Brad Mehldau: The Art of the Trio - Recordings 1996-2001
The Art of the Trio: Recordings 1996-2001
It's hard to believe that it's only been fifteen years since Brad Mehldau emerged on the scene, so prevalent and influential has the pianist become since then. At the same time as he was gaining some significant attention for his work with saxophonist Joshua Redman on Moodswing (Warner Bros., 1994), the then 24 year-old pianist had been recruited by Redman's label, releasing Introducing Brad Mehldau in 1995an apt if not entirely accurate title; while it represented his first recording with true international reach, his co-leader debut actually came the year before with When I Fall in Love (Fresh Sound New Talent, 1994), in the democratically named Mehldau & Rossy Trio.
But it was with the release of Art of the Trio, Volume One (Warner Bros., 1997) that Mehldau lept into an even brighter spotlight, settling into one of the two trios featured on Introducing for a lineup that, with bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jorge Rossy, would remain constant for the next decade, until Rossy decided to return to Spain to study and refocus. It was precocious, indeed, for Mehldau to release an album with a title of such import, but unlike many young artists who were emerging at the timemany still not fully-formed or ready for a leap into leadershipMehldau proved that he may have been a relative youngster, but he was absolutely ready for the limelight as a leading player, interpreter and composer, with Volume One's four original compositions, scattered amidst four standards and one The Beatles tune, as rooted in Bach as they were in bop.
It's all too easy to look for obvious comparisons when faced with a new talent as startling as Mehldau was in 1995, but if surface-only references to seminal jazz pianists past and presentin particular Bill Evans and Keith Jarrettrankled the young player, looking back at The Art of the Trio: Recordings 19962001 with the benefit of knowing where Mehldau's career has gone since, it's easy to understand why. The truth is that this box setwhich collects the six CDs that made up Mehldau's five-volume Art of the Trio series, plus a seventh disc of additional live tracks recorded between 1997 and 2001serves as a refresher course on how to properly treat an artist who appears, seemingly out of nowhere, with a fresh perspective on a well-worn tradition.
There's little doubt that Mehldau knows plenty about that tradition, but as early as Art of the Trio, Volume Two: Live at the Village Vanguard (Warner Bros, 1998), the pianist was already demonstrating a remarkable facility that has, in the years since, evolved into a sophisticated and still seemingly impossible ability to do, with one hand, what most pianists need two to accomplish (for a chance to actually see Mehldau's hands in action, there's the DVD that's part of the Live in Marciac (Nonesuch, 2011) three-disc set). As his solo builds on a lengthy look at Cole Porter's often-covered "It's Alright With Me," Mehldau clearly adheres to formthough, at times, it seems as though the entire trio is barely hanging on at the edge of a precipice, so pliant is the push-and-pull going on amongst thembut with jagged contrapuntal ideas seeming to flow independently from each hand, even as they twist and turn, diverge and re-entwine in a manner that might be hypnotic if it weren't so positively exhilarating, the pianist's voice is already distinct and unmistakable.
Nothing comes from a vacuum and few musicians shape their voices without having first absorbed the music around them. Guitarist John Scofield, in a recent All About Jazz interview, recalled hearing, from bassist Charlie Haden, that "everybody has their own voice in music: it's just there." But if that is, indeed, trueif "it's like having a voice when you talk; when you hear someone on the phone, you know it's them from just one word"then the challenge that faces many artists is, perhaps, finding a way to prevent those who they've studied in such depth from getting in the way of that preexisting voice. Going back to the beginning of his Art of the Trio series, it's clear that Mehldau had already overcome what is, for some, a near-insurmountable challenge, at least in their formative years.
Listening to Mehldau and his trio evolve from Volume One, a studio recording from September 1996, to Volume 5: Progressions, a double-disc set culled from three nights during the same month four years later at New York City's iconic Village Vanguard, is also a refresher on just how powerful yet understated this group could be, and what a fine collective interpreter of songs, ranging from well-known standards to what was the beginning of a now-regular habit covering more contemporary sources like Nick Drake and Radiohead. Rossy has, in many ways, been largely (and unfairly) forgotten since returning to Spain, and the release of Day is Done (Nonesuch, 2005)with newcomer (to the trio, but no stranger to either Mehldau or Grenadier) Jeff Ballardengendered critical but equally unfair praise like "refreshed" and "reinvigorated," as if the trio with Rossy had, somehow, become staid, tired and predictable.
There's no question that Ballard is a more immediately impressive drummer, bringing a different kind of energy to the trio, but the operative word is different. Those who'd unfairly written Rossy off after Mehldau's first set with Ballard were faced with House on Hill (Nonesuch, 2006)Rossy's swan song with the trio, released 16 months after the drummer's departure and a first for either trio incarnation in its exclusive focus on Mehldau originalswhere the differences in approach were clear. Ballard is surely a striking and more dominant conversationalist in contrast to Rossy, the ever-amenable team player. But if Rossy's solo on saxophonist John Coltrane's "Countdown," which closes Volume Two, is nothing short of virtuosic, it's his collective work on Radiohead's "Exit Music (For a Film)," from Art of the Trio 4: Back at the Vanguard (Warner Bros., 1999) that reveals his greatest strength. Mehldau digs deep into the core of the song's intrinsic lyricisma good lesson to those who write off rock groups like Radiohead without actually listening to thembut it's Rossy who subversively begins to raise the temperature at the start of Mehldau's solosubtly, almost imperceptibly, commencing a gradual thermostat adjustment that ultimately reaches a full and energetic boil seven minutes into the nine-minute track. Sometimes different doesn't have to mean better or worse; sometimes it can just mean different.
