Brad Mehldau | Wolf Trap | 11.11.01 | Vienna, VA
Brad Mehldau - Piano
Jorge Rossy - Drums
Larry Grenadier - Bass

One Set: Untitled original, Anything Goes (Cole Porter), Untitled original, Everything in it’s right place (Radiohead), Nearness of You (Hobie Carmichael), Still Crazy (Paul Simon) E: Untitled original

Groups like Brad Mehldau's trio VERY rarely come along, much less do they play together for the amount of time that this group has been sharing the stage. The individual players are of the highest caliber in technique, soul, feel, improvisation and approach. Together this group speaks as one very advanced being while focusing the flow of creativity that drives them. Almost as if the players are aware of the fact that so much energy is coming through them that they are focusing it, but at the same time completely oblivious to it. The set at Wolf Trap Farms' “The Barns” this past Sunday was absolutely no exception to the high level of art this group produces. Combining new untitled compositions with some intense arrangements of popular tunes the group left many a spectator wide eyed, and open eared. Possessing a serene and powerful subconscious flow silence is this groups’ friend.

The group opened with an untitled piece that worked the signature swing this group is so good at feeling out. It is sort of a loose feel that allows the music to dictate it’s own direction. The form being very loose within the feel (a medium blues-swing) opened the night nicely and warmed the players up to the room. “The Barns” at Wolf Trap Farm Park is essentially a barn that has been converted into a performance space. with a capacity of about 500-700 the place holds a very intimate and elegant, but down home and comfortable feel. It is truly great to see a show where the crowd doesn’t get rowdy, instead, choosing to focus on every note the artists churn out. This setting couldn’t cater to Brad Mehldau and his group more perfectly.

As the group found its bearings in “The Barns” they slid into the second piece, an arrangement of “Anything Goes” by Cole Porter in a floating waltz type feel. While every note seemingly held the utmost importance the group worked through the head that once again held true to Mr. Mehldau’s arranging approach in which he actually deconstructs the chords and melody only to reconstruct the piece so that it contours the flow of the music (more on that later). It was evidently clear in this tune as Larry Grenadier launched into a very descriptive bass solo that these guys came to play. Guiding and storytelling on his instrument, Grenadier gently wrapped up his solo and handed it off to Brad to build on the tale. Not losing stride Mehldau forged ahead while paying serious attention to each note. Both soloists stayed in the general neighborhood of the form, but eloquently side stepped both harmonically and rhythmically in their tales’.

The next piece (yet another untitled original) moved dramatically away from the Cole Porter tune, and the opener. Beginning with a descending melody that outlined a back-beat groove in 7/4 (odd time signature... giving an asymmetrical feel or interjecting a “hiccup”), and once again the music completely dictated itself twisting and turning around the melody, and landing back at the beginning. There seemed to be a strict rondo form (ABABAB... etc) to this piece that revolved around the melody played over the “A” groove in 7. Ferociously restrained, the group slipped into a symmetrical feel for the solo as Rossy opened up the sound spectrum utilizing every part of every cymbal and drum in his set exhibiting superior patience and touch. Mehldau and Grenadier both traded lyrical lines over the bed of sound that Rossy was so busy providing. After a bit of somewhat traditional conversing, Mehldau and Grenadier both slid the music horizontally and ended up in (seemingly) completely unexplored territory. The group seems to do this with a large portion of their material, simply using the context of the piece as a platform for improvisation. Similar to getting in and out of the pool in summer, because as soon as you’re out of the water you want to get back in. The group treats the improvisation like the pool. Once back in the water (improvisation) they completely let go and allow the muse to take control. Strangely enough they seem VERY in control, yet at the same time completely tuned out, and out of the way (of the music). Their instruments nearly play themselves, and through subconscious communication arrive back on the “edge of the pool” to wrap the piece up.

After a bit of introductions Larry Grenadier composed himself and began a very spacious bass solo. Working with mostly open string repeated patterns (very lyrically) that resembled the ferocity of Ron Carter, and the lyrical qualities of Dave Holland Grenadier slipped into a progression that seemed all too familiar to this listener. In an instant, I realized that I was going to be treated to yet another Mehldau interpretation of a Radiohead composition. The group clicked and slid into the opening melody of “Everything in it’s Right Place” from the album Kid A. I’ve been a huge fan of what Radiohead has been doing recently, and Mr. Mehldau has been known to very elegantly arrange tunes of theirs (“Exit Music (for a film),” “Paranoid Android,” and now “Everything in it’s Right Place”). As was stated before, Brad has an approach to covers in which he actually deconstructs and reconstructs the piece. Basically Mehldau will take a bar or two of a melody and stretch it over a full sixteen bars or do exactly the opposite and take a sixteen bar melody and squish it into one or two bars not to mention everything in between and outside these examples both harmonically and rhythmically.

