Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Poet and author Quincy Troupe in conversation at the U

Originally published at MinnPost.com on Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Each year, the NOMMO African-American Authors Series brings top authors to town for public conversations with University of Minnesota professor Alexs Pate. This Wednesday, April 28, at 7 p.m., you can come to Coffman Memorial Union and hear poet and author Quincy Troupe. And if you’re a U of M student or Friend of the University of Minnesota Libraries, you can hear him for free.
Troupe is a two-time American Book Award winner, World Heavyweight Champion Poet, author of 17 books, co-author with Chris Gardner of “The Pursuit of Happyness” (later a film starring Will Smith), and recipient of the Peabody Award.

Troupe’s poetry is infused with the rhythms, language, themes and improvisations of jazz. Here’s a verse from “Snake-Back Solo”:

with the music up high, boogalooin’
bass down way low
up & under, eye come slidin’ on in, mojoin’
on in, spacin’ on in on a riff full of rain
riffin’ on in full of rain & painspacin’ on in on a sound
like Coltrane

And one from “Four, and More: for Miles Davis”:

a carrier of incandescent dreams this
blade-thin shadowman stabbed by lightning

crystal silhouette

crawling over blues-stained pavements his life
lean he drapes himself his music across edges
his blood held tight within
staccato flights

Troupe credits Davis with changing his life. He was just 15 when he first heard the jazz trumpeter on a jukebox in St. Louis. The song was “Donna,” and he played it over and over. Years later he told radio show host Douglas Turner, “[Miles is] the one that set me on the path to writing and using my imagination, and being creative. ... Because I heard that music, he propelled me into this thing that I do now.”

One of Troupe’s American Book Award winners is “Miles: The Autobiography” (Simon & Schuster, 1990), on which he and the famously taciturn Davis collaborated. (If you get hung up on the F-word or you’re easily offended, this book is probably not for you.) In 1991, Troupe won the Peabody for “The Miles Davis Radio Project,” heard on National Public Radio. He chronicled his friendship with Davis in “Miles and Me” (University of California Press, 2000).

Troupe’s latest book is “The Architecture of Language,” a poetry collection published by Minneapolis’ own Coffee House Press in 2006. (Coffee House has been Troupe’s poetry publisher since 1996.) In a review for the literary journal Callaloo, Lucinda Roy described “Architecture” as “redolent with the fragrance of Guadaloupe, flavored by a strong sense of African American and Caribbean history ... and shaped by the rhythms of blues and jazz, hip-hop and rap.”

Hear Troupe talk about Davis’ “Blue in Green,” a song from Davis’ iconic album “Kind of Blue.” See and hear him in performance with jazz guitarist Phil Upchurch  at the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego.

On Wednesday, Troupe will read from and discuss his work with series host Pate, author of “Amistad,” the novel based on the screenplay (Signet, 1997), and “In the Heart of the Beat: The Poetry of Rap” (Scarecrow Press, 2009).

The NOMMO African-American Authors Series is co-sponsored by the Givens Foundation for African American Literature and the University of Minnesota Libraries. Past headliners have included Ntozake Shange, Amira Baraka, Lucille Clifton and Ishmael Reed. NOMMO is a Dogon word meaning “the magic power of the word.”
Quincy Troupe, Wednesday, April 28, 7 p.m., Coffman Theater, Coffman Memorial Union, 300 Washington Ave. SE ($15; complimentary tickets available to U of M students and Friends of the University of Minnesota Libraries). Tickets at 612-624-2345 or online.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Anat Cohen brings her Benny Goodman tribute to the Dakota

Originally published at MinnPost.com, Thursday, April 22, 2010

Clarinetist/saxophonist Anat Cohen is a regular at the Village Vanguard, the legendary New York City jazz club where all the greats have played and many have recorded landmark albums. She was the first female horn player to headline at the Vanguard and the first Israeli. She has spent five residencies there.

In 2009, she was sitting at the bar when club owner Lorraine Gordon approached her about a new project: a weeklong tribute to the clarinet. Knowing that 2009 was Benny Goodman’s centennial and that Gordon loves Goodman’s music, Cohen decided to focus on songs recorded by the King of Swing.
Cohen’s latest CD, “Clarinetwork: Live at the Village Vanguard” (Anzic, 2010), was released last Tuesday. It’s her first live recording, her fifth as leader, and a good excuse for her biggest U.S. tour to date, which includes her Dakota debut this Sunday.

She’s bringing the rhythm section that joined her for six nights at the Vanguard last July: pianist Benny Green, bassist Peter Washington and drummer Lewis Nash. To jazz fans, it’s a dream team. “They are some of the best musicians,” Cohen said by phone earlier this week. “Super swinging, and incredible human beings. Top of the line.”

