Ottawa Jazz Festival, Days 4-6: June 26-28, 2011
With tickets to both shows (7:00PM and 9:00PM) sold out, the lineups for un-ticketed Gold and Bronze pass members at the early show by pianist Brad Mehldau and saxophonist Joshua Redman were, not surprisingly, hugeand started a good 90 minutes before the performance was to begin, at 7:00PM. It was worth the wait, as the duo put on a show that CKCU host of weekly jazz program In a Mellow Tone, Ron Sweetman, enthusiastically described as "music-making of the highest order."
He was right. Before the show began, OIJF Executive Producer Catherine O'Grady welcomed the capacity crowd, clarifying that taking many of OIJF 2011's shows indoorsconsidered, by some, as "relegating the jazz artists to small, indoor venues," as if that's a bad thingwas absolutely an intended artistic decision, to allow the festival's guests a space where they could explore the intimate acoustic nature of their music. Both Mehldau and Redman have appeared on the main stage in Confederation Park in past years, but here, playing music that demanded absolute transparency and the ability to explore every nuanced nook and cranny, it was absolutely the right choice. Sure, Redman and Mehldau are big enough names that they have drawn more than the 600 or so people that attended their two shows at the NAC Studio, but the fine acoustics and close, personal nature of the indoor venue was as appropriate a place for them as it was for Kurt Elling the previous night; another artist who may well have been able to draw an admirable crowd at the park, but who was undeniably all the better for having appeared in the Studio's more controlled environs.
Mehldau and Redman didn't waste any time getting down to business. With the pianist diving into his own, bright "The Falcon Will Fly Again," one of the highlights of his recent Highway Rider (Nonesuch, 2010), the simpatico the two have shared for nearly two decades was immediately evident. Mehldau's technique continues to be a frightening force of nature, his 2011 live solo outing, Live in Marcia (Nonesuch) revealing a pianist who manages to do with one hand what most require two to accomplish. But as much as Mehldau's virtuosity could be an end in itself, it never was; instead, as he created a single-handed combination of bass line and chords, it became clear that it was always in service of the music. Still, when he delivered a solo where his left hand was playing not one, but two interweaving lines, in support of a right hand that deftly layered idea after idea, it was impossible not to be just impressed, but staggered by the sheer capacity of Mehldau's playing.
Redmana guest on Highway Rider and, in particular, on "The Falcon"approached his own solo with greater restraint, taking his time to move from brief thematic snippets to more evolved lines that wove in and around Mehldau's rhythmic support. Still, when he switched instruments to solo on the second tune, his own coyly titled "Note to Self," Redman gradually began to turn up the heat. More physically engaged than Mehldau, who largely sat hunched over the keyboard, Redman swayed, lifting one leg up and thumping it down in punctuation to the bluesy, but pure tone of his tenor. Meanwhile, Mehlda turned things on their side by taking a solo with his left hand, supported by the right. His left occasionally crossed over into the upper range of the keyboard, but for the most part it was the piano equivalent of a bass solo, though no bassist in the world could execute what Mehldau does, and gradually revealed Mehldau's roots in classical music. Rather than comparing him to the usual jazz suspects, with whom he shares little in commonBill Evans, Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, Keith Jarrettbetter to look outside the jazz world for the antecedents that have led to Mehldau's distinctive style.
A style that was even more evident when, after a new ballad by the pianist, the duo played a blues by Sonny Rollinssurely a greater influence on Redman's playing than his dad, the late Dewey Redman. There are few pianists in the world that can play a blues like "Sonnymoon for Two" and turn it into a fugue, all the while retaining the swing and the language that made the original what it was, but Mehldau could...and did, in a breathtaking solo that came after Redman delivered a tenor solo that turned increasingly fiery with a relentlessly ascending pattern, building to a climax of high register screams, leaving Mehldau no choice but to drop the dynamics and construct his solo from the ground up.
It was the kind of performance that affirms the duo as, perhaps, the most intimate, vulnerable, exploratory context for improvising musicians. With a clear, uninterrupted line of communication that was explored without reservation throughout their 75-minute set, Redman and Mehldau delivered a performance that will be remembered by those lucky enough to be there, for a long time to come.