On six albums spanning seven years, Brad Mehldau and his trio have provided the modern jazz groundwork that the Bad Plus has been building a fan base upon. Mehldau, teamed with Jorge Rossy and Larry Grenadier, were covering Nick Drake and Radiohead before it became hip to re-contextualize Nirvana, Blondie, or Black Sabbath.
But then, Mehldau has always appeared as something of a literary theorist, both figuratively and literally. With his music and his writing, he has been the harbinger of new concepts and yet so transfixed on the theory that the applications aren’t completely contemplated. Looking at the liner notes for the majority of the Art of the Trio releases, Mehldau has a firm knowledge of post-structural, post-colonial, and post-modern theories. For the first trio volume, he retranslated a passage from Thomas Mann’s “Doctor Faustus” into a jazz context through which to discuss humor and metaphor, irony and sincerity.
On the two-CD set Progression, Mehldau made like Jacques Derrida, and started a circuitous discussion on the notion of “live”. Connotations and denotations stressed as he searched for the deconstructionist flaw to blow the whole recording and everything he had done to bits. Some of the logic strained, the concept of the cogito arguably too tenuous, and Mehldau’s discourse dubiously began to besmirch what was more important: his music.
However, these prolix perorations, which consumed his liner notes, deftly approximated his playing. As great and complimentary as Grenadier and Rossy were, Mehldau sounded transfixed upon excess, on overplaying. A sweet moving lullaby would become an overblown epic, while something like Radiohead’s “Exit: Music” served as a vehicle for cinematic cloying and montages upon montages of meandering moping.
Brilliance and beauty existed, but too often it sounded as though Mehldau tried too hard, like the neophyte caught between music theory and simply playing—the same difficult, coming of melodic age which Bill Evans went through only to find personal internal peals and follow them. Call it maturity, the move to LA, a new child, all of the above or none of the above, but maybe Mehldau has found the same “flame” as Keith Jarrett and Miles Davis called it; or maybe it’s Derrida’s all-elusive cogito.
Because beginning with 2002’s experimental solo album Largo, which purged some of his rock interests, then extending to a recent duet album, Don’t Explain, with Joel Frahm on saxophone, Mehldau has shown a strong focus upon the melody rather than individual notes. Now on the trio’s latest release, Anything Goes, this has been further and more dutifully developed.
Ironically, given Mehldau’s literary theory leanings, the opening “Get Happy” spells out the change in both its appellation and mellifluous moving. Mehldau, bulwarked by his bass and drums partners, stretches the melody, playing with space and measures. There is more of a concerted effort to entertain the silence, to open up the improvisational framework rather than going on a hell-bent tangent to push it in a general direction. It’s a sound, a style really, vaguely similar to Keith Jarrett’s trio recordings with some of Ahmad Jamal’s percussiveness augmenting the hushed melisma.
More importantly, Mehldau doesn’t sacrifice the dissonance, the strange, off-kilter block chords, which has become his trademark. However, he uses them sparingly, turning the middle of Radiohead’s “Everything in Its Right Place” into a poignant Lorca ode. In the distance, in some Venetian square, a dancer spins, and her internal turmoil now becomes public knowledge. The spectators shake their heads, captured by the beauty as well as the energy itself manifesting the spin.
Then with a slam, Mehldau has her drop, breathlessly on her back, staring at the clouds with the gentle melody of the standard “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” playing. The standard now describes a mental or visceral state and doesn’t become a launching point for aleatoric impulses and excessive piano gymnastics. Its meaning is reconsidered not based on what “could” be done, but on what notions the melody has been concealing.
That could be the most patent difference between this release and Mehldau’s past releases. The eight standards float seamlessly into the Paul Simon and Radiohead covers, the energy and melodic sophistication linking the ten tracks together, the melody countermanding everything else. In the beginning, Mehldau attracted followers by hinting at this kind of correlation, now it appears he can truly articulate his contention without the need for a lengthy liner note essay muddling the music/melody.
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