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Filene Recital Hall - Skidmore College
Saratoga Springs, NY
April 6, 2008

By J Hunter

QUESTION: How do you turn a concert hall into a sardine can?
ANSWER: You book the Brad Mehldau Trio.
Skidmore's Filene Concert Series continued its run of spring shows with a visit from Mehldau, one of the best pianists in jazz today. The unfortunate part was the necessity of holding the concert in the Filene Recital Hall, as opposed to the larger Bernhard Theater. A certificate on the wall of the Filene says the hall's capacity is 250. It's safe to say that number was decidedly eclipsed, as every seat in the soon-to-be-steamy house was taken. Those who didn't get there in time to grab one of the steel folding chairs set up on the entrance ways had to press against the back wall; attempts to sit in the aisles were immediately cut short – something I'd love to see happen at Skidmore Jazz Institute's summer shows at the Bernhard.
Was it comfortable? Not even close – and I'd worn a long-sleeved turtleneck under my jacket, in deference to the chill that was still in the Capital Region air, so I was definitely a hurting unit! But, given the beauty and musicianship we were all about to see, Skidmore could have turned the furnace up to the red line, and no-one would have given it a second thought. Like last month's visit by Chris Potter's Underground, this was a Birdland-quality artist playing at a 250 seat theatre (Well, 250-plus, anyway) in upstate New York. That's a gift that keeps on giving!
Mehldau and his rhythm section – longtime bassist Larry Grenadier, drummer/relative newcomer Jeff Ballard – came out ten minutes late (They were probably hydrating), and went into a nuanced reading of Monk's "work" without introduction. There were hints of Monk's between-notes approach, though the dissonance Monk is famous for wasn't as pronounced as you'd expect. What was pronounced was the clipped attack, the spare chords, and the sense that this was bebop combined with something indefinable. That was perfect for Mehldau, who's been blazing his own trail ever since he arrived on the scene.
Mehldau ceded the first solo to Grenadier, who simply took off like a bird. The upstate New York resident burns, both on solos and in support. On one of (in Mehldau's words) "a slew of originals… none of which have titles" that followed "Work", Grenadier primarily stuck to one figure while Mehldau and Ballard held an increasingly frenetic conversation; but even though Grenadier found ways to work off that figure, just one figure was all he needed to make a big impression. For the most part, Ballard didn't drop bombs, but he threw a few flash-bang grenades as he kept the beat sweet, be it slow or fast. He and his partners traded 4's with practiced ease on Clifford Brown's "Brownie Speaks", earning shouts of approval from the audience; Ballard also sculpted subtle sounds with bright red brushes on the Kurt Weill- Ira Gershwin standard "My Ship."
Mehldau's brilliance as a player is well-documented. The sounds he's made – both as leader and sideman – has earned him well-deserved acclaim. What you don't get from his recordings is Mehldau's actual technique, which has to be seen to be believed. The man plays with passion and commitment, no doubt; you could see it when he shook his shoulders to the groove of "Brownie Speaks." He leaned so hard into one solo, he looked like a hunchback. But the precision with which he coaxed notes out the grand piano with a soft touch of the hand just left you breathless. It didn't matter whether the tune was fast or slow: He took the same care on Toninho Horta's "All These Things" – a bright happy bossa that closed the regular set – as he did on the haunting encore "River Man." I especially loved how he switched Nick Drake's lyric from right hand to left on the last chorus, darkening the melody without changing the overall tone.
This makes back-to-back home runs for the Filene Concert Series – jot just in terms of performance quality, but in attendance. Both these shows drew many people from outside the student body; with consistent marketing, this series could become an equal to Skidmore Jazz' well-established series. Before that happens, though, Skidmore needs to see if the Filene Foundation will front an upgrade of the Recital Hall's air-conditioning system.

J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz programming), Q104 WQBK/Albany, and WSSV/Saratoga. He has also written music and theatre reviews for the Glens Falls Chronicle. He currently resides in Clifton Park.