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Brad Mehldau Trio: Blues and Ballads

Geno Thackara By

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It's easy to play the blues—or at the very least it's easy to learn the basics—but keeping the form fresh and interesting is another matter entirely. Likewise, any beginner can tackle a quiet ballad, but presenting something simple and pretty is really harder than it sounds. The Brad Mehldau Trio manages its always-distinctive blend of all those things on this lineup's fifth release, still making song-sculpting and harmonic shifting into something both inventive and accessible.

They run a vast gamut in "Since I Fell for You" alone as they stretch that age-old I-IV-V pattern into a ten-minute exploration that never settles into rut or repetition. Mehldau wanders from lightly bouncing shuffle to freeform tonal meandering and back again, while Jeff Ballard and Larry Grenadier demonstrate their impeccable skill for knowing when to add a light touch and when it's best to stay out of the way. The opener and the smoky "My Valentine" wind up bookending the album with the bluesiest treatments while largely sandwiching the more song-based pieces in between. As the title declares, this set omits the genre-spanning originals and modern rock covers (or often reinventions, rather) that usually make part of his mix in favor of more familiar material.

A couple Lennon/McCartney tunes are the newest ones to be found here, while the disc is rounded out by a few standards quite a bit older than that from the likes of Charlie Parker or Cole Porter. In the spirit (if not necessarily the footsteps) of Keith Jarrett's classic trio, this crew is concerned less with the songs themselves than the possibilities for exploration they can offer. Each provides a springboard to playful dialogue and the chance for surprise. "I Concentrate on You" luxuriates in its airy minor Latin feel while the Beatles' "And I Love Her" gets an extended workout, including staggered rhythmic grooving and a sort of subdued mini-crescendo between the piano and Ballard's drums. The framework may start straightforwardly, but even the simpler pieces get stretched with Mehldau's mix of kaleidoscopic chording and smoothly winding melody runs.

The trio continually enjoys the easy back-and-forth of longtime mates without losing any spontaneity. Whether there's some complexity behind a song's structure or not, the results are always pleasing to the ear and no trouble to simply follow if you don't feel like dissecting what's going on. More seriously intense work can wait for another album (or for the listener, another hour). Forward-thinking envelope-pushers deserve a break now and then as much as anyone, and Blues and Ballads makes an enticing rainy-day listen to give their down time and ours a most beautifully cool accompaniment.

Track Listing: Since I Fell for You; I Concentrate on You; Little Person; Cheryl; These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You); And I Love Her; My Valentine.

Personnel: Brad Mehldau: piano; Larry Grenadier: bass; Jeff Ballard: drums.

Title: Blues and Ballads | Year Released: 2016 | Record Label: Nonesuch Records

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