Brad Mehldau is not an L.A. guy. Born in Jacksonville Florida, the pianist spent much of his childhood in Connecticut. He went to school in New York, started playing with Joshua Redman in New York, and now lives in Brooklyn, but his concert at the Largo on Tuesday night felt like a homecoming.
Largo is a personal landmark for Mehldau. The pianist, now 39, frequented the small club back in the late '90s where he befriended Jon Brion, and heard many singer songwriters -- among them Rufus Wainwright, Elliott Smith, Fiona Apple, and Aimee Mann -- for the first time.
In 2001, Brion produced Mehldau's 9th album, Largo, a tribute to the place and people that are the stuff of his Los Angeles.
When Mehldau came to L.A., he had a heroin addiction at his heels and the warm embrace of Southern California's music culture at his disposal.
"It's good to be back in Los Angeles, where I used to live and heard people like Jon, who were a great influence on my music," Mehldau said at the show. "It's great to listen to the radio here, eat low-brow food here. It's good shit."
Mehldau sat down at the 9-foot Steinway and played for two hours, getting up once to play an original tune on the upright, custom-made tack piano in the corner, the one with the Vaudevillian disposition that is undoubtedly permanently etched with Jon Brion's fingerprints.
The show seemed specifically curated for the Largo audience. Mehldau gave the crowd plenty of pop melodies (which they likely expected), offering up a version of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" played with Rachmaninoffesque technique. "Here's another from my KROQ listening on the way from the airport," he said. The audience laughed self-consciously. "It's a good one though." Massive Attack, Stone Temple Pilots, Neil Young, and Jeff Buckley also made it into the set.
A classically trained musician, Mehldau is unapologetic about his referencing of pop, borrowing songs rooted in simplicity and convention, and re-appropriating them in a way so unique and mind-boggling that at times one might forget where he started. Mehldau always returns though, introducing a familiar tune and playing it shamelessly slow, not burying familiar hooks but borrowing and stretching them, relying on raw melody and his audience's memory of line.
These are songs that anyone can recognize, but Mehldau interprets them with persuasive sincerity, turning Massive Attack's "Teardrop" into a solemn ballad and playing a rendition of Paul Simon's "Still Crazy After All These Years," with all of the sentimentality and wisdom, but without the saxophone.
The only song he played almost straight, sans abstraction or solo, was "I'm Old Fashioned," a jazz standard written in 1942 by Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer. The piece was the shortest in the set, but perhaps the most memorable-- a clean, poignant portrait of a classic tune and an homage to talented, honest composition. A melody, Mehldau seemed to suggest, that is enough on its own.
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Alone on stage, Mehldau too was enough. His most recent album, Highway Rider, the first reunion with producer Brion since Largo, is a fascinating tapestry of two-part melodies, played with Joshua Redman, Matt Chamberlain, Jeff Ballard and Larry Grenadier. But Tuesday night was a self-portrait. In one of the most intimate venues in the city, with a roomful of attentive California fans, Mehldau gave us the music that we once loved and still hold dear, songs that at some point we moved beyond, but never forgot, in a language that challenges and tests us and is unabashedly expressive. This must be the place.
[Thanks to Max Wrightson for his thoughts about this review.]