London Jazz Festival Review: Brad Mehldau Trio, Barbican, 14th November 2012

Brad Mehldau Trio
(Barbican, Weds 14th Nov. London Jazz Festival Review by Edana Minghella)

Introducing the American virtuoso piano player Brad Mehldau to a packed Barbican, Jumoké Fashola described him as a “monumental” pianist, influenced by poetry and story-telling. He is in fact an accomplished writer as well as a musician. His essays on music, composers, the great philosophers, are contemplative, intellectual and eclectic, but also deeply personal. And so it is with his music. This concert was a stunning, intense experience, an education in the capacity of music to expand, to transform itself and the listener, before our very ears.

Mehldau sits at the piano like a writer, a touch-typist at the keyboard, letting his ideas flow. He opened the set with Great Day, a Paul McCartney tune, playing side on, eyes closed, meditative. Drummer Jeff Ballard started with his hands, then somewhere along the line picked up a stick, then another as the music took shape and expanded. Larry Grenadier on double bass appeared to be able to read Mehldau’s mind, first playing in unison with him, then harmonising effortlessly. These three have been playing together for many years, and it shows. They know each other inside out. The signals between them are invisible. They give each other space, they cosy up as tight as they can be, or they sit back and admire each other’s work. They are brothers.

In a varied set that lasted almost two hours, McCartney featured twice. The second tune was a Brazilian-influenced reworking of the Beatles’ And I Love Her, starting out beautifully melodic, then intensifying to become almost filmic. There followed a meaty blues number – Charlie Parker’s Cheryl – where both Grenadier and Ballard were able to stretch out and play fantastic extended solos, showing off their world-class credentials should anyone be under the illusion that this is a one-man band. Grenadier is an exceptionally dextrous, exciting musician. If Jimi Hendrix were to be reincarnated as a jazz double bass player, he’d come back as Grenadier. Yet he was not averse to playing with a bow (kindly lent by an audience member!).

Another delight, in an evening full of them, was the blues standard Since I Fell For You. Here we were treated to a brilliant solo from Mehldau, moving from a muscular 12/8 feel into gospel then to classical church music in 4/4 time and finally to a huge masterful Rachmaninov-like display of virtuosity. Indeed echoes and influences from classical composers as diverse as Beethoven, Brahms and Stravinsky feature strongly in Mehldau’s playing. A Bach fugue appeared in one tune, a Debussy waterfall motif in another.

But this is not cold intellectual music. It is emotional and it is physical. Mehldau’s physicality is striking. Especially in the expansive intense solos, his whole body plays the piano, the left hand as strong and powerful as the right, every bit of his being involved in this beautiful sound. And the emotion flows from that. The music might be soulful, ballsy or delicate, but it will suddenly surprise with a mood change that brings unexpected tears. In his writing, Mehldau has said “ It is the listener… who assigns meaning, ideas and emotions to music once he or she hears it.” Maybe so, but we go there thanks to extraordinary musicians like Mehldau and his collaborators.

There were three encores at the end of this astonishing set, including a fabulous Still Crazy After All These Years, beautifully capturing that tune’s combination of nostalgia and ruefulness. Finally the Barbican audience reluctantly let the band leave. Taking their bows, the three men had their arms around each others’ shoulders: the love of three brothers, wonderful to see, a privilege to hear.

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