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Brad Mehldau Trio: Day is Done

John Kelman By

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Sometimes it's not a good idea to mess with a good thing. Pianist Brad Mehldau's trio has remained stable since emerging on the scene in the mid-1990s, giving it time to evolve and establish the kind of chemistry that's only possible with a long-term relationship. But as freshly innovative as albums including his five memorable Art of the Trio releases and last year's Anything Goes have been, the first seconds of Radiohead's "Knives Out"—which opens Mehldau's new trio disc, Day is Done—make it clear that change can sometimes be a very good thing.

Bassist Larry Grenadier remains, but drummer Jorge Rossy has been spending more family time in Spain, pursuing further studies, and working on composition, so Mehldau recruited drummer Jeff Ballard to replace him. Ballard is no stranger to Mehldau or Grenadier—they've all operated within the same general musical circle, and Ballard and Grenadier have worked together in the cooperative Fly trio with saxophonist Mark Turner. A fine drummer, Rossy has always leaned towards the center; Ballard is more stylistically diverse, having worked with artists like Chick Corea, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Claudia Acuna, and Joshua Redman's Elastic Band.

You can feel the infusion of a broader sensibility and greater vigor on "Knives Out," which may be the most purely kinetic Mehldau performance to date. Ballard makes everything sound somehow more contemporary—the trio is as acoustic as always, but the edge, intensity, and more modernistic approach ties 2002's seemingly disparate Largo into Mehldau's greater body of work.

Ballard can swing with the best of them, as he does on "No Moon at All," one of only two standards on Day is Done. But he's not afraid to play a light rock beat, as he does on Nick Drake's title track and the extended ending vamp of a surprisingly powerful and up-tempo version of Paul Simon's "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover." Still, Ballard is no straight backbeat drummer—elastic and totally responsive, he's an equal part of an overriding energy that is almost relentless at times—and he presents a significant stylistic shift for Mehldau.

Not that Mehldau hasn't demonstrated power in the past, but Day is Done kicks things up a notch or ten. Still, a tender reading of "Alfie" provides a needed respite after the frenzy of "Knives Out." Mehldau's "Artis" is another burner, distinguished by his always remarkable contrapuntal style, as well as his ability to think in broader arcs and create a solo that is both evocative and beautifully structured. Two Lennon/McCartney compositions—a quirky solo rendition of "Martha My Dear" and trio version of "She's Leaving Home," which begins poignantly but ultimately becomes more powerful—find Mehldau continuing to mine contemporary popular song, rather than the Great American Songbook.

In comparing the trio pre and post-Ballard, it's not that he's a better drummer; rather, his greater breadth propels the trio to new places without losing sight of past accomplishments. Day is Done is both a logical progression and a radical shift for Mehldau, and evident indication that it's possible—and maybe even important—to mess with success. Sometimes it's not a good idea to mess with a good thing. Pianist Brad Mehldau's trio has remained stable since emerging on the scene in the mid-1990s, giving it time to evolve and establish the kind of chemistry that's only possible with a long-term relationship. But as freshly innovative as albums including his five memorable Art of the Trio releases and last year's Anything Goes have been, the first seconds of Radiohead's "Knives Out"—which opens Mehldau's new trio disc, Day is Done—make it clear that change can sometimes be a very good thing.

Bassist Larry Grenadier remains, but drummer Jorge Rossy has been spending more family time in Spain, pursuing further studies, and working on composition, so Mehldau recruited drummer Jeff Ballard to replace him. Ballard is no stranger to Mehldau or Grenadier—they've all operated within the same general musical circle, and Ballard and Grenadier have worked together in the cooperative Fly trio with saxophonist Mark Turner. A fine drummer, Rossy has always leaned towards the center; Ballard is more stylistically diverse, having worked with artists like Chick Corea, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Claudia Acuna, and Joshua Redman's Elastic Band.

You can feel the infusion of a broader sensibility and greater vigor on "Knives Out," which may be the most purely kinetic Mehldau performance to date. Ballard makes everything sound somehow more contemporary—the trio is as acoustic as always, but the edge, intensity, and more modernistic approach ties 2002's seemingly disparate Largo into Mehldau's greater body of work.

Ballard can swing with the best of them, as he does on "No Moon at All," one of only two standards on Day is Done. But he's not afraid to play a light rock beat, as he does on Nick Drake's title track and the extended ending vamp of a surprisingly powerful and up-tempo version of Paul Simon's "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover." Still, Ballard is no straight backbeat drummer—elastic and totally responsive, he's an equal part of an overriding energy that is almost relentless at times—and he presents a significant stylistic shift for Mehldau.

Not that Mehldau hasn't demonstrated power in the past, but Day is Done kicks things up a notch or ten. Still, a tender reading of "Alfie" provides a needed respite after the frenzy of "Knives Out." Mehldau's "Artis" is another burner, distinguished by his always remarkable contrapuntal style, as well as his ability to think in broader arcs and create a solo that is both evocative and beautifully structured. Two Lennon/McCartney compositions—a quirky solo rendition of "Martha My Dear" and trio version of "She's Leaving Home," which begins poignantly but ultimately becomes more powerful—find Mehldau continuing to mine contemporary popular song, rather than the Great American Songbook.

In comparing the trio pre and post-Ballard, it's not that he's a better drummer; rather, his greater breadth propels the trio to new places without losing sight of past accomplishments. Day is Done is both a logical progression and a radical shift for Mehldau, and evident indication that it's possible—and maybe even important—to mess with success.


Track Listing: Knives Out; Alfie; Martha My Dear; Day is Done; Artis; Turtle Town; She'e Leaving Home; Granada; 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover; No Moon at All

Personnel: Brad Mehdlau: piano; Larry Grenadier: bass (1, 2, 4-10); Jeff Ballard: drums (3).

Title: Day Is Done | Year Released: 2005 | Record Label: Nonesuch Records

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