CD review: Brad Mehldau

Live In Marciac
(Nonesuch 520275)

The American pianist’s two most recently released recordings were Highway Rider, which featured his trio with added musicians and an orchestra playing live in the studio, and a recital of original and standard love songs with the mezzo-soprano Anne Sophie Von Otter. Here here gets back to (far from basic) basics – just him on the stage with a grand piano.

Recorded in 2006 at Marciac in France, this sounds and looks like a complete concert in sequence, rather than the edited highlights of a few nights – I say “looks” because in addition to the two CDs you get a DVD which contains 13 of the 14 songs. They include originals, and tunes by Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Bobby Timmons, Nick Drake, Radiohead, Lennon and McCartney and Kurt Cobain.

This mix of the great American songbook and more recent rock songs seems conventional these days but Mehldau was one of the first to embrace such a wide repertoire. And his influences are even wider. He told the Huffington Post:

“I draw on a lot of classical music, pop and rock music, music from Brazil, and other stuff. I listen to it for pleasure and enjoyment, and then a lot of it filters out in my playing. With classical music, there’s a written canon there – you can study those scores. There’s a good three centuries of stuff to check out – it’s endless. Ultimately I think of myself as an improvising jazz musician at the end of the day, and one of my talents I guess is assimilating all of that written stuff and making it part of what I do.”

The classical connection, what helps him exploit it and what sets him apart from many jazz pianists to my ears, is his amazingly strong left hand. In the middle of It’s Alright With Me, for example, he suddenly breaks into the kind of two-handed flight, two strong improvisational lines, one in left and one in right, surging off in a kind of conversation but each individually astounding, that leaves me forgetting to breathe.

His slow, pensive reading of Fain and Webster’s Secret Love, which follows it, is thing of great beauty and depth.

So, there is a good hour and a half here of solo piano playing which never becomes samey or self-indulgent, which continues to surprise, delight, excite and comfort in turn. But there is also a DVD which is just as absorbing. Mehldau is great to watch, with all the intensity of Keith Jarrett but without the eccentricities which can sometimes be distracting. Watching Mehldau makes it easier to get right into the music.

There is a fascinating addition to the DVD selection, which lets you watch a transcription of one complete track, the original Unrequited,  flowing across the screen while you hear it: a compelling visual picture of the improvising mind in action.

It is striking to think that Mehldau’s first Art Of The Trio album came out just 16 years ago; now he is making music of a scope and range which transcends the genre, is coming up to a residency at Carnegie Hall in New York, and is curating a strand at the Wigmore Hall in London.

He remains possibly the greatest melodist of our jazz age at a time when it sometimes feels like melodies are rare gems to treasure. Live in Marciac is a prime example of his art.

Read more about Brad and the new album here.



Categories: CD review, DVD review

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