Brad Mehldau Trio
Newman Center, Denver
May 11, 2012
By Geoff Anderson
Brad Mehldau takes jazz seriously. He named one of his early albums The Art of the Trio. But wait, he didn’t use that name for just one album, he released five albums under that name; The Art of the Trio, Volumes 1 to 5. Those albums came out from 1996 to 2001 and have recently been reissued in a box set. Since that time, he’s worked in some other contexts and with other instrumentation, including, notably, Pat Metheny which resulted in two CDs and a tour. He’s also collaborated with Joshua Redman, Michael Brecker and John Scofield, among others and recorded some solo piano albums. But his heart lies with the trio format. It’s where he continues to return. Friday night, he brought his current trio to Denver with Larry Grenadier on bass and Jeff Ballard on drums.
Mehldau is a prolific writer and his CDs and performances feature many of his own compositions. However, he’s also known for covering others’ material including pop and rock tunes. Friday night, he started the show with “Hey Joe,” a hit for Jimi Hendrix from his first album. Certainly, Mehldau is not one to photocopy the hit version. (Lack of a guitar is only one issue.) After establishing the theme, Mehldau took off on one improvisational flight after another. It was a bit like watching a mountain drifting in and out from behind a cloud. You knew it was there, but you could only see it occasionally.
Most touring artists draw their material for their live shows from their latest album. This is most likely due to their interest in playing something new and not rehashing the same old thing. Also, their record companies probably suggest playing the new stuff as a way to promote the new album. The Brad Mehldau Trio has a new CD, a 2012 release on Nonesuch called Ode, an album of all original compositions. Friday night, the trio didn’t play a single tune from that disc. Most of the selections were Mehldau’s compositions with a few covers. They generally ran 15 minutes or so allowing the band ample room to explore a theme, turn it inside out a few times, run it through the permanent press cycle, throw it in the dryer, fold it and sometimes even put it back where it belonged.
Mehldau has obviously spent time in classical studies as well as examining jazz and blues. These influences pervade much of his playing. Often, his solos sounded like Mozart meets the Mississippi Delta. More than once, he executed a particularly bluesy flourish that tasted like a Sweetart puckering your mouth.
Bassist Larry Grenadier has been with the Brad Mehldau Trio since its inception in the mid ‘90s. Friday night he stood in the center of the stage with Mehldau to the left and Ballard to the right. Grenadier had a sharp attack on the strings giving his bass playing a somewhat percussive sound. He swayed back and forth with his upright bass making it look like his dance partner. Ballard has been with the trio since 2005, replacing original Trio drummer Jorge Rossy. Ballard had an understated approach to the drums. Throughout the evening he was quietly solid, like the gentle purr of a luxury car.
Although most of the evening was on the serious side, Mehldau concluded with an energetic one chord vamp that was nevertheless soulful, bluesy and uplifting. On this one, Mehldau sounded a bit like the late Gene Harris. It was a great closing piece and sent the audience out of the auditorium with smiles on their faces.