Brad Mehldau at the Village Vanguard
Columnist since 2008Eric Benson writes for New York Magazine and blogs at invertedgarden.com.
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The first three songs on Tuesday—the unrecorded Mehldau originals "Dream Sketch," "Twiggie," and "B Blues"—showcased the trio's rapport with Ballard palming the floor tom, Grenadier plucking a high staccato on the bass, and Mehldau making quick stabs instead of baroque flurries. When Mehldau finally took a long solo, on "B Blues," Grenadier fell into a walk and Ballard started to swing, but they remained strong and flexible partners, not docile accompanists. On "Samba e Amor," Mehldau dominated but never rose above the group, the music a slow burn that flickered with intensity but never quite burst into flame. The final number, Kurt Weill and Ira Gerswhin's "My Ship," began as a tender ballad before switching gears and ending in a collective rattle.
On Saturday night, Mehldau went farther and deeper into the music. With the late night crowd bringing a palpable excitement that was absent from the Tuesday performance, the Mehldau trio played an 80 minute set—very long for the Vanguard—punctuated by a sprawling version of "I Fall In Love Too Easily" that broke for an unaccompanied Mehldau interlude. Mehldau's solo piano approach has undergone a more radical transformation than his trio playing. He's replaced the long lines of Elegaic Cycles with an excessive, almost droning, use of repetition, creating hypnotic textures and a sometimes grating sameness. Why, I've asked myself (especially after listening to the disappointing Live in Tokyo), does such a loquacious pianist resort to what can sound like a musical stammer? Luckily on "I Fall In Love Too Easily," Mehldau's repetitions didn't have long enough to annoy, unfolding instead like a rubato daydream amid the more hard driving work of the trio's waking life.
I doubt I'll ever like anything Mehldau does quite as much as his early Vanguard albums, both because their artistry is so powerful and because they occupy a crucial place in my own jazz life. Hearing Mehldau's solo introduction to "All The Things You Are" convinced me that today's jazz could be every bit as thrilling as the Monk and Miles in which I was immersed at the time. Kind of Blue made me fall in love with jazz; Mehldau's Back at the Vanguard sent me on a quest to the basements of downtown Manhattan, searching for the living music.
As much as I'd love to hear more of the showstopping solo introductions of Mehldau's early years, they would feel indulgent now—the work of a musician with something to prove. The arc of Mehldau's performances have become more narrative, even if that narrative rarely climaxes in the big finish that was once his signature. Instead of intoxicating tension and resolution, Mehldau honors the structure of each composition more faithfully and when he breaks from a song's form, as in his performance of "I Fall In Love Too Easily," he's more likely to add textural elements like the dreamy solo break. Now approaching 40, Mehldau is no longer content to be just a great improviser, more than ever before he seems to be thinking with a master composer's complexity and patience.
Courtesy of International Music Network