The sleeve notes to Progression aren’t going to do much for jazz’s reputation as too highbrow for its own good consisting, as they do, of a long, densely argued and heavily Foucauldian essay. Its theme is the relationship between Music and Language and it attacks, among other things, the supposed autonomy of the former. It does so, in that unwieldy Cultural Studies way, against Elitism and in the name of Democracy. Quite what the purpose of this is I cannot conceive but as the CD format renders the type almost too small to read it hardly matters. The Death of the Author is taken seriously enough in that no one is credited with this innovation—one I seriously hope does not catch on. I presume Mehldau himself is behind the piece. If so it is by some miles the least of his talents. Incidentally, I hope he realises the damage done to the cause of the arts—popular or otherwise—by critical work based on Discourse Theory and other legacies of the post-1968 school of anti-humanist critics.
Fortunately, the music more than makes up for this folly. I would say that it speaks for itself but the whole purpose of the essay is to disprove such transcendent, romantic tosh. Whatever, it gives a passing imitation of eloquence and communicativeness, bourgeois constructs though they be. Seven albums into his career and Mehldau is now at the top of his game. Less daunting than anything his CV (let alone his liner writing) might suggest, Progression offers over two hours of keyboard improvisation at the highest level.
Almost equally divided between self-penned numbers and standards, nothing here serves to diminish the growing suspicion that Mehldau may well be the most significant piano talent to emerge in recent years. His mastery of both the slowest and the most speedy of tempos, his ease with the trickiest of time signatures (plenty of 7/8 and 7/4 pieces to marvel at) and an unusual freedom in the left hand have been duly noted and rightly praised. All these treats are here in abundance but it is his take on other people’s material that impresses particularly on this date. There is nobody currently playing who interprets standards quite so beautifully, creatively and logically. He does not tear them apart in the normal post-Coleman fashion but seems to be able to analyse and tease out hitherto unexplored possibilities in even the most familiar tune. It is a remarkable talent and, for me, is a greater gift than his, not inconsiderable, compositional prowess.
The other, and equally significant facet, of this way with the re-routing of material is that Mehldau is able to extend the range of what is available to the jazz repertoire. Pop and rock have had a fairly sorry recent history in the hands of jazz players—not least in the work of Mehldau’s former employer, Joshua Redman. Incredibly Mehldau has the knack of choosing the right tunes or, more probably, is just able to adapt almost anything to a jazz treatment. The selections are refreshingly different and, initially at least, the performance’s highlights. No surprise that Nick Drake’s melancholy “River Man” makes a good impression, Andy Bey showed the way on that one. “Cry Me a River” has also been visited with success, notably by Gene Harris, but who would have thought “Secret Love” would yield such riches? Not even Sly Stone got the tune to work for him as fully as Mehldau does.
When we get to more obvious evergreens the results are just as striking. “It Might As Well Be Spring” is taken at furious pace but retains all its charm while “The Folks Who Live on the Hill” has all its tweeness removed and all the intricacy of its structure carefully elaborated. If this all sounds like a very technical exercise, it does not come across as such. True, Mehldau is not the most expressive, heart-on-his-sleeve player but there is real affection in his readings and a sense of exhilaration in the discovery of new avenues to stroll along.
Comparisons, which apparently he resents, have been made with his work and that of Keith Jarrett and Bill Evans. The Jarrett I can’t see at all, but on the slower numbers it is Evans he most readily recalls. However, there is a cheekiness in approach and a power on the uptempo jams that sets Mehldau at some distance from jazz’s foremost piano introvert. This live performance is recorded at the Village Vanguard, the scene of Evans’ 1961 triumphs, so the drawing up of a balance sheet is hard to avoid. The pluses are by no means all on Evans’ side. Also, for all its complexity, Progression is as easy to listen to as plenty of concerts with a fraction of its ambition. “Secret Love” remains “Secret Love” but you no longer feel guilty for liking it. This is no mean achievement.
Larry Grenadier (bass) and Jorge Rossy (drums) make up the trio. They are adequate to the task but I can’t say I really noticed them. The star is certainly Mehldau and it is no exaggeration to say that the two hours you spend in his company fly past. Don’t let the hype around Mehldau put you off; it is a more orthodox set than some jazz fans will claim. Nobody who is comfortable with mainstream piano stylings from Tatum onwards will find anything here off-putting. There are few weak patches and if I have ignored the pianist’s own tunes it is not that they are substandard at all, just that the “covers” have a rare appeal. Extended listening would, I suspect, show him to have a major contribution to make in the writing area. “Dream’s Monk” is a good candidate for further investigation. A tribute to Thelonious—that is segued into from a dynamic version of “The More I See You” to make twenty minutes of jazz magic—it contains as many twists and turns as a classic mystery yarn.
Piano trios are a staple of jazz history. Forget the Foucault and the attempt to turn Mehldau into a rarefied Post-Modernist. He is very much of our time but mainly he is an unusually accomplished player who brings out elements in songs that you hoped, but barely believed, could be there. In that, he is the latest in a distinguished line that stretches back to Earl Hines and probably beyond.