The Brad Mehldau Trio at Nighttown

Matt Marshall BY

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Mehldau drove up through the tropical dance and full on into crescendo, til the backing fell out beneath him. A calm swelled within the storm, then a second blow rose to finish things.
The Brad Mehldau Trio
Cleveland Heights, OH
April 3, 2008

Set One

The Brad Mehldau Trio stepped out from the hall at the corner of Nighttown's concert dining room, snaked around some tables and took up their instruments unannounced. Many in the crowd looked for verbal confirmation from an announcer or the musicians, but the boys simply started in.

Mehldau, his right shoulder pressed to chin, frowned over the "Work" at hand—in this case, a tune of the same name penned by Thelonious Monk—and produced music that sounded wholly free of effort. He grimaced, eyes shut against the crowd pressed up close to his piano, blindly engaged the keys, and willed his instrument to split in two. His right hand drew a spiral on the high end, while down low his left cut a separate tune.

This magic, to my ear, is what Brad Mehldau and his trio are all about—that ability to weave around, over and under each other, go their separate ways, create divisions even within their own playing, but never lose grip on the whole, only expand it.

Bassist Larry Grenadier took the spotlight half way through this opening number and plucked spinal cords as much strings. A young musician at my elbow gasped, "Info overload!" as the layers of Grenadier's proficiency mounted.

Mehldau called the next two pieces "works in progress": the first a charging number featuring collective improvisation by all three members; the second, a ballad in which Mehldau released the melody to Grenadier, then used the piano's keys to explore the leftover spaces. Drummer Jeff Ballard kept the number bright with heavy cymbal play.

Chico Buarque's "Samba de Amor" followed, keyed by Ballard's drumming. His sticks not only maintained a full-flavored samba beat: they took cracks at spaces seemingly too thin—too brief—to hold more than specks of dust. In so doing, they inflated space, nearly stopped time, as if allowing the audience a good look at the oft-smeared gaps between racing train cars. Mehldau drove up through the tropical dance and full on into crescendo, til the backing fell out beneath him. A calm swelled within the storm, then a second blow rose to finish things.

The fifth number came out of the gate fast and maintained its steady gallop throughout. Mehldau seemed anxious to race into a lead, hopscotching the ivories, but Grenadier and Ballard kept pace. Then the pianist and his bassist quit the field, leaving Ballard—his arms working like chicken wings—to unfurl an extended, multidimensional solo.

The trio finished the set with Irving Berlin's "Isn't This a Lovely Day?" Mehldau introduced the theme alone, the self-division of its motifs—that key to and joy of his art—again evident. A spectator near the piano who had been carefully studying Mehldau's handiwork from the show's start—shaking his head in disbelief or raising eyebrows to nod appreciatively—now cupped hands to ears to capture another overload of information. The other musicians joined their leader, and Grenadier soon launched into a melodic solo that approached the human voice in its timbre. Mehldau took the tune back at the close and played alone for several minutes before a bow was put to the bass and the drums were lightly rapped to bring the set to its conclusion.

A standing ovation drew the trio back to the stage for a linked bow.

Set Two

The second set got underway shortly after 10:30 p.m. with a new, skippy number. Mehldau employed a Brubeck-like stomp that led into an early Grenadier solo backed mainly by Ballard. Mehldau comped with the lightest accents, before taking his own modal solo. His keys then unleashed a craziness matched by the drumming, giving notice that the late program was headed in a decidedly more experimental direction.

Along that path came "M.B." (at least I believe that was the title—some of Mehldau's speech lost in the speaker's amplification). The tune had a sinking, late-afternoon-in-February feel akin to Miles Davis' "second great quintet" on Miles Smiles (Columbia, 1966), Grenadier invoking bassist Ron Carter. Mehldau tapped out single notes that snowballed into furious loops, then slowed to once more leave individual footprints. He plummeted into a valley—and from this quiet spot, emerged to take up the run again, racing into a wall's full stop. Light sounds played out the number, leaving a nightcap mood in the air.

This deceptive closure was duly fractured by the most experimental—perhaps, academic—piece of the evening. Entitled "Wyatt's Eulogy for George Hanson," Mehldau explained it as involving characters from the film Easy Rider. It started slow, haunting. Ballard reached into his percussion chest for all manner of handheld instruments. Later, he struck the drums with mallets, while teasing the cymbals with a brush. Then he flipped the brush and tapped the cymbal with the brush's handle, before finally giving way to naught but fingertips. Mehldau started off in the low range, then led what felt like a surge up a mountain, the three players elbowing each other to gain ground, their energy sapped in the struggle. The pianist exhaled at the finish line, joking with the crowd that the prolonged exercise was indeed "kind of weird."

On its heels came the Elvis Costello weeper "Baby Plays Around," a wistful treat made to order for Mehldau's longing tones. He saw the tune out by playing alone for several minutes, evoking Thelonious' unique touch and voicings so convincingly the segment would have fit in nicely as its own piece on Solo Monk (Columbia, 1965).

The trio closed with a tune entitled "Pollen," slow and subdued to begin with, then rising to a crescendo. The performance garnered thunderous applause, which pulled the band back for two much-appreciated encores.

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