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Brad Mehldau Trio: Denver, CO, May 11, 2012

Geoff Anderson By

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Brad Mehldau Trio
Newman Center
Denver, CO
May 11, 2012

Pianist Brad Mehldau takes jazz seriously. He named his second album as a leader The Art of the Trio (Warner Bros., 1997). But wait, he didn't use that name for just one album; he released five albums, as a series, under that name. Those albums came out from 1997 to 2001 and have recently been reissued in a box set, Art of the Trio Recordings: 1996-2001 (Nonesuch, 2011).

Since that time, he's worked in a variety of other contexts and with other instrumentation including, notably, guitarist Pat Metheny for two CDs and a tour—Metheny Mehldau (Nonesuch, 2006) and Quartet (Nonesuch, 2007). He's also collaborated with saxophonists Joshua Redman and Michael Brecker, and guitarist John Scofield, among others, and recorded three solo piano albums, most recently the critically acclaimed Live in Marciac (Nonesuch, 2011). But his heart lies with the trio format, to which he continues to return. On May 11, 2012, the pianist brought his current trio to Denver, with bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard.

Mehldau is a prolific writer, and his CDs and performances often feature many of his own compositions. However, he's also known for covering other material, including pop and rock tunes from artists like Nick Drake, Radiohead and Soundgarden. Friday night, he started his show with "Hey Joe," a hit for guitarist Jimi Hendrix from his first album, Are You Experienced? (Reprise, 1967). Clearly, Mehldau was not one to photocopy the hit version (lack of guitar was only one reason); after establishing the theme, Mehldau took off on one improvisational flight after another. It was a bit like watching a mountain drifting in and out from behind a cloud. You knew it was there, but you could only see it occasionally.

Most touring artists draw material for live shows from their latest albums. Mehldau's trio has recently released Ode (Nonesuch 2012), an album of all-original compositions, but for his Denver show, the trio didn't play a single tune from the disc. Most of the selections were Mehldau compositions, however, with a few covers, generally running 15 minutes or so and allowing the band ample room to explore a theme, turn it inside out a few times, run it through the permanent press cycle, throw it in the dryer, fold it and sometimes even put it back where it belonged.

Mehldau has obviously spent time in classical studies as well as examining jazz and blues. These influences pervade much of his playing, with his solos often sounding like Mozart-meets-the-Mississippi-Delta. More than once, he executed a particularly bluesy flourish that tasted like a mouth-puckering SweeTart.

Grenadier has been with the Mehldau's trio since its inception in the mid-'90s. Here, he stood center stage, with Mehldau to the left and Ballard to the right. Grenadier demonstrated a sharp attack on the strings, giving his playing a somewhat percussive sound. He swayed back and forth with his bass, making it look like a dance partner. Ballard has been with the trio since 2005, replacing original trio drummer Jorge Rossy, demonstrating an understated approach to the kit; throughout the evening he was quietly solid, like the gentle purr of a luxury car.

Although most of the evening was on the serious side, Mehldau concluded with an energetic one chord vamp that was soulful, bluesy and uplifting—sounding a bit like the late Gene Harris. It was a great closing piece and sent the audience out of the auditorium smiling.

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