Records

Style: Modern Jazz


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