THE DOZENS: TWELVE ESSENTIAL BRAD MEHLDAU PERFORMANCES by Ted Gioia

Few jazz musicians in recent years have put together a more exciting and innovative body of work than Brad Mehldau. And his innovations are all the more striking when one considers that they have been developed in the most conventional of jazz environments—a piano trio playing popular songs. I have offered elsewhere my considered views of Brad Mehldau’s contributions, and attempted to assess his oeuvre at mid-career. Here I highlight twelve of his more interesting performances and point out some of the distinguishing characteristics that set this pianist, and his group, apart from the crowd.


Brad Mehldau: It Might As Well Be Sprng

Track

It Might As Well Be Spring

Artist

Brad Mehldau (piano)

CD

Introducing Brad Mehldau (Warner Bros 45997)

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Musicians:

Brad Mehldau (piano), Larry Grenadier (bass), Jorge Rossy (drums).

Composed by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein

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Recorded: New York, March 13 and April 3, 1995

Albumcoverintroducingbradmehldau

Rating: 88/100 (learn more)

In this debut trio recording, Mehldau stays in a straight-ahead groove. The later Art of the Trio recordings would take more chances, with their rhythmic pyrotechnics and the trademark left-versus-right-hand counterpoint that Mehldau does so well. But the trio swings with elegant drive on this Richard Rodgers' standard, and the pianist's improvised lines sparkle. Grenadier and Rossy support rather than challenge, and the whole performance stands out for its understated fluency. A promising debut with intimations of the riches to come.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Brad Mehldau: I Didn't Know What Time It Was

Track

I Didn't Know What Time It Was

Artist

Brad Mehldau (piano)

CD

The Art of the Trio, volume 1 (Warner Bros.9 46260-2)

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Musicians:

Brad Mehldau (piano), Larry Grenadier (bass), Jorge Rossy (drums).

Composed by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart

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Recorded: Los Angeles, September 4 & 5, 1996

Albumcoverbmehldautrio1_

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

You may not know what time it is either. But count along, you will pick up the 5/4 groove—very nicely played by the Mehldau trio. A punning reference to the name of the song, perhaps? And while we're talking about names: how daring to call your recording the "art of the trio"! — especially for a 26-year-old performer still at an early stage of his career as combo leader. But the Mehldau-Grenadier-Rossy triumvirate lives up to the claims of the name. This trio would continue to expand its musical vocabulary over the next several years, but even in 1996 it demanded respect as one of the finest bands in jazz. All the right ingredients are here: precociously smart but also swinging and emotionally aware. Highly recommended.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Brad Mehldau: I Fall in Love Too Easily

Track

I Fall In Love Too Easily

Artist

Brad Mehldau (piano)

CD

The Art of the Trio, volume 1

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Musicians:

Brad Mehldau (piano), Larry Grenadier (bass), Jorge Rossy (drums).

Composed by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne

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Recorded: Los Angeles, September 4 and 5, 1996

Albumcoverbmehldautrio1_

Rating: 93/100 (learn more)

Brad Mehldau's first Art of the Trio recording from 1996 includes some of the most romantic playing of his career. This artist sometimes veers into cerebral territory, offering up multi-layered performances that I dig, but that I would be more likely to recommend to musicians than to casual fans. But this track comes straight from the heart - one of those hear-a-pin-drop ballads that sends a hush over the nightclub, and even gets the burly bouncer at the door teary-eyed. In his later recordings, the pianist has tended to cram more content into his solos, and one fears that the constant comparisons with Bill Evans (to which Mehldau has vehemently objected) has perhaps led him to build ever more impressive superstructures into his trio performances. But this wistful song shows that Mehldau can create tremendous drama and emotion with a stark and simple immersion into the feeling space of the composition.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Joshua Redman (featuring Brad Mehldau): Summertime

Track

Summertime

Group

Joshua Redman (with Brad Mehldau)

CD

Timeless Tales (for Changing Times) (Warner Brothers 47052)

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Musicians:

Joshua Redman (tenor sax), Brad Mehldau (piano), Larry Grenadier (bass), Brian Blade (drums).

Composed by George Gershwin & DuBose Heyward

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Recorded: New York, no date given (CD released in 1998)

Albumcoverjoshuaredman-timelesstalesforchangingtimes

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

Summertime . . . and the fish are jumpin' in 5/4 time. From Sidney Bechet to Kenny G, saxophonists have delighted in rebuilding Gershwin's plaintive lullaby into various jazz configurations. But this is perhaps the most ambitious transformation I have yet heard of the popular standard. Mehldau has proven in other settings how skilled he is at unusual time signatures, and this recording is no exception. Check out the close of his solo where he quotes Gershwin's melody in the lower register, while pushing an insistent figure in the treble -- a great example of jazz multitasking. And Redman shows once again why he is considered one of the best soloists on the current scene. Grenadier and Blade also shine.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Brad Mehldau: Los Angeles II

Track

Los Angeles II

Artist

Brad Mehldau (piano)

CD

Places (Warner Brothers 47693)

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Musicians:

Brad Mehldau (piano).