Still, as well-formed as the Mehldau of 1996-2001 was, hearing these sets in light of more recent trio material such as Live (Nonesuch, 2008) only demonstrates how far he's come in the ensuing decade. The same can be said for Grenadier. Always an absolutely dependable anchormaking him a much sought-after bassist for everyone from saxophonist Charles Lloyd and trumpeter Enrico Rava to guitarist Pat Metheny (with whom the bassist has reunited for a year of touring, both in duo and reunited trio with drummer Bill Stewart, caught recently at the 2011 Enjoy Jazz festival, in Mannheim, Germany)Grenadier's acumen as a soloist has taken a significant leap forward in recent years, in particular at performances such as his 2009 Rava date, also in Mannheim, for Enjoy Jazz's celebration of ECM at 40.
But if Grenadier has become that much better in the past 15 yearscertainly what most musicians aspire tohe was already a creative ensemble player, as his work on the same "Countdown" from Back at the Vanguard certifies. But after a quick rundown of the theme, and a high-octane, dervish-like solo from Rossy on "London Blues"a 1999 live recording from the same six-night club date as was culled for Back at the Vanguard, and included here on the bonus seventh disca relatively brief bass solo suggests Grenadier has long represented an especially perfect marriage of groove-centric simplicity and unfettered musical expansionism. Once Mehldau is back in the pool, this version really takes off, a relatively early demonstration of this trio's three-way conversational approach and each player's ability to intuit where his mates are going with the kind of empathy that can only come from spending plenty of time together on the bandstand.
Mehldau's compositions can be complex, while still possessing an inherent lyricism that's at its most obvious on "Unrequited," which makes its first appearance on the studio recording, The Art of the Trio Volume, Three: Songs (Warner Bros., 1998). The pianist's solo builds relentlesslytrance-inducing, evenupon its fugue-like theme, and a thematically focused spot from Grenadier clarifies why he continues to be Mehldau's bassist of choice, even on extracurricular releases such as the pianist's more heavily produced Largo (Warner Bros., 2002) and ambitiously sweeping Highway Rider (Nonesuch, 2010). But it's on the extended live versionon the bonus CD, from a 1997 live show, and longer, by half, than its six-minute studio counterpartwhere Grenadier shines even more, as Mehldau adds the occasional contrapuntal line to the bassist's more fervent solo, to continue the song's Bach-ian touchstone.
The bonus disc features five live tracks that, totaling nearly 44 minutes, span the period 1997-2001. The biggest carrot is, perhaps, an almost painfully fragile look at the Bob Hilliard/David Mann standard "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning" that, prior to this box set, had only been heard from this trio on a 2001 limited-release Barnes & Noble sampler. New takes of "Unrequited," originally from Songs, "London Blues" from Back at the Vanguard, and "Ron's Place" and "Lament for Linus," first heard on Art of the Trio, Volume One, only serve to demonstrate just how far-reaching this trio was, each and every night. Unlike Jarrett's completely spontaneous stream-of-consciousness approach, Mehldau's trio works with actual arrangements, but that shouldn't suggest predictability, only that its collective explorations operate with a context-setting road map.
As far as Mehldau has come as a solo artist, on expanded projects like Highway Rider and special events like his 2011 ECM recording with saxophonist Lee Konitz, Charlie Haden and drummer Paul Motian (Live at Birdland), it's his longstanding trio that's the mother ship. If his current work with Grenadier and Ballard continues to expand on a longstanding tradition, then The Art of the Trio: Recordings 19962001 shows where it all began while, at the same time, bringing Jorge Rossy deservingly back into the limelight.
As an essential document of jazz in the late 1990s, it also explainsin one place and over the course of more than seven consistently engaging hoursjust how Mehldau so quickly became one of his generation's most influential pianists. As he moves into his mid-40s, showing no signs of slowing down or settling into any kind of predictable norm, reissues like The Art of the Trio: Recordings 19962001 make abundantly clear that, when the history book of the latter part of the 20th century/early part of the new millennium is written, Mehldau will, no doubt, take a well-deserved place alongside predecessors such as Bill Evans, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett as one of the most important pianists of any generation.
Tracks: CD1 (The Art of the Trio, Volume One: Blame It on My Youth; I Didn't Know What Time It Was; Ron's Place; Blackbird; Lament for Linus; Mignon's Song; I Fall in Love Too Easily; Lucid; Nobody Else But Me. CD2 (The Art of the Trio, Volume Two: Live at the Village Vanguard): It's Alright With Me; Young and Foolish; Monk's Dream; The Way You Look Tonight; Moon River; Countdown. CD3 (The Art of the Trio Volume, Three: Songs): Song-Song; Unrequited; Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered; Exit Music (For a Film); At a Loss; Convalescent; For All We Know; River Man; Young at Heart; Sehnsucht. CD4 (Art of the Trio 4: Back at the Vanguard: All the Things You Are; Sehnsucht; Nice Pass; Solar; London Blues; I'll Be Seeing You; Exit Music (For a Film). CD5 (Art of the Trio, Volume 5: Progressions, Disc 1): The More I See You; Dream's Monk; The Folks Who Live on the Hill; Alone Together; Might as Well Be Spring; Cry Me a River; River Man. CD6 (Art of the Trio, Volume 5: Progressions, Disc 2):Quit; Secret Love; Sublation; Resignation; Long Ago and Far Away; How Long Has This Been Going On?. CD7 (Additional Recordings): London Blues (1/7/99); Unrequited (8/1/97); Ron's Place (7/31/97); In the Wee Small Hours (2001); Lament for Linus (7/31/97).
Personnel: Brad Mehldau: piano; Larry Grenadier: bass; Jorge Rossy: drums.
Larry Grenadier: Claire Stefani
Jorge Rossy: Courtesy of Jos Knaepen