“Everything in it’s Right Place” held to this as the melody stayed roughly the same in length, but was off kilter either rhythmically or harmonically creating a “teetering” feel that threatened to fall off into an abyss of sound. The solo here was truly a group solo dispensing huge breathing phrases that bled into one another. The solo section seemed to be comprised of vamps over the different vocal “cells” from the melody. Climaxing together, Grenadier and Mehldau drop into the opening three chord vamp that Rossy gladly ate up. The drummer’s touch is absolutely astounding, and to see/hear someone pour so much energy into every note is more than a treat. The attention to volume is just remarkable, and often allows Rossy to speak just as fluidly and dramatically as his tonal counterparts. Just as the drum solo comes to a head the group swung back around to the opening melody.

Next up was a ballad entitled “Nearness of You” by Hobie Carmichael. This piece explored just how quiet and spacious the group could get without losing focus or flow. It is EXTREMELY difficult for musicians to convincingly play slowly, and the attention this group pays to both the rhythmic dynamics (fast/slow) and the harmonic dynamics (loud/soft) is just masterful. Notes and phrases drip off the player’s fingers constantly tempting disaster, but always landing just in time. After tracing a somewhat typical solo section the drums and bass drop out. Brad Mehldau is the type of player that can turn a solo improvised piece of work into a micro cosmos of ideas and emotion. Seemingly composed, Mehldau develops the simple melodies of the piece into a lush and driving wash of colors and rhythms, and structures the solo in such a way that the listener is truly taken on a “story-like” journey. The solo gently wrapped around to the head and the group brought the piece to and close.

After some brief thanks and introductions, the Mehldau Trio moved into Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy.” Just as the Radiohead tune played earlier, it was a bit difficult to distinguish the piece as it begun, but by the time the rest of the group had fallen into place it was quite apparent what they were playing. Lightly outlining a waltz feel with the brushes Rossy and Grenadier shaped the long breath like phrases of the melody that Mr. Mehldau has so eloquently reformed to his liking (or rather to the muse’s liking). There are small pauses and extensions of the melody as the music passes that add to the color this group is able to place on nearly any tune. It is simply astounding how seamlessly Jorge Rossy is able to switch from the brushes and mallets to his sticks. The sound never pauses, and all of a sudden you hear the rhythms pick up a notch as the Rossy’s sticks push the groove. Very slow and patient growth in dynamics are a signature of this group, and this example was no exception. “Still Crazy” developed into a joyous swing in three which the players slid all over creating some exceptional moods.

After a brief pause and applause the group returned for the encore which could have been another Untitled original, but this listener is just not sure. Either way the closer would encompass all the musical ideals presented by the group throughout the evening. Opening with “child-like” madness, Rossy beat away on his snare drum with his hands, but delicately outlined a very energetic rhythm. Grenadier, literally “wailing” his upright, led the group to slam into the head and drive forward with a “calypso” or “island” feel. Once through the head the group again dove into the musical void that they had so amazingly commanded throughout the evening. The group then proceeded to use the form as a catapult for improvisation. They’d play “snippets” from the head and follow each of the “snippets” into a wide-open improvisation based upon that “snippet.” Say for instance that the group is traveling down the middle of a “tube” and the “tube” represents the piece of music while the space around the musicians is the actual music that they are playing. In any piece of music there are doorways that exit for improvisation all along the “tube” and it is up to the players (or the muse) to decide which doors are opened. In this encore the group utilized these “doors” all over the piece, and created an entire composition based upon their improvisation over the simple tune that they began with. It is simply astounding how many different corridors this group is able to cohesively touch on within any given piece they choose as their “tube.”

The artistry displayed on 11/11/01 in Vienna, VA is of the likes that few are able to experience in a lifetime. The fact that this group has been together for so long is a testament to the art they create. Their improvisation has reached the level where truly anything can happen at any moment, and often does. If you are interested in listening to some of the magic this group creates make sure you seek out a date near you or purchase any of the Art of Trio albums (volumes I-IV). The second and fourth volumes are recorded live at the Village Vanguard, and are both excellent recordings filled with immensely soulful improvisation. I feel blessed to have seen this group twice now, and only wish that I could somehow pass on the insight that each performance has given me.

William J. Turfcott
JamBase | Mid-Atlantic Seaboard
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[Published on: 11/15/01]

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