Formally trained, one can hear the voices of Gershwin and Prokofiev through Mehldau's hands, but more importantly, he possesses a voice that is at once understated yet multitextured. The nature of jazz supercedes the limitations of genre and the mark of the best musicians is the mark of the storyteller, and Mehldau can definitely tell a story. In a short set, he covered in an original fashion many classic tales from composers as diverse as Paul Simon, Cole Porter and the Gershwins.
Although "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover was so far afield that he had to name it for the audience to be able to recognize it, my only small protest of the evening's lovely reprieve from the hum and buzz of life. However, "The Very Thought of You by Ray Noble and "She's Leaving Home by Lennon and McCartney were instantly recognizable without being duplicates and were quiet and emotionally resonant without being cloying. But "Day is Done by Nick Drake gave a hint at the power Mehldau can wield, not only did it speak of the end of the day, but the inescapable end of life. The short set can be excused as it turns out that Mehldau went home immediately after the set, as he was not feeling well. Even still, it's clear that he gave everything he had to his performance.
Demonstrative in the details, Mehldau put forth a formal structure that is angular in its architecture, one voice set against another, each cut with a laser. In "O, Que, Sera by Chico Buarke, from the soundtrack of "Dona Flora and Her Two Husbands," the bass line slipped from major to minor key, vividly denoting two dissenting opinions before elegantly resolving their differences. But his strength clearly lies in a lush emotionalism that stays within the lines of the construction but whose subtlety pushes the listener into nuance of feeling they didn't know they possessed. There isn't much else a master storyteller needs to do than to tell us how they feel to make it real.
Larry Grenadier ably accompanied Mehldau on bass and Jeff Ballard was the perfect subtle support on drum kit. Grenadier in particular has a capable and beautiful voice. He seemed more relaxed from when he toured with The Pat Metheny Trio and is an elegant foil to Mehldau's disciplined, descriptive tales. In a long samba section of "O, Que, Sera," his fine touch took on the qualities and facets of a human voice.
Mehldau's current CD, "Live in Tokyo is a strong work and stands to convert anyone not already enamored of solo piano, and his next project combining jazz with classical voice sounds tantalizing. Commissioned to write it for soprano and solo piano to Louise Bogan's passionate collection of short poems, "Songs from the Blue Estuaries, it will be accompanied by soprano Renee Fleming. The prospect of matching Fleming with Mehldau's delicate palette has added it to my list of "must haves upon its debut on May 15th.
Even at the young age of 34, there are few composers he's been hesitant to tackle, and as a testament to his skill as a storyteller, on "Live in Tokyo," he has given a divergent, thoughtful but no less edgy perspective to "Paranoid Android by Radiohead.
Few moments in our lives leave us with a respite where we can examine at leisure the smaller tones and nuances that fill in the corners of this life. Where boundaries seem made to be broken and shouting is preferred over a whisper, Mehldau and his colleagues give ample evidence that even when a pebble is thrown into an ocean, like a single moment in memory, the ripples can go on forever.
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