In the liner notes for his first collaboration with Brad Mehldau, guitarist Pat Metheny described how he first heard of the pianist. He was talking with saxophonist Joshua Redman one day and Redman couldn’t say enough good things about this young pianist he had just discovered. Metheny claims that later, while driving in his car, he heard Mehldau’s piano work on the track “Chill” from Redman’s album Moodswing. Too overwhelmed to continue driving, Metheny had to pull over and listen.
As the years rolled along, Brad Mehldau became even more accomplished. He collaborated with Metheny twice, returned to Redman’s camp to lend a hand yet again, collaborated with an opera star and an electronic musician, all while managing a prolific career both as a trio leader and as a solo pianist. Though they have collaborated only occasionally through the years, Mehldau and Redman have remained good friends as well as equal peers. Nearness is the result of a 2011 European tour where the two of them performed as a duet each night, and it’s hard to describe the effects of the music without getting overly maudlin or poetic. “It’s like one of those friendships where you don’t see someone for a long stretch, and then you fall right back where you left off,” is how Mehldau describes his time with Redman. They’re a bit like a faucet: turn it on, and out comes the water—no fuss, no drama.
No, Nearness isn’t as boring as a faucet. If you enjoyed the lyricism of the Metheny/Mehldau collaboration, then know that Mehldau is tuned into a similar vein when he’s playing alongside a saxophone. Two of the six cuts, “Always August” and “Old West”, are Mehldau originals where he truly lets his inner George Winston shine (that’s a compliment) in all its metropolitan luster. Redman wrote “Mehlsancholoy Mode”, a playful blues number that allows its author to glide effortlessly on long tones. But even when he’s playing multiple notes, as he does on Charlie Parker’s “Ornithology”, Redman remains a remarkably smooth, precise player. For his part, Mehldau can get boppy when the moment calls for it, as on the Thelonious Monk standard “In Walked Bud”. Space is left for one ballad, the album’s sort-of namesake in Hoagy Carmichael’s “The Nearness of You”. It’s also the album’s longest track (among a sea of long tracks—six of them in 73 minutes), giving Mehldau plenty of space to stretch in the first two minutes. When Redman enters with the melody, he sounds at first far too respectful, as if he’s sorry for interrupting his partner. As “The Nearness of You” rolls along, Redman gains a bit more steam and volume, dipping into lower-register honks one minute and then climbing the top heights of his scale the next.
After such long and varied careers, musicians like Mehldau and Redman don’t really need an album like Nearness to help boost their stature or cement their legacy. In fact, you could get away with saying that they don’t need to prove anything at all at this point. But jazz is a genre that is often renowned for its maverick ways and its intrepid attitude toward exploration. Every once in a while, it’s nice to be reminded that jazz can also celebrate telepathic friendships and the healing of the listener.