Wednesday, November 28, 2012

An Abundance of Rewards: Brad Mehldau's Ode and Where Do You Start?

Brad Mehldau Trio

Brad Mehldau is probably the boldest and busiest musician in jazz today. This past year alone, he’s released a solo piano DVD, and two albums with his trio: Ode (Nonesuch, 2012) and Where Do You Start (Nonesuch, 2012). Support from the record company notwithstanding, certain questions can arise by such choices. Does Mehldau risk overexposure of his work? Does he have anything relevant to say? Or is he simply looking to cash in while the going is good? For me, it all depends on the work itself. I’ll let the marketers take care of their end. For Mehldau, the 42-year-old pianist and composer, it lies in his insatiable desire to express himself with frequency. So why not release two albums in the same year? Why wait if the moment strikes? And in jazz sometimes its best to strike while the proverbial muse inspires you.

Ode was released in March of this year and features his trio including Larry Grenadier on bass and Jeff Ballard on drums. It’s an album whose specific focus is character study, that is; odes to some of Mehldau’s favourite people, such as his wife Fleurine “Twiggy,” guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel “Kurt Vibe” to the fictional. (“Eulogy for George Hanson” is an ode to the character in Easy Rider, played by Jack Nicholson.) These are interesting subjects, but what the composer risks is alienating an audience that may not be familiar with the people he depicts. So the only thing we have then is the music. Ode is a spectacular example of Mehldau’s virtuosity at the piano, enveloped by the rhythm section in a way that opens up ideas rather than restricting them. It’s a demanding album for the listener as the trio works musical grooves as far as possible without getting lost or running out of steam. It’s a record that one can appreciate only on repeated plays because the density of the music needs your full attention. Consequently, Ode has an abundance of rewards.

Where Do You Start, also featuring Grenadier and Ballard, was released in September and features an entirely different set of tunes even though many of them were recorded at the same session. Five of the 11 tracks were recorded in November 2008, the rest are from a single session in April 2011. Ode has eight of its 11 tracks from that same session recorded in 2008. I think the division of the two single-day recording dates, three years apart, is based on the composer's output. (Mehldau wrote everything on Ode. Where Do You Start only features one Mehldau composition, “Jam,” which sounds like a simple warm up number for the band.) Of the two releases, Where Do You Start is much more accessible to the ear. While Ode is a more solipsistic album, this record actually welcomes the audience, and on that invitation alone, it succeeds. Running at over 70 minutes, this is an album of more familiar songs interpreted in a way that can only be described as “cool jazz.” The themes are stated plainly with minor adjustments to tempo and chord changes. Highlights include the slow burn of Sufjan Stevens' “Holland,” and a funky version of “Hey Joe,” the classic Jimi Hendrix track written by Billy Roberts.

The trio also stretches out on this record on “Baby Plays Around” by Elvis Costello and Nick Drake’s “Time Has Told Me.” Both songs are beautifully played making this band one of the foremost groups that are changing the definitions of “standard” in jazz. Looking to pop songs written in the last 20 years isn’t a poor choice anymore. (At least it isn’t to Mehldau.) It all depends on how the songs are interpreted. Mehldau proved himself worthy of such exploration on his mystical, 6/8 version of “She’s Leaving Home” (Day Is Done, 2005) by Lennon and McCartney. It not only exemplified his talent as a player, but his great ability to arrange existing songs to suit the band. Not all pop songs are worthy of such treatment, but Mehldau has had success, in my opinion with his particular choices.

I first heard Mehldau with Joshua Redman’s quartet in the mid-90s. Redman, whose own career was beginning to make waves in the jazz world, knew Mehldau would propel his music and his band into stretching out. On that level alone, Mehldau has no equal in the current scene. His dedication to exploring new music is rooted in the traditions of be-bop and popular song. His work with Pat Metheny in 2007 gained the pianist an even wider audience receptive to his tenacious style. Ode and Where Do You Start best exemplify where the Brad Mehldau Trio is right now. Is the music indicative of where the band is going? I’m not so sure. I hear a tight, competent and well-charged group full of energy and excitement on both recordings. As for the future of jazz, I’m happy just to get on board the Mehldau train and go!

John Corcelli is a musician and broadcaster. He's currently working on a radio documentary, with Kevin Courrier, to be broadcast on CBC Radio's Inside the Music on December 30 called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney.

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