In the ten years since pianist Brad Mehldau began recording as a leader, starting with '95's Introducing Brad Mehldau
, he has emerged as a singular voice with not only a specific vision on his instrument, but also some fairly hefty philosophies which have been detailed in lengthy liner notes on many of his releases. But personal beliefs for a musician mean little to the listener if they cannot be translated into practice, and fortunately Mehldau has done just that. Two such practices, which Mehldau manages to combine, are responsible for his deeply personal vernacular: a purely spontaneous style, coupled with a strong sense of architecture. Mehldau is not about complete surrender, as is Keith Jarrett; he is about starting with informed and thoughtfully-conceived ideas and building on them, sometimes gradually, other times with more vigour.
While he has always practiced this duality, there are certain restrictions in the context of his long-standing trio based on other players being involved. Much more conducive to expressing these concepts is the solo performance, where the performer is completely unencumbered, free to develop ideas as languidly or as rapidly as he may. With the release of his Nonesuch Records debut, Live in Tokyo
, Mehldau finally delivers a solo performance where he shows the true strength of his convictions and his potential. With pieces ranging from four to nearly twenty minutes, he demonstrates his ability to at times adhere closely to song form, while at others use the simplest idea as a basis for more extended and free-ranging improvisation.
The programme consists of a number of pieces that Mehldau has performed in the past with his trio. "Monk's Dream" becomes a true interpretation of Monk's quirky sense of the absurd, with sharp punctuations and incorporation of other elements, including the theme music from Peanuts
. "Someone to Watch Over Me," with its companion piece "Introduction," develops more slowly, with a tenderness and elegance that Mehldau has always shown himself capable of with the trio, but is even more richly highlighted here. Similarly, the other Gershwin piece, "How Long Has This Been Going On?," receives a graceful reading that shows how far removed from the blues Mehldau's style is. But the centrepiece of the performance is his nearly twenty-minute long version of Radiohead's "Paranoid Android," which shows Mehldau's ability to find so much in so little. Like Radiohead's own version, his reading is as much about texture and ambience as it is about melody and form.
Bookending the programme are two Nick Drake songs. "Things Behind the Sun" receives a fairly literal reading, but is all the richer for it. "River Man," which Mehldau has recorded twice before, is a fitting coda, another case of a simple song providing the basis for broader exploration. Live in Tokyo
is, quite simply, a landmark recording for Mehldau, further establishing his position as an artist of consequence.