Cohen comes to Minneapolis by way of New York, Boston, and Tel Aviv. Born and raised in Israel, she began clarinet studies at age 12 and played jazz in the Jaffa Conservatory’s Dixieland band. At 16, she learned the tenor saxophone. She majored in jazz at the prestigious Thelma Yellin High School for the Arts, whose other graduates include pianist Omer Klein and guitarist Gilad Hekselman.

After her mandatory Israeli military service, Cohen enrolled at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. She spent semester breaks in New York City, moved there in 1999, and immersed herself in the music scene, playing many kinds (traditional and modern jazz, Brazilian choro, Argentine tango, Afro-Cuban styles) with many bands, founding her own record label (Anzic), and earning raves for her virtuosity and expressiveness on an instrument seldom heard in jazz since Goodman’s day.

If you don’t know Cohen, Sunday is your chance to see and hear one of the most exciting and original performers in contemporary jazz. I first heard her live two years ago, playing a version of Fats Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz” that knocked me out. Her clarinet skipped over the notes like someone crossing a stream on slippery stones.

“Clarinetwork” includes a blistering “Sweet Georgia Brown,” a sexy, strutting “St. James Infirmary,” and a “Body and Soul” so tender it could double as a lullaby, except for about a minute that would wake the baby.

Clarinet is her primary instrument these days, perhaps because her brothers Avishai and Yuval play trumpet and saxophone (as the group known as the 3 Cohens, they’re kind of the Marsalis family of Tel Aviv), perhaps because there are fewer clarinet players than saxophone players and more opportunities to stand out. “I go with the flow,” she said. “The clarinet has become more dominant for me in the past couple of years. You end up working more and realize this is becoming your life.”

The clarinet project at the Vanguard was ideal for her. “Every musician who plays there has a special relationship with the Vanguard,” she said. “It’s a very personal place. [Owner] Lorraine Gordon is 86 and she’s there almost every night. She knows what she likes, she listens to the music, she talks to the musicians. I’m very honored that she let me come in and play, that she allowed me to make a live record there and become part of that tradition.”

What did she hope to achieve with the new CD? “This was my first live record, and the concept was simply to put together a weeklong show inspired by Benny Goodman, and to get a group sound with people I hadn’t played with before. To take four people who haven’t played this configuration, these songs, these arrangements, this vibe and see what happens. Each night, we learned about each other—what we like, what we like to play, what kind of support we look for. I’m very happy with the sound we got.”

Some of the songs were her arrangements, others evolved on the spot. “We call them ‘arrangements as you wait,’” she explained. “They just happened. When you play more than once with a band, you develop together.”

All eight tracks on “Clarinetwork” were recorded on July 5, the final night of the Vanguard residency. The band hasn’t performed together since, so Sunday night will also be a reunion for them. Expect to hear the new CD and maybe (I’m hinting) “Jitterbug Waltz.”

Here’s Cohen with the Louis Armstrong Centennial Band at Birdland in May 2009. Listen on her website and MySpace page. And if you have time, here’s an entire 2008 performance from the Vanguard.
Anat Cohen Quartet, Sunday, April 25, 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m., Dakota ($30/$20). Tickets at 612-312-JAZZ (5299) or online.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Conversations on Improvisation: Ellen Lease and Pat Moriarty

Ellen Lease and Pat Moriarty
It might be said (and probably has been) that marriage is improvisation, full of high-risk creative work and in-the-moment decisions. Imagine a marriage in which both partners are improvising musicians.

Wed for 30 years, pianist Ellen Lease and saxophonist Pat Moriarty share a life as parents, educators, composers, and performers. Since 1993, they have co-led the Ellen Lease/Pat Moriarty Quintet, known as "the best unrecorded band out there" until their first CD, Chance, Love, Logic, was released on Innova in 2008. Writing for Cadence magazine, Jay Collins called it "the kind of disc one unexpectedly stumbles on every once in awhile that renews one's faith in the music."

Ellen Lease earned her BFA in classical piano performance at the University of Minnesota, where she studied with Bernard Weiser and Alexander Braginsky; her jazz piano teachers were Reginald Buckner and Bobbie Peterson. The first Minnesota National Guard Bandswoman, Lease has won a Bush fellowship, two McKnight composition fellowships, and a Minnesota State Arts Board grant, and she was twice a finalist for the McKnight performer's fellowship.

Pat Moriarty studied saxophone with Ruben Haugen and formed his first working band in 1973, upon meeting drummer Phil Hey. His graphic notation scores have been exhibited at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Walker Art Center, and the Hartt School in Hartford, Connecticut. Moriarty has a teaching degree and is a band director at Roseville High School.

