Review: Joe Henry, Brad Mehldau

Joe Henry and Brad Mehldau
(Wigmore Hall, 2nd December 2011. Review by Sebastian Scotney)

This concert brought to a close Brad Mehldau’s curatorship – what an odd word that is when used in live music – of the Wigmore Hall’s Jazz Series, which has run since the 2009/10 season. The Joshua Redman/ Brad Mehldau duo at the end of 2009 (reviewed here) was certainly a highlight, but the series has brought in other interesting concerts such as Mehldau/ Thile (reviewed here )the less well-attended Klaus Gesing/ Gwilym Simcock duo this summer (reviewed here). But Mehldau is indisputably a box office draw and there had been no such difficulty for this concert. With ticket prices of up to £30, tickets for this concert had been snapped up eighteen months ago.

Mehldau clearly revels in the acoustic of the Wigmore Hall and in the quality of the Wigmore’s Steinway. He took a solo spot in Cole Porter’s From This Moment On, giving the tune a thorough harmonic working over, head bowed down Bill Evans-style, lovingly exploring every contour of it. Melodic ideas were emerging in the left hand in the tenor register, then some fiercely technical studies in contrary motion (blame Ferruccio Busoni, who scowls forbiddingly on the wall of the Green Room) then a hand-crossing extravaganza. This demonstration of a great pianist taking his time to commune with the tone of the piano and the unique resonance of the Wigmore Hall was sheer joy.

The invitation by Brad Mehldau to Joe Henry to perform in the Wigmore Hall has a certain irresistible incongruousness about it. The Wigmore Hall is known as the Temple of Song. In some quarters of fogeydom they still nod sagely about Lotte Lehmann masterclasses in 1957. But Joe Henry may be the first artist to appear at the hall  billed as just “SINGER.”

Henry, as is well-known,  is much more than a singer. He’s a highly skilled lyricist in the lineage of Tom Waits or Paul Simon who has just produced – I calculate – a fourteenth album of songs in his own name. He’s an in-demand producer, he has composed film scores, and is also – we’re testing the boundaries of relevance here – Madonna’s brother-in-law.

He made a statement with his first appearance, standing with guitar to sing a solo, unamplified song about a wayfarer, letting his slightly rasping voice find its way into the far corners of the hall. As a duo with Mehldau he performed several of his own thoughtful, individual songs. There is no hiding away in intellectual shallows with Henry. Dark Tears, for example, was prefaced by an explanation plunging straight into the deeply philosophical world of T.S. Eliot’s Burnt Norton: “When you take a picture”, said Henry “two things happen: you project into the future, and the present is relegated to the past.”  Our Country  from 2007 about the shame felt by many Americans in the latter stages of the George W. Bush presidency is a bitterly reflective unforgettably dark song:

This was our country
This was our song
Somewhere in the middle there
Though it started badly and it’s ending wrong

This was our country
This frightful and this angry land
But it’s my right if the worst of it might
Still somehow make me a better man

Henry also sang standards – “I don’t get to do this very often”, he said –  starting with Mercer/Van Heusen’s I Thought About You. This was a reminder of what a compelling straightahead player Mehldau can be, perhaps best demonstrated on record in Don’t Explain,  the duo  album he recorded with erstwhile, teenage sparring partner saxophonist Joel Frahm. What Henry does with standards is to home attention in on the words. By leaving (long) pauses between words, by kicking the important words up a third to make them stand out, perhaps nowhere more effectively than in Cole Porter’s I’ve Got You Under My Skin, performed as the single encore after the duo’s single 90-minute set. So effective those gaps: “I’ve got you […..] Under my skin” , or  “Why not use your [……] Mentality.

The last gesture, of this song, of this concert, of this three-year curatorship was one careful sounding of the tonic, marcato, with the little finger of Mehldau’s left hand, deep in the bass. That was finality, expressed perfectly in a single note. But there’s more than a rumour he’ll be back….

Wigmore Hall/ Produced by Serious.

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2 replies »

  1. I thought that the singing paled after the first few pieces and really wanted to hear Mehldau on his own. Like many rock / folk / jazz / contemporary singers singing through the head is not really effective without a microphone. I loved Mehldau's first solo – 'Hey Joe' I believe, even though I didn't recognise his take on it initially.


  2. “Hey Joe” by Jimi Hendrix! By far the best pop song I've heard him reinterpret. I could hardly have imagined a more unique mash up of material than this gig's set list.

    I can scarcely believe that Joe Henry, a mega-producer, would perform in less than acceptable circumstances. Yet even he seemed incredulous that his voice would bounce off the back wall. Remarking, “I'll just believe that you all can hear me”, as he commenced to unfold the opening number like he was unwrapping a piece of himself for our inspection.

    Still, I found his performance of the standards to be fresh and engaging, especially his timing and tonal inflections. And much of that is due to Mehldau's guiding light. Henry admitted before Mehldau took the stage that his colleague, “was THE musician that he most respected in the world”.

    The genius in this performance was how Mehldau balanced the Hall's stentorian Steinway with an unamplified throat and nose singing, acoustic guitar playing hillbilly poet philosopher. Perhaps the hard core fans were disappointed; and I would have loved to have heard him riff off into infinity. But given the bill, what could be expected? The man is a brilliant accompanist as well as a genius composer/virtuoso and the next time I hear him live, it would be nice if he played more solos; and preferably at Wigmore Hall.

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