Brad Mehldau Trio
April 11, 2010
When a trio has been together as long as pianist Brad Mehldau'sthe 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 townhousing one of Canada's more esteemed institutions, Queen's Universityhas 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 comecapable of more, with one hand, than many pianists are with twoand 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 connectedyet, at other times, seemingly separateas 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 simpaticoin 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 pointsgets 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.
Grenadier's reputation as a rhythm section anchor was cemented when he first emerged in the early '90s, but he's become a far more significant soloist over the last few yearsno coincidence, perhaps, with Mehldau's trio (still his main gig) becoming a far more egalitarian group of conversationalists when Ballard replaced departing original drummer, the excellent but more mainstream-focused Jorge Rossy. His solo on "Dream Sketch" and on the relaxed swing of the trio's take on Charlie Parker's "Cheryl," set the bar high for the rest of the set, but it was his playing on the set closer, a characteristically profound look at Sufjan Stevens' "Holland" where the bassist transcended individualistic concerns, his upper register playing becoming an unexpected extension of Mehldau's own mid-to-low register work and providing some of the performance's strongest evidence of this trio's ability to take predefined form and turn it into thoroughly spontaneous composition.
Mehldau didn't speak until well into the setmore than halfway, in fact, after a lovely reading of Chico Buarque's "Samba e Amore." Usually a man of few words, his delivery was as relaxed as the overall vibe of the set; and funny, too, remarking, after introducing Grenadier and Ballard, that he had just noticed they were both wearing white shirts, but only just, because he rarely pays any attention to them offstage. Even more revealing was his brief final words after an especially moving version of Irving Berlin's "Isn't This a Lovely Day," where he mused about how Berlin wrote the melody on the black keys only, as if this was less a restriction than an opportunity to explore a context with some predefined parameters.
The unassuming and relaxed nature his Kingston performance could have meant just a very good one, but in show that mixed compelling originals with covers old and new, ran the gamut from traditional swing to modernistic groove, and highlighted both unerring individual excellence and collective class, Brad Mehldau Trio delivered a show that was even better than his 2006 and 2009 performances at the nearby TD Ottawa International Jazz Festivaland will, no doubt, be remembered by the enthusiastic crowd for a long time to come.
Brad Mehldau: Jack Vartoogian
Larry Grenadier: John Kelman