Some jazz musicians warn against excessive talk and analysis, insisting that the music be allowed to speak for itself. Brad Mehldau does not belong to this school of thought. Reading his self-authored, exhaustive (exhausting?) liner notes to both these albums, a critic might be tempted to throw up his hands and conclude that nothing more can possibly be said. These mini-essays constitute some of the heaviest music criticism you’re likely to read anywhere. But count on Mehldau to put his money where his mouth is, for the music on these discs is also some of the heaviest you’ll ever hear. Elegiac Cycle
is all solo piano, while Back at the Vanguard
is a live trio recording—volume four of Mehldau’s celebrated Art of the Trio
On Elegiac Cycle,
one can readily imagine how the trio would sound backing him on the knotty 7/8 "Resignation" or the thundering "Memory’s Tricks." Conversely, on "Lament for Linus"—the only previously recorded composition—we get to hear the tune laid bare, without the band accompaniment familiar from volume one of the trio series. It’s like examining Mehldau’s compositional prowess under a microscope. The beautiful "Bard" opens and closes the record in picture-frame fashion, and "Goodbye Storyteller" steals the show, its grandeur greatly enhanced by Mehldau’s explication in the liner notes.
The new trio release is every bit the aesthetic onslaught we’ve come to expect from Mehldau and his cohorts Larry Grenadier on bass and Jorge Rossy on drums. They play "All the Things You Are" in a quick seven, and somehow the done-to-death standard is reborn. "Sehnsucht," which closed Mehldau’s previous trio recording, here is given a relatively laid-back treatment. And Radiohead’s "Exit Music (For a Film)," which also appeared on the previous CD, is stretched to twice the original length and brought to a much more intense boil.
Four consecutive tracks, "Nice Pass," "Solar," "London Blues," and "I’ll Be Seeing You," display Mehldau’s fertile, varied approach to straight-ahead jazz forms. "Nice Pass" is rhythm changes stretched to epic proportions, interspersed with tightly arranged cues and feel changes. "London Blues," a tune from Mehldau’s first album, is accelerated and given a blistering rundown. It’s a visionary take on the blues and probably the best track on the record. "I’ll Be Seeing You" could not be simpler, and in that sense it’s the flip side of "Nice Pass," with its hall-of-mirrors construction. With this no-frills rendition of a beautiful old standard, Mehldau puts in a word for transparent melodicism, establishing its validity alongside the staggering complexity found elsewhere. Mehldau made a similar gesture by including "Moon River" on his previous live record.
Miles Davis’s "Solar" is taken at a burning tempo and stretched to its harmonic limits. Oddly enough, however, the out melody is played completely straight and the track ends on a stark, plain-and-simple downbeat. Mehldau often ends his songs and even his solos in this way: abruptly and with a simplicity that seems humorously at odds with the tumultuous waters he stirred up only moments before. Perhaps this is part of what Mehldau has in mind when he writes: "So much of Western art has self-consciously striven to appear artless; jazz has the unique distinction of artlessly becoming artful."