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April 2011

Brad Mehldau
Live in Marciac
Nonesuch Records

Thomas Conrad reviews two-CD live set from pianist

This set (two CDs, one DVD) contains a solo performance at the Marciac festival in France in 2006. The creative capacities of the most important jazz piano player of his generation herein receive their most comprehensive documentation to date.

The first three pieces present three distinct Brad Mehldau identities: composer, redesigner of standards and ballads player. “Storm” is pure chops and exhilaration, multiple lines of musical thought intersecting at reckless velocity, becoming thundering chords and clanging tremolos and then improbably becoming Cole Porter. Mehldau makes “It’s All Right With Me” into a riotous celebration. “Secret Love” is next, a sudden hush of lyrical contemplation.

This concert would be even stronger and its emotional arc would be wider if there were more moments like “Secret Love.” When Mehldau plays a ballad, the restraint he imposes on his impulsiveness creates exquisite suspense. But in Marciac, Mehldau is into unleashed energy and whirling rituals. “Unrequited” is the first of four consecutive originals. When Mehldau played it with Pat Metheny on Metheny Mehldau, it was a curve of pensive melody floating forward. At Marciac it is fidgeting figures and hard cycling chords and colliding counterlines. “Resignation” and “Trailer Park Ghost” also escalate into pagan ceremonies. “Goodbye Storyteller (For Fred Myrow)” opens like a slow, solemn dirge, but Mehldau’s left hand insists on tight circles that grow louder like an obsessive incantation and then organically become “Exit Music (For a Film)” by Radiohead.

The Radiohead theme introduces a fourth Mehldau identity: jazz interpreter of the alternative-music sensibility. But his relationships to texts like Kurt Cobain’s “Lithium” and Nick Drake’s “Things Behind the Sun,” both on the second disc, are complex and counterintuitive. Drake wrote haunting wisps of songs and sang them in a disembodied murmur. Mehldau finds in “Things Behind the Sun” a riveting, hammering processional. “Lithium,” as performed by Nirvana, was a chilling glimpse into an aberrant psyche. Mehldau’s version is perversely ebullient.

All those left-hand oscillations might be trance-inducing if there weren’t so many other things going on. Into his wheeling maelstrom Mehldau incorporates flashes of erudite harmony, startling melodic crosscurrents and contrasting layers of motivic content. And the occasional segues into relative calm are revelatory as release, and as confirmation that Mehldau also deals in rarefied lyricism. There is nothing on disc two as sublime as “Secret Love,” but “Lilac Wine” is a dramatic slow burn and “My Favorite Things,” surprisingly spare and literal, often just lets the great song sing. The most obvious comparison to this recital is a Keith Jarrett solo concert, but Jarrett is about the indeterminacy of stream-of-consciousness and Mehldau is about thematic diversification.

After an immersion in the vast sonic world of the two superbly recorded and engineered CDs, the DVD is oddly anticlimactic.

Originally published in April 2011
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