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September 2006

Brad Mehldau
House on Hill
Nonesuch Records

What? No Radiohead songs? In fact, Brad Mehldau’s new trio recording includes no standards either. House on Hill is a nine-song collection of original compositions, most of which are built on simple minor-key figures. So preoccupied is this disc with the idea of jazz composition that the prolific pianist devotes his typically dense liner notes, dissecting, at length, the balance between theme and variation.

This album is sort of a companion to 2004’s Anything Goes, in which the Mehldau trio interpreted others’ songs. Most of House on Hill was recorded during that same session in 2002, and finally, four years later, it sees the light of day. It also serves as the final document of Mehldau’s already-legendary trio with bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jorge Rossy. (Jeff Ballard has since replaced Rossy.) Taken in its entirety, House on Hill has the cinematic sweep of a smart film score, varying its mysterious mood only slightly.

“August Ending” introduces the album with an ominous, repeated phrase that betrays Mehldau’s affinity for Radiohead. (Heck, if the notes didn’t make clear these were all originals, I’d be scouring Radiohead’s catalog for the source.) Mehldau’s left hand deliberately plods along while his right strikes bright passages. Dichotomy between left and right is a recurring theme on this CD. Mehldau lays down tricky arpeggios with his left hand while improvising delightful single-note runs with his right on “Waiting for Eden.” “Fear and Trembling” is marked by quick runs, sudden starts and stops, and the pianist isn’t the only one flexing his muscles: Grenadier alternately thumps low and plucks high, and Rossy gives the ride cymbal one heck of a workout.

As much as Ballard has stepped to the plate since Rossy’s departure, House on Hill is a reminder that Mehldau’s first trio was one amazing outfit.

Originally published in September 2006
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