Composed by Brad Mehldau

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Recorded: Mad Hatter Studios, Los Angeles, March 24 and 25, 2000

Albumcoverbmehldauplaces

Rating: 92/100 (learn more)

Brad Mehldau refuses to dumb it down for his audience. And I'm not talking about his references to Richard Rorty and Schopenhauer in the liner notes to this CD. Well, I am talking about them, but also about the music. "Los Angeles II" is as busy as the second runway at LAX -- perhaps that was where it was written -- but every note carries its full weight. Mehldau crafts a musical perpetual motion machine marked by rapidly evolving left-hand textures, dramatic variety in the harmonic structure, and a melody that starts out as a simple yearning motif but soon spirals into brave new patterns. Mehldau's right and left hands play a beguiling cat-and-mouse game, in which the bass always seems ready to pounce on the treble. A very intelligent composition played with the mastery we have come to expect from this extraordinary musician.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Brad Mehldau: River Man

Track

River Man

Artist

Brad Mehldau (piano)

CD

Live in Tokyo (Nonesuch 79853)

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Musicians:

Brad Mehldau (piano).

Composed by Nick Drake

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Recorded: Live at Sumida Triphony Hall, Tokyo, February 13, 2003

Albumcoverbmehldautokyo

Rating: 89/100 (learn more)

In some circles, Mehldau may be almost as influential for his repertoire as his pianism. He has done more than any other musician of his generation to expand the concept of jazz "standards" beyond the traditional confines of Gershwin and Tin Pan Alley. Because of him, Radiohead and Nick Drake are now part of the great jazz game. Mehldau has also recorded Drake's "River Man" in an exemplary trio version, but this solo piano outing from a Tokyo concert offers a different perspective. Mehldau opens with a soothing melody statement, his left hand reminiscent of the strumming of Drake's guitar. But the textures soon get thicker and his phrases more insistent. By mid-solo he is attacking the keyboard with booming chords, harsh and angry, more Wagnerian than Drake-ish. We still encounter Mehldau's trademark "conversation between the hands," but instead of crisscrossing melodies, his two fists are hurling large harmonies back and forth at each other. We have now come full circle from the moody romanticism of the first Art of the Trio recording. This is formidable pianism, brash and challenging.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Brad Mehldau: Martha My Dear

Track

Martha My Dear

Artist

Brad Mehldau (piano)

CD

Day Is Done (Nonesuch 79910)

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Musicians:

Brad Mehldau (piano).

Composed by Lennon/McCartney

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Recorded: New York, March 14, 2005

Albumcoverbmehldaudaydone

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

Paul McCartney doesn't get much credit as a pianist, but he builds very smart musical structures at the keyboard. Check out "Martha My Dear" from The White Album and admire Paul's fine harmonic motion and interesting left-hand action. But when it comes to left-hand action, Mehldau is the best since Smokin' Joe Fraizer threw that vicious southpaw hook back in the white-album-ish days of yore. Mehldau's sinister phalanges run amok in the bass clef, and his right is no slouch, by the way. Mehldau's counterpoint is invigorating, and this whole track shows not only his musicianship, but his conceptual brilliance.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Brad Mehldau: All the Things You Are

Track

All the Things You Are

Artist

Brad Mehldau (piano)

CD

Art of the Trio 4: Back at the Vanguard (Warner Brothers 9 4763-2)

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Musicians:

Brad Mehldau (piano), Larry Grenadier (bass), Jorge Rossy (drums).

Composed by Jerome Kern

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Recorded: Live at the Village Vanguard, New York, January 5-10, 1999

Albumcoverbradmehldau-artofthetrio4

Rating: 98/100 (learn more)

This is an impressive polyrhythmic exercise by a path-breaking jazz trio. I'm not sure non-musicians will savor all the twists and turns of the Mehldau trio in action. But anyone who has played in a rhythm section will be dazzled by this jumpy, jittery 13-minute performance. The trio's cohesiveness in navigating through a fast 7/4 reworking of this standard is especially impressive. In the liner notes, Mehldau complains about the "constant comparison of this trio with the Bill Evans trio." And he has a valid point. Mehldau's work here moves beyond the orbit of his influences—in particular, check out the dialogue between his left and right hands. Grenadier and Rossy also play at top form.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Brad Mehldau: Alfie

Track

Alfie

Artist

Brad Mehldau (piano)

CD

Day is Done (Nonesuch 79910)

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Musicians:

Brad Mehldau (piano), Larry Grenadier (bass), Jeff Ballard (drums).

