The Brad Mehldau Trio at Salle Pleyel,

The "Art of the trio" lives on

Last night’s performance by the Brad Mehldau trio demonstrated beautifully the validity of improvised music in the bare-bones format of the jazz trio. Playing a well-balanced mix of new originals and pop covers, ranging from Charlie Parker’s Cheryl to The Beatles’ And I Love Her, the trio took on every song with unrelenting commitment, tasteful musicianship and a sense of drama that pulled me into the music and never let go. Helped by the impeccable acoustics of the Salle Pleyel the sound filled the house with so much presence that it felt like a full symphonic orchestra was playing. Mehldau has reiterated time and time again how grateful he is to his partners for their creative powers and how much his own playing is informed by theirs. Aside from the significant drums replacement of Jorge Rossy by Jeff Ballard in 2005, the trio has played together continuously for many years now, also forming the core sound of other major bands, notably those of luminaries Mark Turner and Kurt Rosenwinkel. It shows. A high level of cohesiveness permeated throughout the performance, be it in Grenadier’s contrapuntal bass figures constantly bouncing off Mehldau’s darkly lyrical lines or Ballard’s flexible and nuanced drumming. While Jazz has been shaped by such cornerstones as the jam sessions, the “sitting in” tradition and in-the-moment creativity, aesthetics and group sound have also been critical to the most groundbreaking developments of the music. Consider the Coltrane’s quartet without the dream team of Elvin Jones, Jimmy Garrison and McCoy Tyner, for example. Mehldau is so deeply engaged with this tradition that when he lays out right after stating the melody of a song to push his band mates to the foreground, he’s not only paying tribute to them he’s also reaffirming that to be a sideman in his group is not to be an interchangeable gear in an immutable system. The three musicians trade harmonic, melodic and rhythmic duties inside the songs themselves, making for a dynamic circulation of sound.
The material selected for this concert reflects Mehldau’s penchant for relatively simple or short forms to improvise on. The pleasing surprise this time around was that none of the songs performed were off the recently released Ode or Where Do You Start. This may be his most exquisite gift: picking a memorable melody, laying out the contours by sparse painterly brushes and taking it as far as inspiration can take it, letting it build and build. Grenadier and Ballard are well attuned to this process, filling in when Mehldau seemed to ponder his next move in real time, or just pumping away with mind-blowing telepathy as he gained momentum. That night, the amount of activity from bass and drums was so intense that Brad’s lines were slightly muddled on occasion but the only thing to blame for this might have been the infectious groove the trio kept going.
Owning the tune seems to be the ultimate motive on Mehldau’s agenda, regardless of its composer. That he chooses to take on McCartney or Sam Rivers with equal passion is testimony to his dedication to the art of improvisation over any other stylistic concern. What boggles the mind is how long he is able to sustain interest, reconfiguring the parameters of the song, leaning hard into the piano to bring out the music and get comfortable with it. At one point through a 5/4 meter song, the band stopped and let Mehldau move into an introspective solo that exuded his more classical side. When they reentered to take the tune out, the intensity that had built up before the solo continued unabated.
Much ink has been spilled about how Jazz has shot itself in the foot by becoming too sophisticated for the masses. Sophistication and accessibility are not mutually exclusive notions. Thelonious Monk’s unique music was once dismissed as offbeat and dissonant and later castigated as simplistic. The argument misses the point. The kind of organic unity that these three fantastic musicians achieve in this particular trio has been a foundation of the most prominent jazz groups. To recognize the uniqueness of this music is to validate Mehldau’s contention that there is such a thing as an “art of the trio”.

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