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Brad Mehldau Trio: Ode

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As good as Brad Mehldau’s ’90s trio albums were, the “Art of the Trio” tag his old record label slapped on them was premature. But based on the pair of brilliant albums his current group has released this year-the first, Ode, a collection of originals, and the latest, Where Do You Start, a return to rock and pop covers-it’s easy to argue that even surrounded by some amazing young trios, Mehldau, bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard are the new standard-bearers of the form.

In embracing popular music, Mehldau is less interested in creating so-called “new standards” than inhabiting a genre all its own-one distinguished by darkly resounding, hard-edged grooves, melodic riffs pushed just short of the breaking point and classically enriched piano solos. On the sometimes startling Where Do You Start, Sufjan Stevens’ “Holland” is treated to a transfixing sideways groove that has the feel of moving forward while standing in place. Rooted in gospel chords, the Hendrix-associated “Hey Joe” has a harmonic density suggestive of Procol Harum. Revisiting old favorite Nick Drake via the gently haunting “Time Has Told Me,” Mehldau combines spiritual accents and a sly shuffling beat.

As demonstrated by his dazzling run through Sonny Rollins’ “Airegin” and his joyful, springing reading of Clifford Brown’s “Brownie Speaks,” classic jazz is equally welcome in this territory. So is Latin music, represented by two fetching Mehldau originals. But it’s the pianist’s ability to meaningfully recast even a tune by grunge band Alice in Chains that makes this album special.

Half of Where Do You Start derives from the same 2008 sessions that produced most of Ode, another Mehldau masterpiece, which was the first studio release by this trio since its 2005 debut, Day Is Done. As reflected in such titles as “Twiggy,” “Aquaman” and “Stan the Man,” Mehldau has loosened up as an artist. As adventurous in its own way as his atmospheric 2010 suite, Highway Rider, which featured an expanded lineup, Ode ranges from soulful waltz to dashing bebop to blues groove to freeform reflection. Less resounding than Where Do You Start but no less resonant, Ode is the work of a trio that’s firing on all cylinders while sounding like it’s on cruise control.

Originally Published