The Art of the Trio Recordings: 1996-2001
Thomas Conrad reviews Brad Mehldau's 'The Art of the Trio' collection
Brad Mehldau released five Art of the Trio volumes with bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jorge Rossy between 1997 and 2001. Three were recorded live at the Village Vanguard. The fifth volume contained two CDs. This box set collects them all, and adds a seventh CD of previously unreleased music from the Vanguard. There is a long liner-note essay by Ethan Iverson of the Bad Plus. It contains insights that could only be provided by another jazz pianist who came up in the Mehldau Era, which is what, in jazz-piano-trio terms, the late 1990s can legitimately be called.
Volume 1 is, looking back, almost tame. The opening track, “Blame It on My Youth” (Mehldau is 26), is an ethereal ballad, straightforward compared to what would come later. Yet its pensive emotion is authentic. (Mehldau’s solo was nominated for a Grammy in 1998.) Much of what would make this trio famous is present on Volume 1 in embryonic form: the indeterminate atmosphere as Grenadier and Rossy float the music free from time and, as Iverson says, “let the beats take care of themselves”; the standards in odd meters (“I Didn’t Know What Time It Was”); the rock covers (the hippest “Blackbird” on record); the literate originals (“Ron’s Place”). Most evident, of course, is a piano player whose extraordinary harmonic and rhythmic acuity elucidated a vision that was already personal.
Volume 1 seduces you. Volume 2 knocks you down and runs you over. Mehldau is a year older; his band is a year tighter (and looser). The setting is not a sequestered studio but the Village Vanguard on an electric night. The tracks average 12 minutes instead of six, and they are of two types: death-defying fast burners and heartbreaking slow ballads. Coltrane’s “Countdown” is so harmonically dense and so quick it is outside of time, in a strange calm. “Young and Foolish” is rapt.
Volume 3, a studio session, is properly subtitled Songs. There are some mesmerizing hushed ballads like “For All We Know.” There are ballads that erupt in the middle, like “Young at Heart,” where Grenadier and Rossy instantly respond to Mehldau’s mood shift and ascend with him. Mehldau is the virtuoso but Grenadier and Rossy give this band its levitational ensemble identity.
With Volume 4, 5 and the bonus disc of previously unreleased tracks, the collection returns to the Vanguard and stays there. Tunes from the two studio albums (“Ron’s Place,” “Lament for Linus,” “Unrequited”) return in much longer, deeper, wilder iterations. “All the Things You Are” unleashes a tempest of key modulations, in 7/4. “Nice Pass” is a 17-minute treatise on unsuspected derivations of “I Got Rhythm” changes. Volume 5 has “Alone Together,” for 15 minutes, wrung dry in Mehldau’s two hands. Live versions of Radiohead and Nick Drake songs that Mehldau made jazz standards of the new millennium (“Exit Music [for a Film]” and “River Man,” respectively) become vast rituals.
After the physical power and complexity of such performances, the ballads are stunning turns inward, openings of emotion. “In the Wee Small Hours,” on the bonus disc, ends beautifully at 4:00, but its inspired free cadenza continues for three minutes more. “Secret Love” and “Cry Me a River” are so quiet, yet Mehldau’s touch is so firm.
One purpose of a retrospective box set is to provide a fresh vantage point on a body of music by enabling the listener to experience it whole. The best art requires time to release all of its revelations. As Ethan Iverson correctly points out, Mehldau’s trio with Grenadier and Rossy “did not ... give up all of its secrets easily.” But in this collection, they give up more of them than ever before.