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Brad Mehldau: 10 Years Solo Live

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The solo piano box set of this or most other years is conceivably the finest product Brad Mehldau has released yet, a veritable library for jazz study unto itself. It’s also, as the kids say, ginormous: eight vinyl LPs-or four CDs-broken down into four thematic groupings that examine the contrast between light and dark, major keys and minor, and the notion of revisiting and what we might think of as a solo-concert-in-the-life outing.

There are 300 minutes of music to work through, and while Mehldau reveals himself an expert sequencer, as if he’s curating a museum exhibit that leads one through the galleries in the most enriching way, this is a box where cherry-picking is also fun. The covers are brave and revealing choices, like the opening take on Jeff Buckley’s “Dream Brother,” which encapsulates a lot of what will transpire throughout the set. Mehldau has no reservations building into a number like this, refusing to rush the pace and letting a single-note pulse work as an emotional metronome before the layering really begins. Mehldau has a fondness for the songs of Lennon and McCartney, which isn’t surprising given how their melodies would often house chord progressions and modulations that went beyond the daring of their contemporaries-the perfect conceptual suitor, then, for Mehldau’s own playing. He treats the melody of “And I Love Her” like a narrative ripe to have new stories written into it, and to hear this acoustic number from the height of Beatlemania take on new life as a fugue-like construction is to hear Mehldau travel back to Bachian times via Liverpudlian pop stylings.

The disc themed “The Concert” has a cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” that replaces Kurt Cobain’s buzzing, staccato riff with pointillistic flourishes, a sound painting sourced from West Coast grunge with a Satie-like sensitivity. Mehldau has clearly heard his share of Radiohead, and it’s easy to imagine some of his more circular, swirling pianistic figures being lifted straight from classic albums like Kid A and Amnesiac, so the cover of the latter’s “Knives Out,” cut in Rome in 2011, feels like a timely payoff. This is the pianist as one-man-band, and as dense as the Radiohead original is, with all of its concomitant synths, this is every bit as knotty. Arpeggios ripple, melodies flit across said ripples, and Radiohead’s bluesy electronica is lent the power of Beethoven.

Another grouping looks back to Mehldau’s 2004-2005 work, with Brahms’ Intermezzo in B-Flat Major pairing well with, of all things, the early Paul McCartney solo number “Junk.” That particular piece was something of a throwaway that nonetheless had its charms, and Mehldau plays up that aspect; the cut even has a light danceability about it stemming from just how damn tuneful it is. The Brahms was always far away from the realm of the disposable, and this is a kind of behold-these-chops moment, with Mehldau crossing over into classical territory with a virtuosity we’ve been well prepared for by this time. He sounds more at ease during these excursions than even Keith Jarrett, and if there’s no surprise, really, in how far his playing ranges, it’s because almost every item here doubles as a gallery within a gallery within a gallery. Best clear out a full day if you want to take the full tour. Or get ready to return often.

Originally Published