The American pianist Brad Mehldau is often talked of as "the new Bill Evans", which is a comparison so lofty, he probably feels that it's both unwelcome and stylistically misleading. While packing out the Barbican hall, however, he showed why the comparison is repeated. For Mehldau, 35, has developed a new form for the piano trio that is as instantly recognisable as that of his revered predecessor; while, as he matures as a player, the lyricism that was Evans's hallmark is increasingly evident in Mehldau as well.
To talk of a "new form" sounds bold, but Mehldau's version of Radiohead's "Knives Out" bore it out. In the traditional piano trio, all three voices have their settled places. The bass anchors the harmony and marks the time with the drums, allowing the piano to supply chords with the left hand and melody with the right. In the Radiohead cover, the chords began with Larry Grenadier double-stopping on his double bass, swiftly joined by Jeff Ballard (a less busy drummer than the previous incumbent, Jorge Rossy, but still busy enough) conjuring up a soft whirlwind behind the kit. Then Mehldau entered, stating the ballad-like theme on the piano at a fraction of the speed being employed by his drummer.
The effect was reminiscent of ambient drum'n' bass; truly a jazz-trio sound for a new generation. This should not be taken, however, as a suggestion that Mehldau is pandering to younger ears; not only has the freedom afforded by drum'n'bass long been noted approvingly by jazz musicians, but it is also part of the tradition of welcoming new rhythmic forms to the jazz fold.
And Mehldau brought it off stunningly. Amid his solos, when the energy of the trio added another dimension to the familiar combination of instruments, his introduction of a legato passage at the piano would hover like a stillness above the boiling drums and thudding, woody bass, and the picture would come back into focus. He has the knack of doing so just at the right time. Just when the group's explorations threatened to overwhelm, he would produce a resolution out of nowhere, the trio instantly coming together on a short refrain before setting off on another journey.
Mehldau has the chops to play as fast as any, but he tends not to do so. At times he's almost Monk-ish in the seeming hesitancy of the way he places notes and phrases (although without the clunkiness).
A classical training is evident in the contrary runs in both hands that he employs, and he avoids the standard, bluesy riffs that are an accepted part of the everyday vocabulary of most jazz pianists. It's noticeable how few flattened fifths he uses, for instance; he prefers to reharmonise familiar tunes with his left hand and then drop semi-dissonant lines in his right, adding a sharpness to sweeter numbers such as "The Very Thought of You".
At other times one hears echoes of Keith Jarrett in the patterns he sets up, such as in his take on Lennon and McCartney's "She's Leaving Home", or in unaccompanied stretches at the piano that come across more as spontaneous composition than as improvisation.
His greatest gift, though, is his ability to play so sparingly that one wonders just how it works; but it does. It's as though he's the musical equivalent of Morgan Freeman - such is his authority that he can imbue the most ordinary phrase with tremendous depth and enormous warmth. The fact that this is a growing strength in Mehldau's playing makes it ever more a delight to hear a pianist justly hailed as the finest of his generation, and why he receives so enthusiastic a welcome whenever he appears at the Barbican. The Bill Evans comparison may not be so far off.Reuse content