Show reviews

(Something Else): Brad Mehldau at the Vanguard

Last night we saw the Brad Mehldau trio, with Larry Grenadier and Jeff Ballard, at the Village Vanguard. After a smoking rendition of the classic jazz standard ‘Alone Together’ in the second set, Brad paused to introduce the first four songs in the set. He introduced the next song they were going to play saying, “And now we’re going to play… something else.” That something else turned out to be a take on a Soundgarden song and serves as a useful metaphor for the sound and style of the Brad Mehldau trio: ‘something else’ runs through everything they play. Brad doesn’t shy away from any interesting influence or bit of musical language. He draws from everything, perfectly content to mix the most classic jazz phrasing with modernist classical influences on a take of a rock song. Throw in his proclivity for strange time signatures and you have a truly unique experience. Full set list and evaluation after the break. Here’s the set list (with the composer of any non-standard or non-Brad song in parentheses)

Set 1

  1. Great Day (Paul McCartney)
  2. (still untitled new waltz)
  3. (another still untitled new song)
  4. Lollipops and Roses (Tony Velona)
  5. Vanishing Act (built on the chords to ‘Move’)
  6. I Concentrate on You

Set 2

  1. Hey Joe
  2. Friends (Brian Wilson)
  3. Sanctus
  4. Alone Together
  5. Spoonman (Soundgarden song)
  6. I fall in Love to Easily
  7. Airegin

All in all, it was a really spectacular two sets and it would take far too long to talk about everything I liked. Instead of trying to talk about everything, I’m going to discuss five individual things: three things that make Brad one of the most enjoyable pianists to see and (lest my effusive praise go to their heads) two things I actually didn’t care for in the show. First, reasons to love Brad’s playing:

1: He is a killer comper. He is one of only a handful of pianists I can think of that really comp well. This really hit me in the first song of the evening, Paul McCartney’s ‘Great Day’. Larry Grenadier took the first solo of the evening and it’s hard to tell which I enjoyed more, Larry’s solo or Brad’s comping. Comping behind a bass solo is the ultimate test of skill: the pianist needs to be soft and subtle enough to give the bassist enough room to move around in and be heard clearly, which is easy enough to do, but hard to do and remain interesting. Throughout Larry’s solo, Brad added these perfect little punctuation marks, harmonically interesting, placed with such care in the measure, playing off of Larry’s phrases. It was just spectacular. Like all great soloists, Larry sounds better with a sympathetic band behind him, and he sounded great there. I would pay to see a show comprised solely of Brad comping with a rhythm section. No solos, no heads, just comping.

2: He has breathtaking two hand coordination. I grew up playing a wind instrument, so it’s always been impressive to me how pianists can sustain two melodies, one in each hand. Brad takes it to another level though. They’re not just two independent melodies, they’re two perfectly composed pieces of counterpoint, filled with poly-rhythms, traveling at breakneck speed over wide intervals in a song that’s in an odd time signature. Which brings me to my next point…

3: He has a great feel for time. You can feel it in the way he re-adapts standards to odd time signatures or in the way he chooses where his accents go in more normal signatures of four or three. It’s part of what makes his comping so exhilarating.

Now for the things I didn’t like so much:

1: Every so often he lapses into something approaching aimlessness. I remember taking lessons when I was a kid and getting the same advice I’m sure every beginning improvisor has gotten: don’t try and say too much. Beginning improvisors are always struck with the idea that they need to do something profound or impressive and end up trying to spit out as many notes as possible. It takes time to learn that leaving a bit of space is useful (particularly at the beginning of a solo) and that you should never go on longer than you need to. A teacher once gave me the useful advice of “if you ever wonder if you should take another chorus in a solo, you’ve already played too much.” 9 times out of 10, Brad is a paragon of well planned solo taking. The solos are long, but they follow a well constructed arc, starting out with sparser statements with plenty of space (sometimes in the first chorus or so he’ll even have one of his hands lifted away from the keys) and then slowly building and building. Sometimes, however, it feels like Brad runs out of things to say. As an example on record, I use his take on Coltrane’s ‘Countdown’ found on the live double album ‘Live’. Coltrane’s original is powerful partly because of it’s concision. It’s less than three minutes long, but that’s exactly the length it needs to be. Each instrument is introduced in turn, Coltrane’s solo becomes more intense until finally we here the melody of the song stated at the very end. The tension builds and builds until it’s finally released. Brad’s take, however, seems to lack that sense of concision. Coltrane has two and half minutes of things to say and takes two and half minutes to say them. Brad has three or four minutes of things to say, but takes ten. When I say ‘concision’ I don’t mean so much that the solo be short; rather, I mean that the solo should have no wasted space and take only as much time as as is needed to communicate the ideas. As an example of a very long solo that I would deem ‘concise’ under this definition, I would suggest Brad’s version of Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android”. It’s nearly 20 minutes long, but it never sounds to me like Brad is searching for something to say: it’s exciting all the way through.

There was only really one song last night that I felt that way about, the last song, Sonny Rollins’ ‘Airegin’. For the most part, I was enthralled by Brad’s solos, but on that last tune I wasn’t always sure where he was going with it.

2: Jeff’s solos tend to the formless. Jeff Ballard is a very good drummer, don’t get me wrong, but he works best (as is true of most musicians really) working with and off of his bandmates. As a foil beneath Brad or Larry or trading measures with the band he’s spectacular. When the rest of the band drops out, however, he seems to fall into the compositional trap that less experienced drummers fall into: the form and feel of the rest of the song dissipate and we’re left with this totally out of place solo, jarring when the rest of the band drops out and jarring again when they come back. Does a Cole Porter song need a hard pounding solo? Maybe, but it sounded off to me. Some of Jeff’s solos started with Larry and Brad holding the form under him or trading blocks of measures with him and those were great. Why did Larry and Brad have to drop out and give Jeff the space amble about?

Really, minor quibbles. It was a great two sets.

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