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Brad Mehldau at the Village Vanguard


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The arc of Mehldau's performances are more narrative now, even if that narrative rarely climaxes in the big finish that was once his signature.
Brad Mehldau Trio
Village Vanguard
New York, NY
May 5 & 9, 2009

No major jazz artist of the last 25 years has been more closely associated with a single venue than pianist Brad Mehldau with the Village Vanguard. Of the 11 trio albums he's released since signing with Warner Bros in 1994, four have been recorded live at jazz's most hallowed club. Pianist Bill Evans—who had a similarly synergistic relationship with the Vanguard (Mehldau once wrote that the comparison to Evans "has been a thorn in my side.")—used to play there six weeks a year; Mehldau restricts himself to just one. Last week, the Brad Mehldau Trio made its annual visit back home.

Mehldau's long-term penchant for recording at the Vanguard means that we have an easy-to-compare chronicle of his evolution as a musician. In 1997, when Mehldau recorded Live at the Village Vanguard (his first Vanguard album), he was a superhero improviser fond of showing off the brilliance of his new-found powers. His introduction to "Young and Foolish" is so wrenchingly lyrical that it could have been a complete, emotionally exhausting song on its own. His explosive, virtuoso solo on "Monk's Dream" sounds like the work of two ambidextrous pianists, with Mehldau creating so much tension that, when the solo ends, the audience cheers and roars like it's just seen Superman save the day. Pianist Ethan Iverson summed it up well for the writer Nate Chinen: "hearing those guys play, say, 'The Way You Look Tonight' in '97—that was really a thrilling moment for jazz."

Mehldau's follow-up at the Vanguard, Back at the Vanguard, recorded in 1999, showcases the same kind of bountiful outpouring. In the solo introduction to "All The Things You Are," he slowly builds the melody from a series of jagged, short phrases—a sorcerer conjuring a new creature into being. After each improvised chorus, on standards like "Solar" and "I'll Be Seeing You," you think he must be nearing fatigue, but he keeps going, the tension keeps building, and by the time he reaches a resolution, both audience and performer are dripping with figurative (if not literal) sweat.

Mehldau's first two Vanguard albums are such impressive displays of artistic sophistication and pianist prowess that it's hard to imagine how he could have upped the ante on them. Whether or not Mehldau himself could have imagined it, we'll never know; instead of striving for ever bigger, faster, and stronger improvisations, he opted to focus increasingly on dynamics, compositional structure, and group interplay. Mehldau's maturation as an artist has meant that I've often left his performances slightly disappointed. Why, I've wondered, isn't he delivering the goods like he did on the first two Vanguard albums? Why does he pull up short on his improvisations before we can see Superman flex all of his muscles?

The writer David Foster Wallace once wrote that he worried that his work had been driven by a "basically vapid urge to be avant-garde and post structural and linguistically calisthenic." I've never spoken to Mehldau, but I wouldn't be surprised if he had similar (if somewhat less self-critical) feelings when looking back on his salad days. It's not as if Mehldau has suddenly become a minimalist, but there's been a shift in his focus to subtler, less flashy aspects of the music.

Despite having seen Mehldau play on about a dozen occasions since 2001, I've spent orders of magnitude more time listening to his records. Actually witnessing the man in the flesh can be jarring. His playing sounds athletic—notes flying this way and that; hands crossing, uncrossing; choruses passing like rounds for an inexhaustible prize fighter—but it looks practically sedentary. His head hangs slightly, his hands move slowly, and his rapid-fire fingers lift just enough to clear the keyboard. In other words, Mehldau has impeccable technique, expending effort only on what directly affects the production of sound. His shoulders are the only part of his body that communicates the tense build-up of his playing. They're often raised at the outset, they get increasingly tight in the fury of improvisation, and loosen in the cathartic finale.

Even more jarring than Mehldau's economy of motion is how quiet his playing sounds compared to what we hear on the early records. This, I suspect, has as much to do with sound engineering as with any pianistic evolution, but it's hard to ignore the fact that live the the trio's balance is much more egalitarian. Instead of the great soloist zooming up and away from his band mates as the Warner Bros. recordings would have you believe, bassist FLY and drummer Jeff Ballard (who replaced Jorge Rossy in 2005) are integral to the pianist's propulsion.

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.

Photo Credits

Courtesy of International Music Network

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