Brad Mehldau is one of jazz’s most sensitive interpreters of song, with a rare gift for putting his own stamp on a composition without betraying its soul. That gift is on ample display throughout Blues and Ballads, the first new release in four years from the pianist’s
trio with bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard.
Blues and Ballads’ seven tracks lean heavily in style toward the latter.
Grenadier and Ballard provide “I Concentrate on You” with a bossa-nova backdrop over which Mehldau builds, almost imperceptibly, from a near-classical lilt to an impassioned plea. The pianist’s stirring just-behind-the-beat melodic reading gives “These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You)” a breath-catching power, and the trio brings similar majesty and warmth to a pair of Paul McCartney compositions. The Beatles’ “And I Love Her” provides grandly shifting dynamics, Ballard’s vivid intensity hand-in-glove with Grenadier’s almost hushed undertones, and on McCartney’s “My Valentine,” Mehldau evokes a clanging saloon piano before delivering an impossibly tender a cappella bridge.
Of the two blues tracks, Charlie Parker’s “Cheryl” is the album’s most striking showcase for the band as a unit. Mehldau handles the jagged melody with verve, Grenadier answers with insouciant funk, and Ballard constructs a bedrock of thuddingly insistent bass drum and hissing cymbals. “Since I Fell for You” offers arguably the purest blues Mehldau has ever played, dragging along with bittersweet grit over Grenadier’s round-bellied bassline.
And of course Mehldau is skillful enough to know when to stand back and let great songwriting do the work. For sometime Mehldau collaborator Jon Brion’s “Little Person,” the pianist just gives us the melody, almost childlike in its simplicity, and wholly heartbreaking. Its impact is a testament not just to a great composition, but to the taste and talent of the man playing it.