When: Tuesday, April 6 • Where: Dakota • Who: Brad Mehldau, piano; Larry Grenadier, bass; Jeff Ballard, drums
Brad Mehldau is always a great pleasure to hear, both live and on recording, especially with his telepathic trio. But the second set on his first night of a two-night stay at the Dakota seems different. More expressive, more focused, smarter, more surprising, and just plain brilliant.
I did something I rarely do: asked the people in the booth seated next to us to please hold down their conversation. I wanted to hear every note.
Past live performances have included the occasional noodlesome passage, where Mehldau and his group seemed stuck in a ruminative, meditative groove a bit too long. Not tonight. No note is a placeholder. They are all alive, all precisely where they belong.
Mehldau appears more relaxed, more comfortable with the crowd, less pulled into himself; even his posture at the piano is different. He turns to the crowd after most tunes with a hands-together namaste gesture. He talks more. A few tunes into the set, he tells us what they have just played, then keeps us current up to the encore.
They open with Mehldau's take on Alice in Chains' "Got Me Wrong," then play a beautiful original waltz by Mehldau, not yet titled. An elegant "Samba e Amor" by Brazilian composer Chico Buarque, during which my attention returns again and again to Grenadier's eloquent bass. All fairly mellow. A speedy (new?) something called "Vanishing Act" begins with lengthy, fascinating solos by Ballard and Grenadier.
Elvis Costello's "Baby Plays Around" is for me the high point, if I'm forced to choose one. Unlike other pop/rock songs that Mehldau has brought into the jazz fold, I know this song, having heard Curtis Stigers sing it. (During the first part, when Mehldau plays the melody, I can hear Stigers' voice and the lyrics in my head: "It's not open to discussion anymore/She's out again tonight and I'm alone once more/She's all I have worth waiting for/But baby plays around.")
Mehldau sets it up with a small joke: "To get an idea of the lyric, Baby is not playing around with the one who wrote the song." He gives us the melody, moody and wistful and embroidered, then transforms it into something big, rhapsodic, and off the charts. To Mehldau, a song is just a launching pad.
The final song of the set: a gorgeous cover of Sufjan Stevens' "Holland." The trio has been playing this for some time; here's a crisp, clear video of a March 2008 performance in Germany.
The encore: something that begins with Radiohead (or so says Joe D.; it's not a tune I know) and morphs into the crashing chords of "Feelin' Alright" (think Joe Cocker at Woodstock; thanks, Rickey J., for that). Like the other songs we've heard tonight, it ends in a gossamer whisper.
I've read that Brad Mehldau has been ramping it up, that he's better than ever, that his live performances lately are astonishing, that he's at the peak of his powers. No argument from me. This show was something special, a jewel in an already dazzling crown. And I don't think we've seen the peak of his powers; he's only 39.
Mehldau returns for two more sets tonight (Wednesday), then again in November (5–6) to play his highly acclaimed new work, "Highway Rider," with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra at the Walker Art Center.