Brad Mehldau’s first trio with Larry Grenadier and Jorge Rossy was together 10 years and made some of the most important piano trio recordings of the turn-of-the-century era, like the five-volume series The Art of the Trio, on Warner Bros. Two of these volumes (#2 and #4) were recorded live at the Village Vanguard.
In late 2004 Jeff Ballard replaced Rossy on drums. The double-CD, Live, Mehldau’s third recording from the Village Vanguard, demonstrates that the new trio has found itself and surpassed its predecessor. It has achieved a level of three-way interactive creativity reached only by very special piano trios, like those of Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett.
Mehldau plays here with a daring abandon that sweeps all of the 12 performances far from where they began. Yet he is not reckless; every piece sustains one large idea. Grenadier and Ballard never crowd the musical space, yet their indispensable, defining roles occur in the foreground, Grenadier with his wicked ostinatos and lines of sinuous grace, Ballard with his wealth of clear, specific, pointed information.
The two rock songs are inspired acts of the imagination and revelations of aesthetic/cultural transference. “Wonderwall” (a hit for Oasis in 1995) is a sweet, haunting pop melody that Mehldau hardens, then turns loose into a wild, prancing ride. Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” is a 23-minute epic of vast digressions and dizzying tremolos and quiet Zen-like fixations from Grenadier.
Two standards that are nominally ballads are rapt, then evolve. “The Very Thought of You” starts dead slow. So does “More Than You Know,” with Mehldau’s right hand finding fragments of the melody like scattered bones and his left softly displacing broken chords. When both songs are about to close, Mehldau suddenly starts them up again, in long codas of private meditation and distantly related invention.