Brad Mehldau Trio: Ode

A fine trio returns to recording with a book of alive, searching original tunes.

Brad Mehldau Trio


Label: Nonesuch
US Release Date: 2012-03-20
UK Release Date: 2012-03-19

Piano, bass, and drums. In modern jazz, that is the pedestal, the bandstand, the foundation. A million bands build from there, and a million bands play pretty much the same way.

But the seemingly infinite number of rhythm sections in jazz has also produced a flowering of variety and subtlety, from the crashing swirl of Matthew Shipp’s trio to the elegant intelligence of Bill Charlap’s trio to the daring momentum of the Vijay Iyer Trio. The Brad Mehldau Trio of 2012 is a custom-made band that stands with the best -- a collective with a distinct voice, a scintillating knack for conversation, and set of playful compositions to work from.

This band recorded Day Is Done in 2005 at a time when Jeff Ballard was the new drummer, joining bassist Larry Grenadier in keeping time. That set, rich in rock-era covers and melody, was also a part of a wave of jazz playing that was positioning the music closer to not only the rock repertoire but also a rock sensibility of melody and momentum. Not that the band was playing "jazz" on Day Is Done, but the performances seemed less conceived in terms of themes and improvisations. Like The Bad Plus and many several other contemporary piano trios, this was a fine approach to a shifting tradition.

Ode is a more traditional jazz record than Day Is Done in that it features concise themes and long improvisations, with brilliant rhythmic play running throughout the trio’s incredible dialogue. It’s a high-wire act in the grand piano trio tradition, a clear heir to the likes of Bud Powell and Bill Evans and McCoy Tyner and in league with some of the recent quicksilver work from the mature Chick Corea. It’s hardly old-fashioned, but it’s perhaps a more mature, solid piece of work. And it’s fantastic.

Mehldau will never seem like just another pianist, so it seems just fine that Ode has no particular gimmick. His playing is dashingly original by its very nature. Toward the end of the opening track, "M.B.", for instance, Mehldau’s fiery solo becomes a duel between his left hand and right, each of which plays alternating single-note runs that develop naturally from the existing left-hand accompaniment. On "Twiggy", one of his crystalline modern themes with a Latin feel, Mehldau plays it light and melodic, much like a pianistic Pat Metheny, but then spins the simple solo into something more ornate and intricate, the runs becoming faster and knottier over time. Imagination and technique jigsaw together when Mehldau plays.

The straight-ahead side of Ode may be best represented by “Stan the Man”, a fast theme that starts with punched chords and then moves into a boppish theme stated by both hands playing together in octaves. Quick as can be, the band is off to the races, with Mehldau so lickety-split fast and clear that it is remarkable how coherent the thinking is amidst the improvisation. The chord changes he and Grenadier negotiate in their solos come right out of Tin Pan Alley, but they abstract them to create a thoroughly modern sound.

But Ode has a more modern, and highly appealing, side as well. Several of Mehldau’s originals are pleasingly built around pulsing rhythmic patterns that move with great momentum. The title track, "Ode", almost sounds like a Reich or Glass composition at first, built around thrumming eighth notes and a melody that passes from one register to another. "Twiggy" uses a syncopated pattern in triple meter that locks into a pseudo-samba groove from Ballard and a kalimba-type pattern from Grenadier. It’s a very dancing groove, and it lends itself to a delightful feeling of conversation, again, between the pianist’s two hands. As Mehldau’s improvising right hand spins candy in the upper registers, he keeps up a simple but evolving set of alternations in his left hand that get more daring over time. And "Aquaman" is another theme that rides atop a pulsing groove that shifts aptly into fast swing as the trio sees fit.

Ode has a down-home personality as well. "Bee Blues" is a cracked theme that ambles drunkenly over a hip set of blues harmonies. Grenadier takes the first solo, sounding like an old-fashioned player with nothing but pleasure on his mind, and then Mehldau fashions a solo that is filled with open space and is immune to cliché, a constant back-and-forth with Ballard, who is listening to every note and commenting with wit and clarity. "Kurt Vibe" uses a descending minor pattern over a clattered backbeat to set up a compelling combination of funk and harmonic movement.

Finally, Mehldau is still a strong ballad player and composer. "Wyatt’s Eulogy for George Hanson" is a stately and tempo-less theme that gives the trio a vast landscape for exploration, allowing for free improvisation from each player. Mehldau again uses both hands almost independently to create melodic tension and conversation that loops around and intersects with Grenadier’s own free-wheeling bass lines and Ballard’s daring mallet work. If a eulogy is a portrait of a life, a timeline perhaps, then this incredible improvisation fits perfectly, rising and falling like an epic film.

Ode itself does not reach for epic dimension often, and that’s cool. It seems less like a manifesto or a film than like a very fine jazz album. Though the leading jazz pianists today are making lots of impressive statements about where the music is going, maybe creating a compelling album, old school, is still one of the music’s clearest callings. Ode fits the bill.






A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.


Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.


Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.


The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.


Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.


Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.


Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.


'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.


Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.


Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.


Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.


The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.