Ottawa Jazz Festival 2008: Days 10-11, June 29-30, 2008

John Kelman By

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Days 1-3 | Days 4-6 | Days 7-8 | Days 10-11

Brad Mehldau Trio / Richard Galliano Tangaria Quartet
TD Canada Trust Ottawa International Jazz Festival
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
June 29-30, 2008

As the 2008 TD Canada Trust Ottawa International Jazz Festival entered the home stretch, there were choices to be made. Mike Stern or Brad Mehldau? Richard Galliano or Gladys Knight? With an eye on diversity, there was, once again, something for everyone. And while the festival's final day, July 1, 2008, was a special program of free all- Canadian daytime concerts in celebration of Canada Day, its effective end was on June 30 and, looking back at this year's roster, it's hard to deny that this was one of the best programs in recent years. From Wynton Marsalis to Iro Haarla, Return to Forever to Charlie Haden Quartet West, from Tim Berne to Cosmos, 2008 may be the festival's most successful year at balancing itself as a festival with broad appeal and little, if any, compromise.

Chapter Index

  1. June 29: Brad Mehldau Trio
  2. June 30: Richard Galliano
  3. Festival Wrap-Up

June 29: Brad Mehldau Trio

While it might be considered overkill to bring pianist Brad Mehldau back for the third time in six years— performing a special indoor performance at Library and Archives Canadai in 2006 and an unforgettable first appearance at Confederation Park in 2002— his return to Confederation Park for OIJF 2008 was anything but.

Brad Mehldau / Brad Mehldau Trio

Ever since Jeff Ballard replaced Mehldau Trio original drummer Jorge Rossy, there's been a significant shift in the group's dynamic. Contributing more than just greater expressionism and dominance as part of the trio's conversational approach to interpreting originals, standards and contemporary material from artists including Soundgarden and Radiohead, Ballard has in many ways created greater balance within the trio, allowing Mehldau to play with increasing economy. On the show's finale—a lengthy take on "My Ship" from the 1941 Cole Porter/Kurt Weill collaboration with author Moss Hart, Lady in the Dark, featuring a mesmerizing piano solo near its end—Mehldau approached the melody with a spare elegance that's not exactly new, but certainly more pervasive.

Blues also seemed to be a predominant form or, at least, a strong influence throughout the set, with the simplest of thematic ideas driving the set opener, "Kurt Vibe" (for guitarist/friend Kurt Rosenwinkel), one of four new Mehldau originals that dominated the seven-song, 85-minute set. Without denying the importance of Rossy, who was so fundamental to Mehldau's original trio, Ballard is a player with a broader reach, bringing hand drums and his own hands to the trio's palette. He's also a more extroverted and, at times, busy player, ratcheting up the energy and pushing bassist Larry Grenadier to play with greater force than he did in the Rossy trio.

Jeff Ballard / Brad Mehldau Trio

While Mehldau might have been considered the primary voice throughout the set, the true beauty of his trio is its effortless democracy. Ballard and Grenadier each had opportunities for delineated solos, but it was the trio's comfortable but never complacent interplay that impressed the most. Mehldau, Grenadier and Ballard seemed to speak with a single voice, generating a group sound that was at once respectful of form and completely malleable; ever ready to move with each others' inevitable ebbs and flows.

Ballard's ride cymbal drove "MB," another original dedicated, this time, to the late saxophone giant Michael Brecker. Reminiscent of the same kind of gentle but persistent drive of ECM albums like Ralph Towner's Solstice (1975), Ballard pushed the group assertively but not aggressively, giving Mehldau the freedom to let the music breath more than ever before, even when compared to his recent Live (Nonesuch, 2008). With Grenadier and Ballard keeping an unshakable pulse, Mehldau seemed more liberal with time, moving in and out of it to create greater tension that, rather than releasing in a significant catharsis, seemed instead to just organically find its way back to where it began.

Larry Grenadier / Brad Mehldau Trio

Gone were the hypnotic, repetitive waves of Progression: Art of the Trio, Volume 5 (Warner Bros., 2001) that would build to a climax and resolve in more conventional fashion. Replacing them was a defter approach that, at times, was no less virtuosic, but instead approached songs like Cole Porter's "I Concentrate on You" with greater fluidity and open-ended dialogue. Improvisation that, at times, built on simple motifs but, with near-perfect instinct, evolved slowly into more complex ideas was a definitive change in approach. Mehldau has often spoken of distancing himself from artists like the legendary Bill Evans, with whom he's often compared. It remains, however, that while he may not sound at all like Evans, his approach to collective improvisation—with Grenadier and Ballard transcending mere support of the form to allow Mehldau to explore its nooks and crannies, but instead equal contributors to the spontaneity—is undeniably a pushing forward of Evans' innovation.

Still, Ottawa Citizen music critic and astute Thriving on a Riff blogger, described the trifecta of iconic pianists playing the OIJF this year earlier in the week as: Herbie Hancock, the poet, Chick Corea, the percussionist and Brad Mehldau, the philosopher. It's a concise and perfect way to differentiate the three, with his description of Mehldau especially on the money. Mehldau's music has always born a cerebral nature, and that quality remains a prevalent factor in his music. But with a greater attention to space and trio mates who are at the top of their game, Mehldau's performance was another example of working in the vicinity of the mainstream without falling into any of its inherent trappings. Like the Charlie Haden Quartet West performance two days earlier, the audience was so enraptured by the Mehldau Trio's performance that, once again, surrounding outdoor sounds seemed to disappear, with everyone completely focused on the remarkable performance taking place onstage.

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