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Day 6 - Ottawa International Jazz Festival, June 27, 2006

John Kelman By

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If day five of the TD Canada Trust Ottawa International Jazz Festival was about the excitement of new discovery, day six was about affirmation. Even though inclement weather reduced the audience to a mere shadow of what it should have been, vibraphonist Stefon Harris and his Blackout group delivered the best performance at the main stage yet—and perhaps what will turn out to the best main stage event of the festival, period.

Before Harris hit the stage, the festival put on a special ticketed event at the Library and Archives Canada theater for the second year. Pianist Brad Mehldau, who last played the festival a few years ago at the main stage with his long-running trio (featuring bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jorge Rossy), returned for two trio shows with his new drummer, Jeff Ballard. The group arrived late due to travel problems and may have been stressed by the experience, but you'd never know it based on this transcendent early show.

As good as Rossy was, Mehldau's earlier trio always conveyed a sense that it could be something more. From the first notes on Mehldau's first trio record with Ballard—last year's Day is Done—it was clear that the group had made a significant leap. Live, and with more work under their belts, Mehldau and his partners have taken the piano trio tradition and flexed it with a freer approach that managed to never leave the audience in the dust.

The set list included two new originals, two pieces drawn from Day is Done ("Artice" and "Turtle Town"), and innovative takes on the standards "All the Things You Are" and "I Fall in Love Too Easily." Each player redefined shifts in individual playing and group interaction. While Grenadier and Ballard got but one solo each during the set, Mehldau did not dominate the rest of the performance. Instead, with overt communication maintained by eye contact throughout the set and more abstract, intuitive connections that were nevertheless palpable, Mehldau's trio dispensed with mundane notions like the conventional head-solo-head structure, becoming a more flexible three-way conversation where everyone's say carries equal weight.

When an artist emerges as young as Mehldau was in the early 1990s, quickly rising to prominence as perhaps the most important pianist of his generation, one wonders how he can avoid peaking and continue to evolve. Mehldau more than adequately answering that question in performance, seamlessly integrating his multitudinous musical interests. Classical, mainstream jazz and abstract impressionism have all become part of a greater musical continuum for Mehldau, one whose whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts.

Earlier records (and performances) have placed Mehldau's virtuosity on overt display, sometimes more than necessary. While the passage of time has left him nothing if not even more formidable, in many ways he's simplifying his approach and becoming even more connected with the essence of the material. His ideas may be complex, but his playing breathes better. When he does build into one of those hypnotically elliptical passages where—in a reversal of convention—his right hand creates an underlying foundation while his left hand delivers the melody, it means more, building a tension that demands release. And while Mehldau's playing may be sparer, he's become more harmonically advanced, taking an overdone song like "All the Things You Are," making it totally relevant and allowing it to take on new meaning.

Ballard's approach is so fluid, responsive and energized that even when the trio plays a gentle ballad like "I Fall in Love Too Easily," the performance still has an understated potency. It's not about chops, and it's not exactly about groove. Ballard clearly has ability and an ear for the groove, but his delivery is so much about the music that even the simplest of figures can be profound. As good as Rossy may have been, he was a more direct player. Ballard's playing makes the material more malleable and more capable of going to unexpected places. And rather than defining specific grooves, the combination of the three players makes the pulse happen without any one member of the trio ever clearly stating it.

The liberating element that Ballard has brought to the band has allowed Grenadier to make significant leaps as well. Rossy was always a solid support bassist, but his more orthodox approach restricted Grenadier's role; but with Ballard, anything is possible. Less a timekeeper and more an integral part of the conversation, Grenadier amazed with lines that, like Mehldau's, were sometimes profound in their simplicity, other times staggering in their implication.

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