SFJAZZ Creates a Festival of the Keys—Two Pianists Are Linked in Non-obvious Ways

Ahmad Jamal and Brad Mehldau lead groups at SFJAZZ lovefests

SFJAZZ has accomplished a lot of things as it approaches its first half year in its new building, . Among them is revealing dedicated audiences for specific areas of the jazz universe, including piano-led bands. On the face of things, little may appear to connect two masters of this format, Ahmad Jamal, who performed on June 13 at Symphony Hall; and Brad Mehldau, who appeared on April 26, 27, and 28 at the new SFJazz Center. But, in fact, we submit that both musicians and both groups are more similar than one might think. In addition, in the development of the jazz-led piano format, a gradual and remarkable movement toward a dynamic rhythm-centric style has occurred, reminding the listener of the trio playing of Sonny Rollins and Joe Henderson.

The piano is the primary instrument of jazz (and indeed of much of classical music) for several reasons. It is the only instrument that can harmonize completely, includes individual notes, and allows such wide changes in dynamics and therefore expression of mood (hence its full name, pianoforte). It also can be played solo, or as the most complete partner for individual instruments or an entire big band.
No other instrument can even come close to the power and complexity that this instrument can impart. The piano trio, sometimes including a percussionist, has slowly emerged as the primary format to showcase this instrument, reaching an apex with the emergence of Bill Evans, through his series of historic recordings at the Village Vanguard. At this point, many piano-led bands and many artists across the world are playing in trios. But only a handful have been able to make a career touring with a trio band. The fact that both Jamal and Mehldau have done this makes them part of a very elite group.

Both band leaders have achieved the pinnacle of success and worldwide acclaim. Both are virtuoso performers, not only with phenomenal technique but also mixing many styles to create considerable excitement in the audience. Jamal’s band includes Herlin Riley on drums, bassist Reginald Veal and percussionist Monolo Badrena. It is clear from the very first notes that the supporting players are central to the whole. In fact, this group lives and breathes through a surging rhythmical mix that has become Jamal’s trademark. An example is his tune “Invitation,” which was beautifully dissected by the group. The playing of this piece was beautifully executed, infused with dance rhythms, beautifully dynamic flourishes and amazing dynamic range. One could feel the sense of total control in every note Jamal played.

Mehldau’s band includes bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard. As in Jamal’s band, the powerful rhythm of the bass and drums is central to the trio. And it is woven into the musical mix with great delicacy, detail and art. There is never a moment where Ballard’s sound interferes with the piano. Instead it is moving in and around the notes, at one moment forward, at another in between, dancing around and through. Both bands establish a groove, a powerful rhythmic surge, that supplies the very essence of the sound.

But what really links both these bands is the caliber of these artists: both of these band leaders and their band members are all tremendous musical entertainers. It is not difficult for listeners to understand how every note is a part of the whole picture of sound that the pianist is painting. The trio format presents to us the absolute fundamentals of music with thousands of possible configurations. And the chance to see exactly how pianists interact with the rhythm section is a great opportunity to experience this most basic lesson of the music. Only with rhythm and melody in harmonious embrace can we truly understand the magic of this music.

It is time for more trios to take the stage, led by such luminaries as Chick Corea, Kenny Barron, V.J. Iyer, Jackie Terrasson, Davie Kikoski, Renne Rosness, and many more. We, and the SFJAZZ audience, are ready.

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Ken V