Brad Mehldau might be a bit overlooked these days, with the field of jazz pianists who are taking the music into the future so rich and crowded. Robert Glasper brings hip hop to the acoustic jazz piano, Jason Moran fractures the art while bringing it back together, and Vijay Iyer seems to be shuffling a deck of classical minimalism, funk, and modernism. There are plenty more (Marc Cary, Aaron Parks, John Medeski, Ethan Iverson . . .), on and on it goes.
Mehldau, alas, usually gets an opening line about how he was the guy who started playing Radiohead covers with his jazz trio, and then . . . But that’s too simple and utterly unfair. He is bolder than that (check out his recent recording and tours with drummer Mark Guiliana — and now with John Scofield aboard — playing electric keyboards in an electronica-meets-jazz landscape), more authentic than that (as a master of “traditional” modern jazz harmony and phrasing), and more influential than that too. His career, a quarter century rich, has earned the utmost respect.
Mehldau is arguably a more subtle artist than other contemporary jazz piano stars. Mostly, his “orchestra” is that most standard of jazz formats: the piano trio with bass and drums. And he loves to play with a relaxed swing that could be mistaken for something you heard 50 years ago. He works within the tradition reasonably often, moving it with his own impulses and intelligence.
Mehldau’s latest, Blues and Ballads, is particularly sneaky — and particularly rich. Four of the seven tunes are old standards: three ballads taken at languorous tempos as ballads or in a Latin style, and Charlie Parker’s bebop blues, “Cheryl”, played here at hip mid-tempo. Another two are tunes by Paul McCartney (“And I Love Her” and his more recent “My Valentine” from his 2012 standards album Kisses on the Bottom). The last is “Little Person”, written by former Mehldau producer Jon Brion for the Charlie Kaufman movie Synechdoche, New York and recently emerging as a new standard (covered, for instance, by signer and guitarist Camila Meza on her latest).
The repertoire here, then, creeps up on you. Mehldau and his longstanding trio (with Larry Grenadier on bass and drummer Jeff Ballard) play with a preternatural relaxation and ease throughout, often using a subtle Latin feeling. There is an incredible amount of space within the center of these performances, and those gaps and silences, those pauses between notes and beats, open up huge possibilities that the musicians fill with imagination.
“There Foolish Things”, for example, begins with a kind of modesty. Mehldau plays the melody, single-note style, with his right hand, he chords with his left, and Ballard swings with brushes over fat Grenadier tones. After the bridge, Mehldau brings back the main melody in his left hand, though, a little variation not nothing really unusual — but then the band suspends tempo and the rhythm section cuts out. Solo, Mehldau breaks down the old standard in a beautiful manner that hews to the form but moves without set tempo. It breathes freely, and Mehldau puts the melody all across the piano, inserting new counterlines where he likes them, and toward the end of the 32-bar structure drifts into a lovely harmonic exploration that leads to a conclusion. It’s no revolution, but recasts our expectations of a jazz trio performance.
The opener, “Since I Fell For You”, gets a more soulful treatment — it’s not a blues but is drenched in a Ray Charles backbeat feeling from the start. It’s delirious with feeling and fun. About halfway through the performance, Mehldau gets into a “locked hands” portion of this solo that then spins upward into a gospel-fueled climax. The theme returns and it seems we’re done, but then Mehldau is solo here too, but this time rather than following the form of the tune, he explores just one motif from the melody abstractly, turning it over and over, first in the lower range of his instrument and then increasingly up high. Eventually he finds the whole melody again in the upper reaches, and finally the trio returns to get funky on a two-chord vamp that takes us home.
“Cheryl” isn’t quite the fleet bop-blues you might be expecting — it is mid-tempo with Ballard kind of knocking around the melody before smoothing everything into a hip clang-a-lang swing after the bass solo. The floating Latin version of “I Concentrate on You” is sunny and then knotty, with harmonies crossing back and forth to make the tune feel quite modern. The piano solo seems to wander out of a the form eventually — or at least I lost track of the flow of the standard harmonies and felt they were elongated in some way. On both of these tunes, the main point is simply how melodically ingenious Mehldau is as he invents over tune’s form. There is a little surprise every bar or two if you listen actively. And you should.
“Little Person” is the miniature of this set, an ear worm of a theme that Mehldau states soberly, solo, and then sets up for a truly singing Larry Grenadier solo. As this tune inches toward being a standard, this may be its first jazz trio treatment.
The two McCartney tunes are more tense, sober things. “And I Loved Her” unspools with a lurking menace. The tune’s famous minor-major shifts are unsettling here, and Mehldau emphasizes the mystery in the way he phrases the melody just as Ballard’s cymbal work creates a contrast of steady pulses that drive it all forward. The song doesn’t “swing” but instead develops from bubbling bluesiness to an insistent momentum. “Blue Valentine” immediately follows it, and it deepens the blues feeling. Mehldau ends the recording with one more solo piano cadenza, and this one is the most impressive of all — almost it’s own small composition that works from the mood of the McCartney song rather than its structure.
Again, the trio returns for a vamp. And, again, it seems like you could keep listening to these two chords forever as the band spins a wealth of creativity out of the simplicity of form but the depth of feeling. Which seems like a perfect summation of Blues and Ballads.
With few pyrotechnic moments and only bit of reshuffling of the forms of these excellent songs, the Brad Mehldau Trio reminds us of how jazz continues to address serious emotions and great pop tunes at the same time. The argument for “jazz” in this era — an era of diminishing album sales and live audiences for the art form — is that it remains the place where timeless musical “art” and the pop artifacts of more recent culture get to play together. No one does with as much subtle excellence as Brad Mehldau.