LIVE: The Brad Mehldau Trio @ The Egg’s Swyer Theatre, 4/16/16
Review by J Hunter
Photographs by Albert Brooks
There are some things I simply have no patience for any more – that “Settlers” ad campaign for DirecTV, for instance (funny the first time, excruciating now), and the head-shaking crusade to make Kobe Bryant seem beloved. On the jazz front, one thing I can’t stand is a piano player who pounds the keys relentlessly, whether the situation calls for it or not. It reminds me of that old James Brown lyric, “Talkin’ loud and sayin’ nuthin’!” As Brad Mehldau proved once again at The Egg, it’s the strong silent types that make the biggest impression.
True, the Brad Mehldau Trio is anything but silent. They’ve been making their voices heard for “decades,” as a bemused Mehldau pointed out to the close-to-capacity crowd. Much of that has involved filling the New Great American Songbook with dynamite interpretations of songs from rockers like Radiohead, Soundgarden, Oasis and The Verve. But unlike the Bad Plus – who have finally moved away from their Shock & Awe period, filled with jangling takes on Black Sabbath and Vangelis – the Mehldau Trio has always mixed the covers with thoughtful, intense originals that relied more on musicianship than bombast. That cerebral trend continues with their upcoming Nonesuch release Blues and Ballads, the spirit of which drove the group’s riveting 90-minute set.
While the opener “Solid Jackson” was uptempo and rang with urgency, there was a nicely dark finish that took it away from your average flag-waver, with Mehldau tossing in semi-odd chords as bassist Larry Grenadier added his own rebuttals to Mehldau’s solo lines and drummer Jeff Ballard held down the floor with one cymbal and the barest of fills. The piece was inspired by one of bass icon Charlie Haden’s favorite catch phrases, so it was fitting that Grenadier took hold of the middle of the tune, slapping his instrument like it stole his van as he filled the room with his rich, fat tone. Ballard would get his turn, starting small and building on an almost martial tattoo as Mehldau simply sat and watched, turned completely away from the piano.
Mehldau will always be saddled with the term “The Art of The Trio”, but when watching this band, you can’t help but nod at the sagacity of that title. Chemistry is a huge part of it, and goodness knows this group’s got it, with each player knowing his role and filling any spaces left by the others with something altogether appropriate. And even in this relatively restrained atmosphere, you always got the sense that this group was having nothing but fun, whether it was on ballads like Sidney Bechet’s longing “If You See My Mother” and the aching original “Strange Gift,” or delightfully chunky pieces like “Good Old Days” or the encore take on Wes Montgomery’s “West Coast Blues.” Mehldau’s touch was almost reverent throughout the set, but the intensity level was off the charts because the content was so dense and so intricate, regardless of what the group was playing.
Ballard may be “the new guy” in the band (having replaced Jorge Rossy in 2005), but his minimalist contributions are vital to this group, letting Mehldau and Grenadier counter with impunity. His brushwork on “Wolfgang’s Waltz” was absolutely impeccable, and he used his left hand to change his kit’s sound while he “drummed” with his right hand. While the odd-metered new piece “Something Featuring Jeff” (a tentative title Mehldau introduced with tongue planted in cheek) was Ballard’s showcase, his rising & falling solo could only be described as “maximized minimalism” as he kept the adamantine control that runs throughout this band.
Choosing Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy After All These Years” for the show-closer could be seen as ironic, because while the group has been together “all these years,” there is nothing outwardly crazy about the music the Brad Mehldau Trio plays. Even so, when Mehldau dropped into the solo spot made famous by Michael Brecker’s soulful tenor sax, Mehldau took the piece higher and farther out, giving us one last look at this trio’s own definition of “crazy.” The subtlety of it all may have been lost on the pre-teen sitting in the row in front of me, who spent the entire evening finding new non-verbal ways of saying, “I’M BORED!” But for the rest of us, it was one sublime moment after another from a group that proves a little goes a long way, and from a keyboardist who believes pounding is something you do with hammers and gavels, and not with a piano.
Joe Major’s review at AlbanyJazz.com
Excerpt from Michael Hochanadel’s review at The Daily Gazette: “Perched on the bench’s front edge, back bent in a ‘C,’ Mehldau launched the night with ‘Solid, Jackson,’ a Charlie Haden tribute, chiming out oblique darting riffs, like Thelonious Monk or Cecil Taylor. Larry Grenadier’s bass and Jeff Ballard’s drums coalesced around a repeating piano figure into a blues groove with freelance solos all around. ‘Strange Gift’ felt calmer only at the start, building in waves. Next, ‘Good Old Days’ charmed with a relaxed stroll beat but flirted with ‘Take the A Train.’ ‘Wolfgang’s Waltz’ (in about three-plus time) floated on a breeze of busy solos, Mehldau muscling up in echoes of Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson. He introduced a dizzying drums feature as ‘something featuring Jeff’; here Ballard burned, and led. Rattling restless rimshots off two snares, simmering sharp cymbal splashes, booming kick-drum blasts, he played too fast to count; but counting was moot as he jumped to a new time signature every few bars. Mehldau circled short riffs around an emerging pulse as Grenadier filled in the blanks until Ballard settled back and Mehldau took over.”
Excerpt from Greg Haymes’ review at The Times Union: “But it’s with his trio – featuring bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard – that Mehldau shines brightest. Perhaps it’s the push-and-pull between the musicians. Perhaps it’s the drive of the rhythm section. Or perhaps it’s an unknowable chemistry, a kind of musical magic that’s conjured when three musicians add up to so much more than just the sum of their parts. And there were more than a few moments of pure sleight of hand during Saturday night’s concert at The Egg’s Swyer Theatre. Since making his debut with Introducing Brad Mehldau in 1995, the prolific pianist has released nearly three dozen albums, including a string of albums in a series titled The Art of the Trio. And in the hands Mehldau and his compatriots, it is indeed an art. From the opening volley of the angular ‘Solid Jackson,’ dedicated to the late bass master Charlie Haden, Mehldau was all in, unleashing flurries of notes in bold clusters, punctuating the sinuous groove churned out Grenadier and Ballard.”
BRAD MEHLDAU TRIO SET LIST
Good Old Days
(untitled – “something featuring Jeff”)
Si Tu Vois Ma Mere (Sidney Bechet)
West Coast Blues (Wes Montgomery)
Still Crazy After All These Years (Paul Simon)