Brad Mehldau, piano
Larry Grenadier, bass
Jeff Ballard, drums
I first saw Mehldau at Jazz Alley in 2004. I think at that time he had only two records out, and hadn’t become a jazz household name by thenSince that time, Mehldau has become a reasonable celebrity, mostly because of his transcription of pop material into jazz. Hearing “Black Hole Sun” for many is welcome and warm entry point into the world of jazz music. But while his oeuvre includes Radiohead and Jimi Hendrix, it’s important to point out the affect he has on the “serious” jazz crowd as well, by taking some of these examples to challenging extremes.
Mehldau’s show tonight was a solid mix of the pop pedestrian vs. the complex musician, and there couldn’t hardly have been a disappointed audience member hearing McCartney and The Beach Boys thrown into drummer Jeff Ballard’s wind turbine of electrifying drumming. Mehldau seems to have become more of a legato player, and less of the “fill the space” soloists of other jazz pianists of our time such as Joey Calderazzo or Chick Corea. He’s more like Kenny Barron, or a more accurate example would be Fred Hersch, with whom Mehldau trainedin 1988.
For as beautiful as his playing is, and as stable as Larry Grenadier’s bass playing holds it all together, Jeff Ballard stole the show tonight. Jeff worked overtime, perhaps overworked overtime, as to the layman it would sound like a drummer working too hard. But Ballard’s playing is technically balanced alongside his taste in choosing the right patterns, and it complemented Mehldau’s lyrical style near perfectly. These are three men that have played together for almost 10 years; It’s almost becoming routine to stretch each other out, and stop at the light while the other tears through the intersection. It was Ballard’s turn tonight.
For as much as Jeff Ballard provided the pressure cooker, bassist Larry Grenadier held the entire project in place with stable footing. Grenadier is not as much a technical bassist as much as he is a metronome; He keeps Mehldau and Ballard in conversation together without speaking too loudly to interrupt.
The set list on paper seemed simple: The band started with a Paul McCartney tune entitled “Great Day.” Great Day is a terrific piece to play as jazz. Open, and melodic, it allows for freedom to all musicians to explore the range and depth of the tune. It’s ostinato style progression lends well to a Bill Evans block solo style of playing. Mehldau is not really an Evans style of player, however, and instead is sparse with his left hand, and uses a lot more emphasis on individual tones in his solos.
The second tune in the set was The Beach Boys’ “Friends,” but what really caught the ear was Mehldau’s rendition of the Beatle’s “And I Love Her.” Mehldau turned it into a beautiful ballad, and it’s hard now to go back and compare it to the Beatles version.
Charlie Parker’s classic “Dexterity” was after that, which the group pretty much played straight-ahead bop. Although a bit more technically interesting, it seemed out of place in this McCartney/Beatles/Beach Boys/Keith Jarrett inspired set, and seemed thrown in to prove “that we’re still jazz artists.” No matter. It’s a terrific piece, and the trio has obviously been playing this complicated be-bop example for some time.
The next tune, of which he didn’t say the name, is an original he’s “working on.” Complex and contrapuntal, it had an interesting sound and time signature. Again, Jeff Ballard’s playing style stole the moment, and besides losing his place pretty much hit one out of the park.
Also in the set list was Paul McCartney’s lesser-known and newer tune “My Valentine.” This tune was released off McCartney’s “Kisses On The Bottom” 2012 release. It’s an interesting choice. It reminds me of a soundtrack to a 70’s French movie. As jazz it had an interesting feel. It’s progression is straight McCartney with interlocking major to minor switching, and loads of secondary dominants. A tad depressing, Mehldau quipped how almost all valentine songs are downtrodden, although he was sure there were some examples that aren’t. I know I can’t think of any.
The band came out for a single encore, Sufjan Stevens’ “Holland,” from Mehldau’s 2012 release “Where Do You Start.” A beautiful piece mostly featuring Grenadier.
Mehldau has a little something for everybody, and is highly recommended to capture live. Whether Jeff Ballard’s explosive performance or Mehldau’s lyrical interpretation of Beatle’s classics, It’s a performance worth hearing.