Brad Mehldau Trio at Wolf Trap

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Brad Mehldau Trio
Wolf Trap, The Barns
Vienna, Virginia
April 30, 2008

A well-developed solo is a beautiful construction that takes time. Using time to their advantage, the Brad Mehldau Trio played an intoxicating set at the Barns at Wolftrap. The trio's latest album, Live (Nonesuch, 2008), came to life as the sense of blossoming solos on the recording was fully in flower on stage.

They played material none of which was on the latest release, performing an eclectic set list. An original blues by Mehldau was followed by a quirky composition that featured interplay, over a repeated groove, between bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard. Next up were Chico Buarque's "Samba e Amor" and the free-form "Wyatt's Eulogy for George Hanson." The film Easy Rider inspired Mehldau to conceptualize the latter, a eulogy given at a friend's funeral— feelings that become very heated, perhaps even confused. The delivery of the piece, which began akin to Coltrane's "Psalm," was mesmerizing—the music swirling with ideas, expressing an emotion then exploiting it, each man with his head down, eyes closed, calling on whatever was in him to come forth.

Transforming Thelonious Monk's "We See" into twists of syncopated chords underneath brisk walking bass and cymbal time, Mehldau's solo on the up-tempo number perfectly represented a comment from his liner notes for the trio's latest album: "Within a performance, there is an awareness between the three of us that there is no need to hurry to the finish line." This mutually understood patience means that nothing becomes forced or hurried. Mehldau would select a motive, perhaps from a group of three, and explore different permutations of it, not resolving his development until satisfied with the time spent on it and the tension achieved with it.

This thought process carried into Ballard's drum solo, which seemed to be ten or more 32-bar choruses, though he would blur the bar lines with syncopations while keeping the integrity of the melody and form. The art of developing a solo never seemed so apparent than when he took a flourish of double stops around the snares and toms for an entire chorus, increasing the intensity throughout. Grenadier's walking solo on the tune employed interesting altered chords, unpredictable intervals, and expressive use of harmonics. The constant forward motion was insistent—a change of pace from the expected solo of dexterous fingers playing quick lines up and down the fingerboard.

An extended piano solo at the end of Kurt Weill/Ira Gershwin's "My Ship" exposed the pianist's lyrical beauty. While many in the audience may have been expecting to hear "Wonderwall" or "Black Hole Sun," Mehldau—who is known for covering pop songs in gorgeous yet logical arrangements—and company instead played Sufjan Steven's "Holland." Voices wandered and crossed from low to high, creating two tracks of enchanting melody.

For a second dose of Brazilian compositions for the night, the trio encored with "Aquellas Cosas Todas," delivering a catchy melody and rhythm that, in the true Brazilian fashion of mixing styles, seemed to blend Northeastern baião with samba. The result was authentic-sounding while retaining the true sound of the group.

The few years the trio has been together have led to such a sound—one that is not only true but vibrant and fresh, and has time to spare.

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