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.