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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.

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