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My father-in-law was in the hospital with pneumonia when I heard Brad Mehldau at the Village Vanguard in late September, so I left my cell phone on. That nobody called was a double blessing—no troubling updates from Florida and no petulant scolding from the bandstand. Don’t get me wrong: that theatrical sigh of exasperation you hear when someone’s cell twitters during a concert is very likely to be mine. But the second time it happened during a Mehldau set in an Oakland nightclub a few years ago, his reaction was so out of proportion—and so prissy—that I couldn’t help laughing in agreement with another writer at my table who leaned close and whispered, “Aw, poor baby.”
Like Keith Jarrett, whom he resembles in his sacramental approach to jazz and faith in the ways of the hand, Mehldau sure makes it difficult for a critic to be on his side. The last time I heard Jarrett’s Standards Trio, one tune concluded with him raising his plastic water bottle in a toast to Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette; you’d have thought they’d just achieved transubstantiation rather than a reasonably swinging “Bye Bye Blackbird.” Like high fives after a home run, it seemed the masculine equivalent of “You go, girl,” bespeaking a rah-rah affirmation as foreign to Hank Jones as it would have been to Joe DiMaggio. Mehldau’s preening is more subtle. Among the forms it takes are his wordy essays on the creative process for JazzTimes and his liner-note beefing with writers who liken him to Bill Evans. Mehldau is right to insist that he has little in common with Evans (for starters, his beat isn’t nearly as lithe), and right that the comparison amounts to racial profiling—a point of view that casts white jazzmen as “introspective,” in contrast to their “expressive” black counterparts. Then again, a pianist who hunches over the keys exactly as Evans did and assigns his copyrights to Werther Music probably has it coming.
None of this would be worth talking about if Mehldau’s solos weren’t also a little too fussy and self-involved, and if—again, in common with Jarrett—he weren’t prodigiously talented despite it all. My biggest quarrel with Mehldau’s Art of the Trio series—dominated by standards, usually recorded at the Vanguard—is that your early thirties is awfully young to start releasing the same album over and over again. The occasional solo album, two featuring only his originals, and the Jon Brion–produced (and oversweetened) Largo were inconsequential variations on the formula. As if to add spice, Mehldau occasionally interprets newer pop songs alongside golden-age ones, but because he favors Nick Drake, Thom Yorke, and other great white mopes like himself, this hasn’t exactly drawn him out.
Live in Tokyo, Mehldau’s new solo album, starts with Drake’s “Things Behind the Sun” and ends with a brooding “River Man,” a song whose newfound popularity with jazz performers (Andy Bey has also recorded it) is puzzling, given that Drake hinted at jazz in his supple phrasing, not in his barren melodies. Radiohead has become a Mehldau specialty, but once you remove its apocalyptic production and Yorke’s boy-in-a-bubble vocal, there’s not much left to “Paranoid Android”—certainly not enough to justify Mehldau’s nearly 20 minutes of vamping and Chopin arpeggios. He’d be better off sticking to the standard repertoire, especially Thelonious Monk and Cole Porter. “Monk’s Dream” is this recital’s master stroke, a rigorous examination of the composer’s pouncing melody and each of its underlying rhythms that finds Mehldau putting his abundant technique to a higher purpose than showing off. He turns two Gershwin tunes into overwrought études, and recasts Porter’s “From This Moment On” as a semi-dirge, foolishly resisting the lyric’s call for “only whoop-dee-do songs.” But for confirmation of Mehldau’s insight into Porter, go to the title track of Anything Goes, from earlier this year.
You might never guess it from the execrable De-Lovely, but behind their sophistication, some of Porter’s best numbers were rhythm songs, and this is the angle from which Mehldau, bassist Larry Grenadier, and drummer Jorge Rossy approach “Anything Goes,” teasing the melody along by syncopating it and postponing its cadences—a device pleasantly reminiscent of Ahmad Jamal’s trios in this context, and one that Mehldau frequently draws on even when playing unaccompanied, possibly his modernist adaptation of stride. Other highlights from Mehldau’s liveliest trio album so far—not to say it doesn’t have its longueurs—include a sprint through Monk’s “Skippy” and a version of Henry Mancini’s “Dreamsville” (the background music Peter Gunn and Edie Hart chilled to) so swanky Rossy might be keeping time with a swizzle stick instead of brushes.
Which brings us back to the Vanguard a few weeks ago. There were two ways of viewing the personnel on this gig: as a new edition of Mehldau’s trio with a replacement drummer (Jeff Ballard) and saxophonist Mark Turner sitting in, or as Mehldau guesting with Turner, Ballard, and Grenadier’s group Fly. Either way, Mehldau was a revelation. Adding a horn to the fray silenced the pretentious hush that often surrounds his piano, and itchy solos that made stops in the church and the barrelhouse as well as the recital hall recalled the promise he showed in the early ’90s as a member of Joshua Redman’s band. But the alchemy worked both ways. Fly is a potentially great band with which the unassertive Turner tends to float ethereally over bass and drums; Mehldau’s vigorous comping and tricky counter-rhythms brought him down-to-earth now and then, without demanding he stay put, and he responded with uncharacteristically heated blowing. The set I heard consisted of three complex Mehldau originals that went untitled—”some things I’ve been working on.” I hope they turn up on his next CD, along with Turner, Grenadier, and Ballard.