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It seems Brad Mehldau is the pianist du jour these days, darling of the critics for recordings like “Art of the Trio,” and a first-call player for people’s sessions. Upon hearing him, it’s not hard to figure out why. The intrigue with Mehldau is not misplaced. Mehldau dazzled on April 18 in a solo concert at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY, that showed his talent with combining his classical training with improvisational exploring. From his early days that included work with Cobb’s Mob (drummer Jimmy Cobb’s aggregation) through his “emergence” with Joshua Redman’s group, Mehldau has shown a approach influenced by Bill Evans, as well as classical inspirations. Keith Jarrett also springs to mind on some of Mehldau’s flights of fancy. The result is a two-handed approach that the 30-year-old is personalizing. One day, writers may well speak of a Mehldau influence in the work of up-and-coming pianists. He has prodigious technique with both hands and is not inclined to let his right hand get too far without strong support, counterpoint and even percussion, from his left.
Mehldau warmed up on this night with an extemporaneous improvisation. Playing a basically simple impressionistic melody, he worked and reworked it like Jarrett will do at times in his solo concerts, changing the dynamics and textures over the repeated statement.
“My Heart Stood Still,” was jazzier, its changes negotiated flawlessly. Mehldau’s plays melodic runs at times almost as one would draw an arc as Evans did. These arcs of sound float over a resounding left hand and the effect is serene.
There isn’t however, ever much of a blues feel in his solo work.
“How Long Has This Been going On,” was played as a slow, sweet ballad where Mehldau let the music breathe more, not as bold, but beautifully done.
The limited chord structure of the Beatles’ “Dear Prudence” pushed Mehldau into a mid-tempo groove in which he played with the harmony of the song and the dynamics of the piano. The result was a delightfully different story.
After announcing he was going to “fall into something,” a brisk two-fisted meandering eventually turned into a soft statement of Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy After All These Years.” He elegantly stated the theme, then went on to disassemble and reassemble it; his playing raucous at times; both chords and melody were the subject of his reformation. Like all good jazz, it was a re-telling of the story in a wonderfully different way, to satisfying results, both artistically and viscerally.
With technique, originality and a sense of adventure funneled through good taste, Mehldau is one to watch, all right.
Years ago now--in Rhodesia--listening to Voice of America with Willis Conover I heard Bunk Johnson play When The Saints Go Marching In, and Billie Holiday sing Don't Explain. I knew then there was no other life for me than jazz.