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Brad Mehldau Trio / GoGo Penguin at World Cafe Live


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If there's one thing about music that keeps us all going, it has to be endless adaptability. There's no instrument or genre that doesn't have some fresh possibilities still to discover (except maybe hair metal, I suppose). Philadelphia's World Cafe Live offered yet another illustration of the idea by hosting two exceptional piano trios within the space of a week. The basic setup may be the same, but the results could have hardly been more different.

Brad Mehldau Trio
April 19, 2016

Brad Mehldau is everywhere and nowhere in the jazz world. He's absorbed everything from classic blues to Monk-ian post-bop to modern rock and avant-garde, and the result is a blend you can't file into any category but his own. The all-new piece "Solid Jackson" (a dynamic tribute to Charlie Haden) showed off some impressive variety in the first few minutes, offering an easy-loping vamp, an almost-formless middle stretch and tricky harmonic unison runs with both hands. Over two extended sets he and longtime comrades Larry Grenadier (bass) and Jeff Ballard (drums) continued exploring a vast range of songs old and new, stretching each one like clay to find some shape it hasn't had before.

He's been working with this trio for over a decade—on and off, at least, considering his propensity for switching up what he's doing every few months—and their effortless navigation of tricky turns is a testament to that shared history. They're all equally good at listening and remembering to leave breathing room. At times Mehldau would hold a steady left-hand pattern (or stop altogether) and simply watch across the stage at one of Ballard's rhythmic workouts or Grenadier's blocky chording, looking as fascinated as the rest of us.

More new offerings sat cozily alongside pieces from Cole Porter and Sidney Bechet, with some choices of standards giving a preview of the forthcoming Blues and Ballads. Especially fascinating was the exotic minor meditation "Secret Gift" as well as an as-yet-unnamed new piece that let Ballard stretch a 6/8 groove into something uncountable. If there was the occasional chance of bending the audiences' ears with odd tonalities, they made sure to switch to something soulful and listenable next. It reached a peak with an epic workout on Sonny Rollins' "Airegin," which showcased dynamic solos from everyone and earned a standing cheer from at least half the room.

Fittingly they stayed at their most soulful while winding down at the end, channeling a little Keith Jarrett for a warmhearted encore of Paul Simon's "Still Crazy After All These Years." This straightforward piece was the one that brought the rest of the crowd along to their feet as well; a reminder that the most impressive virtuosos are the ones who know when not to show off.

GoGo Penguin
April 25, 2016

For their part, GoGo Penguin finds a niche that borrows from both Monk and Massive Attack (an outfit they and Mehldau have both covered in the past, just to draw another line between them). This time the WCL's basement wasn't packed to the point of standing room along the walls; the audience might have totaled 55 and there was more than enough table seating for everyone. Rather than a room full of (shall we say) jazz cats of a certain age in sweaters, this crowd was hipster enough to make you feel out of place if you weren't sporting a bushy beard, flannel shirt or both. Instead of bright solid lighting, the stage kept to dim shadings in mostly cool colors suitable for an underground rave. The house music of choice was low-key chill electronica to set the pre-and post-show vibe. The mood lighting was often well- designed to complement the songs throughout, ramping up to crazy swirls or even exciting strobes at the liveliest points.

Hip, sharp and often funky, this trio can be as classy as any jazz combo you could name, but they don't let that get in the way of a cracking fun time. Small crowd or not, the audience couldn't help bouncing with every infectious groove and cheering enough to make up for the relatively sparse room. Their feel for dynamics made it always feel natural going from quiet to loud and back again. A good helping of V2.0 sounded even more frisky than on record, but the players didn't miss a step, right down to dashing off "One Percent"'s ridiculously intricate glitch breakdown in note-perfect detail.

However complex the pieces or patterns may be, there's always room for spontaneity. Chris Illingworth is content holding static patterns as long as needed at the keyboard (sadly they haven't gotten big enough to command an actual piano at every venue yet), though he's not averse to making tweaks or adding little licks here and there without breaking stride. It's often Rob Turner's drums that crazily flit here and there while his bandmates hold steady. He admirably manages the Elvin Jones trick of keeping a moving pulse amidst wildly skittering rhythms, also adding different interesting tones by rubbing at a Tibetan prayer bowl or draping things across cymbals to subtly change the sound.

The newest album Man Made Object got a thorough workout as well, from the gentle sweetness of "Branches Break" to the body-moving beats of "All Res" or "Smarra" (another excellent cue for that roiling light show). It was only a single set at around 80 minutes and certainly felt even shorter by the time "Garden Dog Barbecue" brought things to a stomping, stuttering close. For an encore, the irresistible "Hopopono" was simply delightful—a buoyant summery romp that might have almost had the place dancing if it wasn't a fairly sedate Monday night. It was still enough to earn hearty cheers and a most enthusiastic standing ovation for this band as well. However different these acts may be, some important things should stay the same.

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