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Brad Mehldau: Anything Goes

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Brad Mehldau illustration

In Brad Mehldau’s 10-year recording career, two roles have predominated: leader of a piano trio and sideman/collaborator with world-class tenor saxophone players (e.g., Joshua Redman, Charles Lloyd). His two new albums are brilliant additions to each of these categories.

Don’t Explain is a duet recording with Joel Frahm, who was Mehldau’s high school classmate and bandmate 20 years ago in Hartford, Conn. Frahm has only recently begun to acquire a reputation outside New York jazz circles, but he is an exceptionally fluent communicator of adult emotion on both tenor and soprano saxophones. Anything Goes is the latest from Mehldau’s working trio with Larry Grenadier and Jorge Rossy.

Don’t Explain rivets attention from the first bars of the opening title track, when Mehldau suggests, through thematic fragments, the tragic narrative line of Billie Holiday’s song, concurrently examining and praising it. It is not until Frahm enters on tenor that the melody is acknowledged directly. Frahm’s human, open sound phrases those two words and three syllables of the title with unguarded vulnerability. He internalizes, for himself and others, the complex balance of irony and suffering and acceptance that Billie Holiday first explained through her refusal to explain.

Frahm and Mehldau are notably successful in avoiding the primary risk of saxophone and piano duo recordings, which is their tendency to become austere, nonswinging recitals between contrapuntists. They conduct unhurried conversations over songs, closely listening and responding, like on “East of the Sun.” But they also provoke, like on “Oleo,” where they push one another so far from their starting point that their joint exercise in free thinking is conducted among faint shadows of Sonny Rollins’ idea. And the hook-up between these two classmates is deep: On Ornette Coleman’s “Turnaround,” they function in and out of one another’s thoughts.

The albums have two songs in common, and they reveal that, while the duo recording is highly successful, Mehldau’s playing with his own trio is on another level. For Frahm and Mehldau, Harold Arlen’s “Get Happy” is a celebration of intelligent exuberance. On Anything Goes, it is profoundly more. Over the course of 10 minutes, the tune is elongated and twisted and daringly transformed into an existential epic with freely willed tempo changes, a subtext of dissonance, convoluted counterarguments, and finally even chiming right-hand confirmations of Harold Arlen’s original rejoicing. The energy of this performance surges in waves, from the bottom and top and all around, driven by Mehldau’s drummer of the last 10 years, Jorge Rossy.

The other shared song is “Smile.” Frahm and Mehldau build it through deconstruction, starting with a literal theme statement from Frahm (on soprano) and quickly breaking it down, singly and together, and reassembling it into a new towering structure distantly related to “Smile.” On the trio version, Mehldau lets Larry Grenadier’s bass pick out the song first, his yearning throbs supported by (and contrasted with) a piano ostinato. Like “Get Happy,” “Smile” is a piece that, in the hands of lesser artists, often becomes one-dimensional or even sentimental. But Mehldau’s left hand keeps that ostinato hammering like a bass line of hard-hearted realism while his right hand lifts up and insists upon, over and over, in endless permutations, the spiritual insight, the actual breakthrough contained in Charlie Chaplin’s song. It is an interpretation that changes “Smile” only to rediscover it and to release new resonances of human experience that have always been there.

Anything Goes is Brad Mehldau’s most fully realized recorded work to date. This is a large claim, given that his five-volume The Art of the Trio series, released between 1997 and 2001, contains the most important piano-trio recordings of the last 15 years other than those by Keith Jarrett. But Anything Goes’ five ballads justify this kudo themselves. Mehldau’s touch with ballads-so sensitive that he can find their essence with the lightest tracings of his fingers-has been manifest since “Blame It on My Youth,” from The Art of the Trio, Volume One. The first ballad on Anything Goes is Henry Mancini’s “Dreamsville.” In its single arc of affirmation, it is perhaps the simplest. The last is “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” which unfolds in a luminous procedure that never needs anything but the song’s own melodies and yet overlays them and breaks them up and rejoins them in an act of quiet devotion.

It is impossible to name a favorite from the five. “Nearness of You” is like one very long single-note line-and one distilled emotional truth. “Everything in Its Right Place” is too intense to properly be called a ballad, yet it qualifies, as a variety of meditation. Its inclusion is initially surprising, but it becomes an integral part of the album’s fabric of feeling. As in Radiohead’s original version, the bass line is the heart of the incantation. Here the line is Larry Grenadier’s, who strings it through the piece, unwavering, like a ritual.

Maybe it is possible to name a favorite. Perhaps it is “Still Crazy After All These Years,” pieced out so haltingly that you don’t feel it building until its epiphany is upon you. The branch logic of Mehldau’s creative process surrounds songs with his own notes, often revelatory “wrong” notes, and when he finds Paul Simon’s notes among his own and returns to them, it is a rush. No other version of this song so deeply understands how the sweet ache of nostalgia is a way of dealing with the cold reality of loss.

In the ’60s and ’70s, the preeminent piano trio in jazz was Bill Evans’. In the ’80s and ’90s it was Keith Jarrett’s. At some point in the new millennium it will be Brad Mehldau’s. Evans was unable to maintain continuity of personnel in his trio. Jarrett has been fortunate to stay with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette from the beginning. I hope Mehldau will be able to keep his current ensemble together for years to come, because Jorge Rossy, who can thunder or whisper, as needed, and Larry Grenadier, so articulate and poetic, are just right for him.