National Concert Hall
December 1, 2013
The National Concert Hall
of Dublin is a long way from the bars and clubs of Greenwich Village, New York, where pianist Brad Mehldau cut his teeth in the early 1990s. Originally built for the Dublin International Exhibition of 1865 this impressive edifice is the home of classical music in Ireland. The venue says much, not only about Mehldau's status, but about jazz's credentials as an art format the very top end of the scale at least.
The concert had all the trappings of a classical recital too, from the magnificent Steinway pianoalmost dwarfed by the towering organ that dominates the auditoriumto the well-heeled audience. Mehldau's mute arrival and departure, his playing without introducing the songs and his courtly bows to the audience belonged more to the classical world than jazz. In fact, Mehldau's casual attire seemed slightly incongruous in an atmosphere where the coughers felt like rude intruders.
It wasn't always easy to recognize the tunesparticularly the pianist's originalsbut what was immediately striking was the breadth of language that Mehldau incorporated into his playing. If not quite dominant, then classical influences were at least ever-present as Mehldau turned the pages of his vast songbook, but so too was a cornucopia of idioms; the romanticism of the Great American Songbook, Thelonious Monk
's rhythmic elasticity, Brazilian melodies, early jazz piano styles and pop lightness were all in the mix. So too the blues, subtly infused, which brought an aching beauty to the music at times.
The three-note left-hand ostinato of the opening number may have stemmed from Radiohead's "Everything in Its Right Place," but whatever the tune, it was merely a departure point for Mehldau's exploration. Whilst I may be wrong about the tune, what's sure is that in the fifteen years since I last saw Mehldau play solo his style has evolved; his playing at the NCH was less insistent and more controlled than I remembered and there were fewer of the characteristically sweeping, angular runs that he used to unleash frequently.
Back then Mehldau's vocabulary was fairly dense, but in the intervening years the abundance of notes has perhaps ceded ground to greater economy and more emphasis on emotional weight. The music breathed more but was no less intense; this space-cum-gravity was beautifully illustrated in Antonio Carlos Jobim
's "Zingaro" which segued into Mehldau's composition "Paris," from the album Places
(Warner Bros, 2000). Jobim's song is also known as "Portrait in Black and White," and during a seamless twenty minutes or so of ebb and flow Mehldau's cinematic interpretation unfolded like the soundtrack to a silent movie.
Not for Mehldau are sign-posted endings or the sort of climactic flourishes favored by pianist Ahmad Jamal
; instead, Mehldau's melodic phrases thinned out, their strength dissipating and eventually vanishing. In a 2003 interview with All About Jazz
Mehldau spoke of the difficulty he has finishing a tune, and perhaps this is one reason why he's always been drawn to others' songs, where the finishing line is in sight even before he sets out. Bob Dylan
's "Don't Think Twice its Alright" was the jazziest tune of the evening, with Mehldau's flair hinting at the stride and ragtime of James P. Johnson
and Scott Joplin
The Beatles "And I Love Her" was the first of three encoresa simple tune that grew from a delicate opening to a rhapsodic celebration. A fairly faithful rendition of Sufjan Steven's gorgeous tune "Holland," which Mehldau recorded on Where Do You Start?
(Nonesuch Records, 2012) was followed by a bluesy improvisation of free-wheeling élan. Mehldau's quite sublime performance, just shy of two hours, ended in an exchange of bows and a standing ovation.
If Mehldau largely built his name on his trio, then the past eight or nine years have seen him branch out in all manner of directions. He's collaborated with classical soprano Renée Fleming, guitarist Pat Metheny
, blended classical and popular song with mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter and recorded the orchestral suite Highway Rider
(Nonesuch Records, 2010). He's also played in duos with mandolinist Chris Thile and drummer Mark Guiliana
. No doubt, these experiences have informed Mehldau the solo pianist, for listening to Mehldau in the acoustically marvelous surroundings of the NCH it was clear that there's a whole world of languages in his music.