Jazz writers have long been comparing the (relatively) young pianist Brad Mehldau to the seasoned titan Keith Jarrett. And as is the case with many huge, sweeping comparisons, the truth tends to be a little on the grey side. Mehldau, like Jarrett, likes to take the stage with nothing but a grand piano and dazzle an audience with lengthy improvisations. But when you look at the content of these improvisations, the Mehldau/Jarrett comparison falls flat. Keith Jarrett likes to summon large scale works on the fly. No prior theme, no title (sometimes named after the city where the performance took place) he lets the music tumble from his head down to his fingers (and sometimes out his mouth) in real time.
He has time for covers, but they need to be traditional ones. Jarrett has no time for pop music or stuff recorded with too much technological aid. Brad Mehldau on the other hand will pluck a cover from any source. He’ll cover the Beatles, Radiohead, Cole Porter, Nick Drake, and his own originals in a solo setting, anything to get his improvisational skills to bound from the seesaw and pop some balloons near the ceiling. If this is how you prefer your listening experience, if you enjoyed prior Mehldau live albums like Live in Tokyo or Live in Marciac, then you are in luck with 10 Years Solo Live. It’s a four-CD/eight-record box set highlighting five hours’ worth of the pianist’s solo improvisations recorded over a ten-year period. And over the course of the box’s 32 tracks, only one song appears twice.
The sequencing of the music is all over the place. If we are to trust Mehldau’s judgment on the matter, then he’s got a method to his madness. Each disc receives its own little subtitle, with the second one generically named “The Concert”. Mehldau insists that the eight tunes on that disc are arranged “in a sequence similar to that I would perform a single concert in 2010-11.” He has the years correct, but the songs come from five different shows throughout Europe. The third disc is called “Intermezzo/Rückblick” because “Brahms’ Intermezzo movement was a look back at what had taken place in his Sonata before moving to the final movement.
Here the listener is invited to look back to music that was recorded ten or more years ago, in 2004 and 2005.” In case you were wondering, yes he covers Brahms’ “Intermezzo in B-flat major, Op. 76: No. 4” on that disc. The first and last discs are named “Dark / Light” and “E Minor / E Major” respectively, just some more instances where we should all just take Brad Mehldau’s word for it when selecting broad themes. It’s not every day that a jazz pianist jumps from Pink Floyd to the Verve to Brahms to Stone Temple Pilots before landing on the Beach Boys on one single disc, so if they all revolve around some form of the key of E, then why not sequence them that way?
10 Years Solo Live begins with the “Dark / Light” sequence, seeking to juggle bright music with its gloomier brethren. Jeff Buckley’s “Dream Brother” goes first, featuring a melody better sung out loud than played on a piano. “Dream Brother” is offset by the Beatles’ “Blackbird”, which is then offset by a tense reading of Radiohead’s “Jigsaw Falling into Place”, which barrels forward at a simmering full speed for close to 12 minutes. “The Concert” seems designed to show off Mehldau’s musical tastes, pitting old standards like “I’m Old Fashioned” and “Get Happy” next to Nirvana, Massive Attack, more Radiohead (“Knives Out” is featured on the second and third discs) and three of his own originals. When Mehldau invites you to look back on the third disc, you’ll find Paul McCartney, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane and the aforementioned Brahms’ piece (a different Intermezzo can be heard on the final disc).
Brad Mehldau’s playing is highly ornate and lyrical. After securing the melody and harmony, he goes the extra mile by filling the available space with dazzling arpeggiated flourishes played with Wakemanian proficiency. When pulls back the tempo, as he does for “I’m Old Fashioned”, a cover of the Beatles’ “And I Love Her” and the beginning of his own “Waltz for J. B.”, he creates a thoughtfully-hushed atmosphere comparable to Jarrett’s fatigue-laced The Melody at Night With You.
To say that these moments capture Mehldau in a vulnerable light is misleading. That gives the impression that he doesn’t have a strong command over what’s happening. But all you have to do it take a step back and realize that he has total control. Over the course of 31 different songs recorded over a ten year stretch and totaling over 300 minutes, Mehldau maintains his focus on the music and never allows ego to do any dictation. You can think of this box set’s music as a fountain. It’s not there to show off the designer’s intellect and it’s not there to remind you of mechanics or hydrodynamics. It’s a spring for your enjoyment. And like the most effortlessly beautiful cascades around, 10 Years Solo Live can easily spellbind you.