Brad Mehldau Trio
Brad Mehldau's most recent album, Ode, is a return to the trio format that helped make him one of the most prominent jazz pianists of the last twenty years. His delicate touch, contemporary repertoire and impeccable cohorts helped to usher in what he defined over a series of albums as the “art of the trio.” Last night at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, Mehldau performed with longtime bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard, proving that the “art” is still in his fingertips.
After a quiet delay (who starts at 7:30 on a Monday anyway?) the trio opened with late-'90s Paul McCartney song, “Great Day.” After a short piano intro, Grenadier joined in on the descending melody. He took a throbbing solo on his upright behemoth before making way for Mehldau's soulful solo, his right hand poised over the keyboard at all times, contemplating his next move like a chess player.
In keeping with the theme of unparalleled classic rock songsmiths, the trio followed with Brian Wilson's “Friends.” Ballard drove the group with his waltzing brushes, slowly transitioning to sticks one hand at a time. He offered up a calculated solo on his kit, dropping small bass bombs alongside Grenadier, while building to a thunderous riot.
From there Mehldau offered himself up with a trio of compositions. The first had the pianist exploring the piano's mid-range with a sleepy waltz, while the next was driven by Ballard's samba-ish brushes. Even a lengthy cellphone ring couldn't faze the band as Mehldau dug deep this time into the lower register of the piano, displaying long snaking passages with his left hand.
The next original, “Ten Tune,” got him pondering the meaning of titles of jazz tunes. “We have to think of all these cute titles,” he said. “Let's face it, jazz titles are some of the worst.” Regardless, this tune proved to be their longest workout with Grenadier reaching for his bow as he and Mehldau dropped the melody over Ballard's cracking snare and splattering cymbals. His drum solo stuck mostly to the toms, providing a melodic drive over Grenadier's bowing bass. Mehldau was eventually left to explore the tune on his own, drawing the most from the lower register in an unyielding, baroque examination.
The trio attempted to close the night with Johnny Mandel's “Where Do You Start?” Using a slow and straight reading, the ballad displayed their command of space, leaving long breaths between phrases. Mehldau's pensive solo was wrought with emotion, drawing complete silence from the rapt crowd. It has been a while since I heard a performer invest so much in an instrumental performance.
After a standing ovation, the trio returned for an encore. It turned out to be a bit of a drum feature with Ballard's propulsive sputtering hinting at the slightest backbeat. Grenadier offered a funky and floating solo while Mehldau focused his almost entirely on flying right-hand lines. The two melody men traded sixteen measure solos with Ballard before allowing him room to rumble away as Mehldau sat cross-legged on his piano bench. It was a strange juxtaposition considering the previous tune drew such somber reverie from the audience, but their follow-up allowed the band to display their astounding range.
Not that anyone was doubting it, but Mehldau can still clearly drive a classic rhythm section. The band's willingness to take their time and build up a tune, regardless of its tempo, was an amazing feat to witness. Here's hoping for another local appearance soon. Maybe on a weekend.
Personal Bias: Mehldau can be interesting by himself and in the capable hands of Jon Brion, but the trio setting has always been my favorite.
The Crowd: Older, paler and watching through designer lenses. Plus, the usual jazz cats come to pay their respects.
Random Notebook Dump: The naming rights to the water fountains are $25,000 a piece, but the parking is free.