Brad Mehldau at the London Jazz Festival
November 17-18, 2004
Wigmore Hall, London's home from home to the classical chamber music elite, became a curious uptown outpost of the Jazz Festival this week, as Brad Mehldau packed it out on two successive evenings: a solo recital and a gig with his regular trio, featuring Larry Grenadier on bass and Jorge Rossy on drums. Booking the classically-inclined pianist was a shrewd move, both for Wigmore Hall's dynamic Artistic Director Paul Kildea, who saw an opportunity to soften the Hall's rather stuffy image, and for the Festival, which got the best acoustic in London to present Mehldau. His Festival Hall gig in 2002 suffered greatly from a mediocre PA, and the opportunity to hear this remarkable musician in such an intimate space was irresistible to his many fans.
The perfumed hush of the concert hall can prove anathema to jazz, which thrives on the feedback of its audience; happily, this proved not to be the case in this instance. As Mehldau began to play under the famous art nouveau cupola, a mixed crowd listened in silence that was respectful rather than sterile. What the absence of amplification revealed was Mehldau's precise voicing and richly varied tone at the keyboard; he is a pianist of near-unstoppable technique, married to a restless and probing improvisational style. He has developed an unmistakeably individual approach to a repertoire of standards and pop songs; this was exemplified by the opening number, Paul McCartney's 'Junk', in which the simple melody line mutated into a contrapuntal tangle, separate lines converging and diverging in a way that seemed entirely organic. His improvisation on two Monk numbers was almost cubist in its exploration of musical space and density, contrasting spare, massive chords with fiercely virtuosic figuration; conversely, 'On The Street Where You Live' was low-key and lovely. Only Radiohead's 'Paranoid Android' seemed dull; to my ear the song is too prescriptive to allow much in the way of invention, and I'd rather hear the original in all its overwrought emotion.
The following night, Mehldau pruned back the keyboard pyrotechnics, and merged seamlessly into his trio. The group has been playing together for eight years and almost as many albums, and enjoys the effortless communication that results. Larry Grenadier's driving bass provided the hook for Mehldau's spare piano, with Jorge Rossy's fluid, instinctive drumming a sparky counterpoint. Once again, the approach was at once analytical and intensely expressive; 'All The Things You Are' coalesced from an archipelago of seemingly random two-note motifs, a forensic examination of the material that yields surprisingly moving results. 'More Than You Know' was in a bluesier vein, and 'She's Leaving Home' beautifully lilting.
In his introduction, Mehldau described the experience of playing without amplification as 'a rare pleasure', and this pleasure was conveyed to the audience in every lingering chord and resonant pizzicato, as well as two extended encores; I missed my train home, but it was worth it.
Jos L. Knaepen