Brad Mehldau Trio: Kingston, Canada April 11, 2010

John Kelman By

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Brad Mehldau Trio
Grand Theatre
Kingston, Canada
April 11, 2010

When a trio has been together as long as pianist Brad Mehldau's—the current incarnation, with original bassist FLY and relative newcomer (but no stranger to either of his band mates), drummer Jeff Ballard, has been together for over five years, first heard on Day is Done (Nonesuch, 2005)—it's hard to imagine any gig being a bad gig. But time and place can still sometimes coalesce to create a context where a group can transcend even its greatest creative consistencies, and Mehldau's performance at the Grand Theatre in Kingston, Canada on April 11, 2010 was one such occasion.

In some ways, the city of Kingston, situated where the St. Lawrence River meets Lake Ontario, is the perfect location. With a population of about 125,000 (add another 30,000 for the Greater Metropolitan Area), this university town—housing one of Canada's more esteemed institutions, Queen's University—has managed to retain an historic ambience and a youthful vigor that's hard to find in larger Canadian cities. The Grand Theatre, located just up the street from the waterfront, is a recently renovated venue that seats fewer than 800 people, and for Mehldau's performance, the main floor was full, with the balcony also well-populated. Every seat's a good seat at the Grand, and the sound was as close to perfect as any live venue can be.

Mehldau's set was a mix of covers and originals, most unheard before on any of his many releases with the trio. Mehldau's been known to cover everyone from Radiohead and Soundgarden to Nick Drake and Neil Young, but with the gently funky "Dream Sketch" he proved that he's just as capable of writing an instantly memorable song as many of the pop/rock artists he clearly reveres. Mehldau's latest release, the ambitious Highway Rider (Nonesuch, 2010), demonstrates a grander scope, with writing that ranges from the detailed to the sketch-like. "Dream Sketch," like its name, was relatively simple, but got the trio's 105-minute set off to a great start, with Mehldau demonstrating a maturity that's been evolving gradually over the last 15 years. He's as virtuosic as they come—capable of more, with one hand, than many pianists are with two—and yet his playing has, over the past five years, and specifically with this incarnation of his trio, grown to the point where, with nothing left to prove and two incredibly sympathetic band mates, he's able to let a phrase breath, a note decay and an idea fully germinate before moving inexorably and inevitably on to the next.

Not that there wasn't plenty of mindboggling pianism going on. While most jazz pianists use their left hand for accompaniment and their right for more linear ideation, Mehldau's hands were far more intimately connected—yet, at other times, seemingly separate—as he seamlessly passed a descending melody from his right hand to his left, with his right hand then picking up the harmony as his left became the dominant voice. Twin-handed tremolos led to both hands diverging into seemingly disparate ideas, only to rejoin moments later in twin-handed melodism. Mehldau's specific ability to create hypnotic passages, where the tension built slowly but inevitably, remained intact, but unlike earlier days such as Art of the Trio, Vol. 5: Progressions (Warner Bros, 2001), the pianist used this remarkably dramatic device more sparingly and, as a result, far more effectively. And if that weren't enough, Mehldau soloed with a clear and persistent compositional focus, often seen with his right hand raised above the keyboard as his left carried on an idea, as if waiting for the absolutely perfect moment to rejoin and develop an idea further.

Speaking of perfect moments, as many as there were from Mehldau, there were just as many from Grenadier and Ballard. The two play together, with saxophonist Mark Turner, in the FLY trio that released Sky & Country (ECM, 2009), and their shared simpatico—in that group and as rhythm section for hire with artists like Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava, whose 2009 Enjoy Jazz performance in Mannheim, Germany with his New York Days Quintet (Fly plus pianist Stefano Bollani) was one of the festival's high points—gets deeper and broader with each passing year. While Ballard is capable of greater power, at Mehldau's Kingston performance he demonstrated a rare ability to create a greater sense of energy without resorting to excessive volume. Even the trio's encore, Radiohead's "Knives Out," first heard by the pianist on Day is Done, possessed all the original's propulsive forward motion but at a level that matched the rest of the set. And during his solo on Mehldau's "Stan the Man," Ballard managed to get more from just his hi-hat than most drummers do their entire kit.


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