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Brad Mehldau Trio: House on Hill

John Kelman By

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Since drummer Jorge Rossy left pianist Brad Mehldau's trio sixteen months ago, words like "refreshed" and "reinvigorated" have been used to describe the impact of the more malleable Jeff Ballard on Mehldau's trio with bassist Larry Grenadier. But it's all too easy to forget just how fresh the original trio was, and that its swan song, Anything Goes (Warner Bros., 2004), was one of its best efforts. Sometimes different isn't better or worse, it's just different.

The majority of the material on House on Hill was recorded at the Anything Goes session, but here the emphasis is entirely on Mehldau's writing. That's a first for either incarnation of the trio, making it the perfect bookend to Anything Goes, which was drawn entirely from the standards repertoire and material by Paul Simon and Radiohead.

Mehldau often eschews the traditional pianistic approach of using the left hand to provide chordal accompaniment to a right hand that delivers the primary thematic content. His liner notes go into great detail on how standard format lead sheets can actually confine an improviser. He suggests that by eliminating scored voicings, one also eliminates the subtle and defining nuances of voice movement evident in classical composition. He also makes the equally compelling point that when approaching the form/freedom conundrum of jazz, a song's theme should provide an architecture around which soloing is based.

What's remarkable is actually hearing Mehldau put theory into practice. Instead of playing block chords with his left hand on the delicate yet fiery "Boomer," Mehldau applies what he calls "the stealth polyphony of Brahms"—a seemingly endless flow of notes from his left hand suggesting chordal motion while the right hand plays a simpler melody. He applies a similar approach on the equally lithe but powerful "Backyard." Unlike the 7/4 time of the former piece, the latter is in 4/4; but like Thelonious Monk's "Evidence"—used as an example in the liner notes—the staggered melody creates the illusion of shifting bar lines. "Happy Tune" is a cleverly masked 7/4 blues revolving around an elliptical bass pattern that opens up in the solo section, clearly demonstrating Mehldau's concept of architecture.

Ballard may be a more dominant and striking conversationalist, whereas Rossy was always an amenable team player who was more likely to agree and carry on than making strong suggestions. Still, based on House on Hill, there's a reason why Mehldau's first trio lasted as long as it did, and it's good news that Mehldau's originals from the Anything Goes session have finally been released. Regardless of who's on the kit, House on Hill represents, in the clearest possible terms, a previously unseen window into the inner workings of Mehldau's unique approach to the piano trio tradition.

Track Listing: August Ending; House On Hill; Bealtine; Boomer; Backyard; Fear and Trembling; Embers; Happy Tune; Waiting For Eden.

Personnel: Brad Mehldau: piano; Larry Grenadier: bass; Jorge Rossy: drums.

Title: House on Hill | Year Released: 2006 | Record Label: Nonesuch Records


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