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Joe Major

The Egg
Albany, NY
April 16, 2016

by Joe Major

The Brad Mehldau Trio’s foray into The Egg Saturday night in Albany, New York, could stand as the epitome of chamber jazz art. That is, these potent practitioners were locked and loaded, with one in the chamber. 
For decades, pianist Mehldau has investigated the nuances and possible dimensions of the trio format. Throughout the 90s in particular, he recorded prolifically, including the expansive series “The Art of the Trio.” So on this evening, with longtime bassist partner Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard, their arsenal was fully stocked.
That familiar adage about married couples being prone to finishing each other’s sentences cleaves true in trio-land as well. And they bold, italicize and underline!
Their versatility and sheer cohesive musicality enabled Mehldau to muster unexpected currents of American songbook verve in some passages, and then follow those very same leads into a more contemporary, fractured, disassembly. The tidal swell of his compositions seemed to flow inward, have their thematic sails set, and in time, with just as much heave, project outward. Though in fact they weren’t, many numbers could have been titled “The Saga of How I Got Here,” or “The State of My Union Now,” so personal were their profiles.
His piano playing attracted mesmerizing scrutiny. That is, his actual playing. His piano attack struck(!) me as keyboard diction so precise I could hear the felt of his hammers. Whether it was his pre-strike nano-second delay, or an equally clipped post-strike sustain, his signature timing lent a tactile, topographical, bas relief quality to the music. Literally, an introspective piano massage.
This physicality was front and center on a yearning Sidney Bechet piece from the trio’s upcoming release, “Blues and Ballads,” in which he wrung the tenderness out of “If You See My Mother,” and on his encore offering of Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy After All These Years.” His “blues” are “teals,” in that they are tinctures, cut with hope and dawning. Did I really see him grab a handful of keys? On up-tempo numbers such as “Strange Gift,” “Yes Indeed,” and “Solid Jackson,” Mehldau might rip-and-read themes like a manic newscaster tearing sheets off an old teletype. Knifing through vigorous rhythm beds, his statements were sliced acerbically thin, or butchered in thick remorseless chunks.

Jeff Ballard marshaled tight waves of force on his kit. On a new piece, appropriately named “Something Featuring Jeff,” he oversaw a skinned and cymbaled array of armies and flanks and insurgencies. He commanded his close-order drum drill with the fervor of a table-top soccer game player rotating manipulative wooden dowels with near abandon. Right and tight! On many of the band’s journeys, he complemented the pliable, Möbius loop effect as the group ascended, stretched and contorted, crisply meeting back at the beginning, on schedule. 

Larry Grenadier, too, was an integral part of those stories. On a number like “Wolfgang’s Waltz,” he was complicit in the archeology and cataloging of melody. Always, his svelte bass articulation allowed him to walk, swing, noir if needed, and, I swear, scat.
Enthralled by his band mates and their imaginative declarations, Mehldau at one point sat motionless, in full-bliss lotus position on his piano stool, gaping.

Via trio feats heroic and mean, he turned corners and entered zones where pure tuneful ore was extracted from songs. Achingly tuneful. His lyrical residue was dense enough that post-concert, one found oneself in one’s car, motionless, reluctant to disturb the still settling, still ringing, resonant spell.

Joe Major is an inveterate jazz pilgrim for whom the holy grail is always the evocative communion of impression meeting expression. Living over the border in Williamstown, MA, for thirty-plus years, he’s been the grateful beneficiary of countless Williams College performances that have arranged themselves on his ever shifting life list.