Brad Mehldau's debt to Keith Jarrett has never been so plain as it is on Places. This collection of solo and trio pieces, named for the locales in which they were composed, has much the same mix of longing and belonging as Jarrett's mid-'70s recordings. Jarrett's shadow looms over Mehldau's use of counterpoint and variation, his compacted, occasionally pop-tinged thematic materials and the emotional ambivalence reflected in Mehldau's constant sway between the rhapsodic and the broodingly introspective.
In addition to being a technically dazzling pianist, Mehldau has an arch sense of nuance; by changing the touch of a single note or introducing a single beat's rest in a long serpentine line, Mehldau can turn a smile or a frown upside down.
Subsequently, his solos often become tugs of war between dark undertones and bright highlights. This is particularly central to this song cycle, which is more a meditation on the interaction between experience and memory than a travelogue; for Mehldau, memory reshapes experience as much as recalls it.
Ironically, Mehldau's well-established rapport with bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jorge Rossy contribute to trio tracks that are a bit more prosaic than the unaccompanied solos. They are excellent foils for Mehldau that have generally found their own voices. Still, Grenadier occasionally sounds as if he's splitting the stylistic difference between Charlie Haden and Gary Peacock to establish a supple sense of line that purposefully buttresses a tune's harmonic structure. Rossy often propels and colors with Paul Motian-like phrasing. These traits are most apparent on the relatively brightly hued, midtempo pieces like "Madrid" and "West Hartford."
The most probing pieces are solos like "Airport Sadness," which simply radiates with despair. Still, Jarrettisms crop up in Mehldau's rhythmic left-hand figures and unfolding cadences on pieces like "29 Palms," "Los Angeles II" and "Perugia." Mehldau, however, comes across as a largely original pianist and composer in terms of temperament. He exudes a refreshing sense of scrutiny about himself and music. It will be interesting to see where Mehldau goes next.