To me, the greatness of music, particularly in a live setting, is best realized when multiple musicians are playing and reacting to each other. It is in the musical conversation where discoveries are made, where static notes and chords reach a dynamic they miss alone. For this reason, solos usually bore me--don't get me started on drum solos--and this is why it takes something special from a musician to capture my attention playing alone on a stage.

On his new solo piano disc Live in Tokyo Brad Mehldau proves himself to be, without a doubt, special enough. The disc features only seven pieces, each an incarnation of "pop" music in one form or another, all covers or standards, hitting such musical geniuses as Cole Porter, George Gerswhin, Nick Drake, Thelonius Monk, and Radiohead. But the compositions are only half the story with Brad, because pretty much every track features a split, a departure, a launch, rendering each song a bipolar adventure. Just as Mehldau separates his two hands, playing them off each other, interacting each finger as if it were an individual musician playing and reacting in the interplay I long for, he also separates the heart and the soul of each song, playing them both as straight standards and as themes for unfettered improvisation.

Take the well-worn favorite "Someone to Watch Over Me" by Gershwin. Mehldau gets deeply into the playing of this one, giving as good a version as you'll hear in a straight reading of the classic. Then, gradually or suddenly, I can't tell which, the walls of the song structure disappear, the themes become barely recognizable and, like his piano were a four-wheel-drive vehicle, Mehldau turns off the road and starts exploring the wilderness around him. The result is as stunning an improvisation as you'll hear, giving the listener reason to double take to his mirror image, to ask, "Is this one piano or two?" and "What song is this again?"

It's difficult to imagine a singular musician creating more absorbing dynamics. Later, on a classic of a different sort, Mehldau deftly transposes Radiohead's "Paranoid Android" into a masterful jazz piano piece. Flattening Thom Yorke's layers and layers of vocals and instrumentation into a solo piano effort seems like task enough, but Mehldau doesn't rest with just the "straight" reading, as brilliant as it is. Once again he turns the corner, this time leaving the planet altogether, unfolding the origami that is Radiohead and making something equally stunning but fully his own.

This is the type of album that can only be appreciated as a live performance and the recording is exquisite. You feel as if you are sitting there across the ocean in Tokyo, having your brain handed to you in complete silence before erupting in applause after the final note of each piece--and wondering if merely clapping your hands is enough to show how awe-struck you are by the performance you are witnessing. Brad Mehldau is a master and Live in Tokyo is a must-own.

Aaron Stein
JamBase | New York
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[Published on: 11/5/04]

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