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Far be it from me to judge a record by its slipcover, but the photo of Brad Mehldau gracing the jacket of the pianist's new solo CD, Live in Tokyo (arms crossed, head bowed, jet-black background) made my heart sink. For if the prodigiously talented Mehldau has a tragic flaw, it's the self-conscious preciousness that seeps into much of his work and this is a slipcover that just screams important. Still, hope springs eternal and, tossing aside that worrisome sleeve, I waded in.
First, the good news: the program, recorded in one evening at Tokyo's Sumida Triphony Hall in February 2003, is typically quirky Mehldau (two songs each by Nick Drake and the Gershwins, one Porter tune, one Monk, a very short Mehldau original "Intro," and a very long take on Radiohead's "Paranoid Android") and the disc is peppered with trademark doses of dizzying technique.
But I'm afraid neither is enough to overcome the dour, relentless seriousness of the entire affair. Nearly everything is taken at a funereal pace, most damagingly "Someone to Watch Over Me" and "From This Moment On." (The latter picks up speed toward the middle, but it's too little, too late.) "Paranoid Android" is better, if over-long (we get warmed-over Keith Jarrett by the end of the twenty-minute odyssey) and the Drake songs, if unremarkable, work just fine.
But only "Monk's Dream" and "How Long Has This Been Going On" really catch fire here, and for oddly opposing reasons at that: "Going On" fits the pianist's deep dark introspection like a glove, while not even Mehldau can resist the playfulness inherent in Monk. Stooping happily to quote Vince Guaraldi's "Linus and Lucy" in the midst of the loose, gnashing fray he brings to Monk's tune, Mehldau reveals clearly what's missing from the rest of this record: fun.
Track Listing: 1 Things Behind the Sun 4:37;
2 Intro 2:42;
3 Someone to Watch Over Me 9:55;
4 From This Moment On 7:55;
5 Monk's Dream 7:59;
6 Paranoid Android 19:29;
7 How Long Has This Been Going On? 9:00;
8 River Man 8:59.