Composed by Burt Bacharach

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Recorded: March 13, 2005

Albumcoverbmehldaudaydone

Rating: 92/100 (learn more)

One of the curses of jazz pianists is that they are forced to share their repertoire with cocktail lounge tinklers and elevator Muzak maestros. Some jazz musicians are so dismayed by this state of affairs that they refuse to play many of the best-known standards -- especially those composed after 1960 when hip chord changes became an endangered species. Most of them would rather work through Czerny backwards or play Hanon with mittens on before tainting their fingers with Bacharach or the Beatles. But Brad Mehldau plunges bravely into the world of pop tunes, playing more Bacharach than Bird, more McCartney than Monk. But he puts these songs through an exemplary purification rite, stripping them of the vapid flourishes and empty gestures that your local bar piano man might employ. The end result is a pristine "Alfie," beautiful in its starkness, and without any excessive sentimentality. This, my friends, is harder than playing "Cherokee" in all twelve keys. Ballard's brushwork is sublime, and Grenadier's time as reliable as a Patek Phillipe watch.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Pat Metheny & Brad Mehldau: A Night Away

Track

A Night Away

Artist

Pat Metheny (guitar) and Brad Mehldau (piano)

CD

Metheny Melhdau Quartet (Nonesuch 104188)

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Musicians:

Pat Metheny (guitar), Brad Mehldau (piano), Larry Grenadier (bass), Jeff Ballard (drums).

Composed by Pat Metheny and Brad Mehldau

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Recorded: New York, December, 2005

Albumcovermethenymehldauquartet

Rating: 92/100 (learn more)

Metheny and Mehldau worked admirably together on their recent guitar-piano duets, but this quartet track with Larry Grenadier and Jeff Ballard reaches an even higher plateau. Metheny takes one of his great melodic solos on "A Night Away," and he continues to impress me with his ability to sublimate technique and ego in order to elevate the musicality of any given performance. Guitarists often play as if they are getting paid piece rate by the note, but Metheny is cut from a different cloth. If you listen to this track a few times, you will start humming along with his solo. Mehldau starts his improvisation in a similar vein, but soon begins pushing against the grain of the chords, stretching the aural sensibility of the composition. But you can tell that the pianist was enjoying the proceedings. He even is shown chuckling to himself on the back cover of the CD -- and jazz fans know that no artist since Miles has given fewer smiles on his promo photos than the serious Mr. Mehldau. Listeners, for their part, will find it hard to be glum when these two artists join forces.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Brad Mehldau: Still Crazy After All These Years

Track

Still Crazy After All These Years

Artist

Brad Mehldau (piano)

CD

Anything Goes (Warner Bros. 48608)

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Musicians:

Brad Mehldau (piano), Larry Grenadier (bass), Jorge Rossy (drums).

Composed by Paul Simon

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Recorded: New York, October 8 and 9, 2002

Albumcovermehldayanythinggoes

Rating: 90/100 (learn more)

Mehldau again shakes up the jazz police by sneaking some Paul Simon lead sheets into the nightclub. A quick check of Tom Lord's massive The Jazz Discography finds only two cover versions of Simon's "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover" listed in its 23,000 virtual pages -- one of them is Mehldau's. Here the pianist turns his attention to the almost equally unlikely jam tune "Still Crazy After All These Years." But Simon crafted a lovely pop-rock waltz and it works in a jazz setting. Mehldau brings out the beauty of the melody and plays with great delicacy. But no Mehldau cover version is without its little surprises. When he gets to the end of the bridge, he lingers . . . and lingers and lingers. If this were a real bridge, say the Golden Gate, the suicide prevention squad would be out in full force by now. Brad grinds out a vamp that sets the poor old bridge swingin' and shakin'. But everything turns out okay, and Mehldau comes back to the main theme in all its glory. He will not be convicted by a jury of his peers, but this musician is still playing crazy after all these years.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Brad Mehldau: How Long Has This Been Going On

Track

How Long Has This Been Going On

Artist

Brad Mehldau (piano)

CD

Progression: Art of the Trio, volume 5 (Warner Bros. 48005)

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Musicians:

Brad Mehldau (piano), Larry Grenadier (bass), Jorge Rossy (drums).

Composed by George & Ira Gershwin

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Recorded: Live at the Village Vanguard, September 22-24, 2000

Albumcoverbradmehldau-artofthetrio-volume5-progression

Rating: 97/100 (learn more)

I have written elsewhere how Brad Mehldau has updated the piano trio repertoire, refreshing the musty museum which passes for the standard jazz playlist. But Mehldau has never renounced Gershwin and his Tin Pan Alley associates -- he has just given them some new company, letting them hang out with Radiohead, Nick Drake and Paul Simon. And when Mehldau plays the brothers George & Ira in the year 2000, they come dressed in new millennium garb. This performance opens at an ambling ballad pace and Mehldau is sparing in his piano work. We think, at least for a moment, that the pianist is taking it sweet and easy. Have we returned to the open spaces and straightforward melody-solos-melody framework of Mehldau's earlier trio work? Nope! At the five-minute mark, bass and drums lay out, and Mehldau seems to be entering a brief piano coda to wrap up the piece. In fact, we are only halfway through this magnificent performance, with the best yet to come. Mehldau now offers a brilliant chord study -- not really a reharmonization of Gershwin's song, but something even more daring. Mehldau builds a new composition with occasional snippets of "How Long Has This Been Going On" bobbing and weaving above the surface, indicating the place where Gershwin's tune once floated. This interlude is fresh and interesting, without the slightest hint of banality or conventional jazz piano vocabulary. When Grenadier and Rossy return, more than four minutes later, their calming rubato gestures cap a remarkable performance.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Related Links

Assessing Brad Mehldau at Mid-Career by Ted Gioia
Check out more ‘Dozens’ here