Brad Mehldau Trio
, live at Vicar Street
Something I had forgotten, until about halfway through the first set, is that Mehldau approaches improvisation not from a pure jazz tradition but from a hybrid that’s strongly informed by classical. It’s just then that I missed the element of swing and sophisticated blues that you get with the purists. Which is not to say the Trio is anything less than an improvisational force, in fact, it’s improvisation on a level of rhythmic acuity I haven’t seen in a long time. Precise chops, absolute sharp syncopation on the breaks, and free extension of fills. And always improvised on an ensemble-level, not just backing/solo, backing/solo. Everyone’s ‘on’ most of the time except at the start and return to chorus, but always damn tight. Sometimes with jazz virtuosos you get the feeling that solos can break into real subjectivity and complex meaning; with the Trio I got the feeling that the expressive range of solos didn’t quite matter as much as the tight group dynamics. There were some great solos, but I got kicks just listening to their precise timing. If swing’s not yer bag, then rhythm’s still key.
Actually, I have been meaning to write more about Brad, but haven’t balanced the time/resources equation very well. I gave the Tokyo solo concert a good listen (and from the next room it sounds clearly keyed by classical ears) and loved the Nick Drake tracks, and LaunchCast turned me onto Brad in the first place (especially with his Anything Goes album) without giving me the overall sense of Brad as musician and composer/interpreter. But I’ve lacked download/purchase resources to invest in more of his works, and really investigate his line. He sounds like an interesting and open chap in interviews
So then, Brad strikes an interesting balance between hard-core improv stuff with the band, that is, his original compositions; and cover-interpretations. You just can’t call them ‘covers’ in the sense of the Tijuana Brass Orchestra doing schmaltzy pop-orchestra facsimiles — Brad does Interpretations. The chorus melody and structure are vaguely there, but the music within the chords is opened up much more; at times, it seems the structure is being improvised alltogether. And extended, stretched and freely elevated rhythmically, until you’re left with a hybrid that is part meditation on form and part displacement (wider, ever wider) of boundaries. So, you have Black Hole Sun
served up Brad style (which I’d now really like to see Necks style), She’s Leaving Home
, Nick Drake’s Day is Done
, and Knives Out
, amongst newer compositions.
On the level of musicianship though, I’d kill to have 5% of the ability these guys have. To have such chops and work together so well… and for it not to be pure (restrictive) jazz whilst improvising on an ensemble level, is quite something. It’s jazz but-not-jazz; an interesting evolutionary branch on the tree of improvised music.
Admittedly, my attention flagged sometimes, but the reactive thoughts were just as interesting. The audience was mostly middle-aged but extremely well-behaved (no ringtones, no yack) and quirky like all jazz audiences (hair-wise). Brad is a humble and genuine player, posture perfect, attentive. Some of his crossed-hands techniques looked decidedly classical. His shirt was fly. The sound was pretty good for Vicar Street, probably because the volume was much lower. Drummer Jeff Ballard was rich on chops and variety and amazingly consistent/tight changes, but almost a little too frenetic for my taste. It still worked on the group level though. Larry Grenadier
did some hot solos and the fastest walking lines since the 50s. I wish we had slightly better seats to appreciate his sound; the PA wasn’t perfect on that score. Larry really anchors the band.
And now I gotta check out Brad’s new album.