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Brad Mehldau's Opening, Middle and Endgame

Mike Brannon By

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Romanticism implies nostalgia for damaged goods. —Brad Mehldau
Regardless of how long we've lived, some remain unaffected by self awareness, some with just enough to feel what they wish they couldn't and others find themselves immersed in both a keen awareness of their place and plight as well as a potential, bittersweet, transcendent ecstasy, just out of reach - Sehnsucht. And a very few have all of this and the fearlessness and artistry to express the depth, darkness and density armed with only a lyrical, polyrhythmic/polytonal armor between them and a reality painfully close to heel ' an artistic or musical soul. Alternately releasing it all with a lighter, articulate, fluency yet underscored by sustained dynamic tension, group interplay and effected by unique experience ' personal and metaphorical, physical and metaphysical ' Sehnsucht ('Longing', also a Mehldau original). The challenge of the inevitable, interpersonal pain of life lived, met and expressed. Meaning - without words.

Comparatively speaking, and like many things massively consumptive of time ' the Big Bang, the geologic erosion of the planet, rush hour, lines at the post office ' Mehldau's career thus far may seem a virtual blip on the screen. But now with nine albums as a leader, critical releases with such disparate artists as Wayne Shorter, Joshua Redman, Ornette Coleman, Charles Lloyd, Charlie Haden, Lee Konitz, Chick Corea, John Scofield, Jimmy Cobb, Bono and Willie Nelson plus contributions to the soundtracks to 'Eyes Wide Shut', 'Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil', 'Million Dollar Hotel', 'Space Cowboys', he's eclectically become Jazz' version of Ed Norton. And like his influences - Monk, Brahms, Bach, Shubert, Shumann - the classical prodigy shares an affinity for solitude and reflection as well as their emotional depth.

Like many, the first time I heard his trio live there was the unmistakable feeling of being surprised not just by the music but by witnessing an already remarkable career in the making. That this was a player who was clearly going to be around a very long time and for good reason. One which you could literally hear the evolution of within each phrase, each piece, the continuity of the entire show and vice versa. Like breathing and like life, the searching and expansion of each tune's evolution encapsulates the multi-leveled microcosmic enlightenment of both truth and duality. The sounds and spaces that escaped that piano, themselves ripples of another order, spoke volumes beyond the surface. And continue to. The message? Another major voice and musical force has joined the world of improvisation and that poetry isn't just written.

Though sometimes a relative walk across the street geographically, as in Mehldau's case, the trip for an evolving jazz artist, regardless of origin, to the music's melting pot of Manhattan, is nothing less than a coming of age, self realization, risk of every stripe and dropping the largest stone available into the pond on which all ears/eyes rest. There's no slipping up. Brad Melhdau's trip 15 years ago from his Hartford home was no different - at once under 100 miles and worlds away. But time and distance become relative. Though he was almost immediately playing the clubs that matter alongside the comparable talents of Redman, Brian Blade, Larry Goldings, Christian McBride and John Pattitucci, his primary focus the past eight years has been his own trio with Jorge Rossy and Larry Grenadier. Together they've recorded nine albums of standards and originals and have toured almost incessantly in the pursuit of collectively creating a sound transcendent of expectation. A tenth album is due in next month.

On Largo the latest release, everything changes - and doesn't. Under the influence of edgist producer/multi-instrumentalist/effects aficionado, Jon Brion ('Magnolia', Aimee Mann) Mehldau is finally allowed to both say and make his piece with electronica aided by his own players and pop/contemporary studio musicians in what amounts to a really hip experiment that's long overdue. Containing tunes brought to the public ear by groups as diverse as the Beatles ('Dear Prudence'), AC Jobim ('Wave') and Radiohead ('Paranoid Android') Brion and Mehldau create worlds that effortlessly remove the listener from other references and bridge the gap from what we're familiar with to something beautifully and profoundly lacking a need of labels. Who knows, maybe he'll even lose the sonic and conceptual comparisons to Jarrett. And it's interesting to find some of his closest peers and contemporaries - i.e. former employer Redman - now working similar fields (on 'Elastic Band'). Not a bad thing. (Note: The title derives as much from the Latin musical term indicating: large, slow, heavy as it does from the club Largo on Fairfax in LA where Brion gigs weekends).

Mehldau is currently crisscrossing the European festival circuit this Summer in both trio and solo guise. If you have the chance to hear this group, make a note to listen for the sonic equivalent of evolution. The album is due in October.


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