Friday, July 15, 2011

Brad Mehldau

Solo jazz pianists are an endangered species, and for good reason; most of them should be shot. Keith Jarrett, as great as he is, should never be forgiven for the noodling hours and orgasmic groans he has committed to his solo recordings. Even at its best -- Monk's sides for Blue Note, say, or Bill Evans' exquisite "Peace Piece" -- solo jazz piano is best experienced and appreciated in short bursts. Push it much beyond five minutes and the eyes start to glaze over.

So, how to explain Brad Mehldau? Mehldau essentially operates in three modes -- as the maestro of the standard piano trio, as the daring obliterator of genre boundaries (see his work with Anne Sofie von Otter or Joe Henry, or his stirring takes on Nirvana and Radiohead), and, yes, as a solo pianist. The weird thing is he's good, very good, and fascinatingly listenable, even when he's playing all by his lonesome for hours at a time.

Consider his 1999 album Elegiac Cycle, an hour-long solo piano test of endurance that turns out to be nothing of the kind. Instead, the ravishingly lovely songs spin out in endless variations, the perfect distillation of classical impressionism and jazz improvisation. There's a bit of Debussy there, a bit of Monk in the stabbbing left hand, a whole lot of Bach counterpoint and Bill Evans meditative rumination, all rolled into a seamless whole that remains startling more than a decade after its release. I still listen to this album every couple months or so, and I hear new delights every time. Or consider his latest album Live in Marciac, a 2-disc solo set that surely seems like it could be marketed as a possible insomnia remedy, but which instead offers one astonishing delight after another. It's difficult to sleep when your jaw is on the floor.

Mehldau has prodigious technique, to be sure, but what impresses me even more is his ability to wed those classical chops with the jazz and blues chord structures that invariably communicate deep soulfulness and melanchology. He's the most gifted synthesist currently working in jazz. I'm astounded that I'm about to write this sentence, but I'd be hard-pressed to recommend a better starting point than his latest 2-hour solo piano set. You get the Bach counterpoint, the Great American Songbook, and Nirvana, Nick Drake, and Beatles covers, plus a DVD that does little more than show Brad Mehldau's hands at work. He's a good worker. You should check him out.


Ben McFarland said...

Andy, This music is incredible. I have a very high bar for buying music these days but after just finding a few songs I can tell Mehldau will be worth a purchase. This absolutely made my day -- thanks.

Andy Whitman said...

You're welcome, Ben. I'm glad you're enjoying Mr. Mehldau. He's a revelation.