The couple's latest musical collaboration is the "Tonight at Noon: New Jazz at Studio Z" series held at Zeitgeist's performing space in St. Paul's Lowertown. "Tonight at Noon" began last November with a program of solos and duets and continued in February with the Quintet. The next event is scheduled for Saturday, May 1, when Lease and Moriarty will be joined by bassist Adam Linz and drummer Phil Hey for an evening of free improvisation.

Pamela Espeland: When I talked with Adam Linz about improvisation, he said, "I have to know the person I'm playing with before we play a single note." Marriage seems like the ultimate form of knowing somebody. How does your relationship inform your music?
Ellen Lease: I think we're very candid with each other, probably more than we would be with just about anybody else. I don't worry about being politic. He's much kinder than I am.

Pat Moriarty: There's a level of trust [we have]. But there are people we're not married to, and we also have a high level of trust with them. And trust can be based on things you know about people without actually knowing them. For example, if I hear that Evan Parker wants to play some duets, I'm going to do it. I've never met him but I've heard him play, and I know he's not going to screw it up.

PLE: How do you define improvisation?

EL: It's using the tools you have to create extemporaneous constructs that happen to be sound. [Your tools are] your instrument, your training, your aesthetics, your physical condition that day, the ambience, who you're playing with, and the instrument you're playing on.

PM: Composing in real time or composing while you're playing is, I think, simple enough.

PLE: When did you first get interested in improvised music? 

PM: When I was about 12 and I heard Louis Armstrong and people like that. I don't know how I learned this information, but I realized that those guys were making some of that stuff up. I thought, "That's for me!" I hate reading music. The idea that you could make it up on the spot and do it yourself was very compelling.

EL: I always have improvised. Always. When I was a little bitty kid, I thought that's just what you did, that improvisation was natural. I remember being seven or eight and sitting at the piano and making up songs. I took it for granted other people did that, too. Why wouldn't you?

PLE: Who have you learned the most from about improvising?

PM: As a player interacting with other players, Phil Hey. We started playing together when we were both at a pretty formative stage. Also: Dean Granros. I was in Dean's band for quite a while. He has a tremendous creative mind.... And Ellen.

EL: Really?

PM: Her classical training brought a lot of different ideas and sound concepts to the music we were already playing. So, working with Ellen has been really important. And there's Sid Farrar. I was in Sid's band for a while; that was interesting stuff.

As a listener, Thelonious Monk is at the very top, and then Steve Lacy, Jimmy Lyons, Ornette Coleman, and this gigantic list of saxophone players. But if I had to name one person, it would be Monk because of the incredible rigor of his music.

EL: I didn't like Monk when I first heard him.

PLE: Do you now?

EL: Yes.

PLE: Who else have you found influential?

EL: I grew up listening to classical music, so Chopin, Ravel.... [For jazz,] Count Basie, Charles Mingus, George Cables. Bill Evans, definitely. Chick Corea. Listening to Gershwin play his own music; all of the piano concertos, his orchestral writing -- I love it.

PLE: What goes on in your head when you're improvising? 

PM: Listening. Concentrating.

EL: Listening, and trying not to think too much. You just hope the acoustics are such that you can hear the music as a composite, which is something I try to do, rather than focusing on just the drummer or locking in on the bass player.

PLE: What do you mean by "trying not to think too much"?

EL: Maybe a better way to put it would be that it's a different sort of thinking. I mean, what is thinking? The prefrontal cortex is only a very small portion of the brain. Deliberate thought is only a small portion of what your whole brain is doing. [Improvised music] is too big and complicated for deductive reasoning.

PM: It takes too long. If you can play without consciously thinking, it's better.

EL: Because it's slow, otherwise.

PM: Distracting, too.

PLE: Does time slow down or speed up when you're playing?

PM: For me, it could go in a lot of different directions.

EL: What do you mean by slow down?

PLE: Does it feel like you have time to make decisions, to respond to what's going on around you?

EL: That's not your sense of time. That's your sense of repose, of self-confidence at the moment. You can't second-guess yourself -- you know, "I'm an idiot! What the hell am I doing? Why did I do that?" You have to have great patience with the music, and a lot of trust that you're not going to do something stupid, that the people you're working with are making sound aesthetic decisions, and that people are respectful of what you're doing. You have to trust that you have come prepared: you've been practicing and working and listening, you're sufficiently busked, and you've brought all the tools you need for the task.

PM: You never feel like you're rushed. You might be deciding a lot of different things per second, but you don't feel rushed. And if you do, you're probably in a lot of trouble.

PLE: So, how do you know whether an improvisation is working?

PM: By the overall sound, and how it feels.

PLE: What do you want to feel?
PM: I want to feel that listening is happening all around, that the whole ensemble is on the same page as far as the direction of the music, and that everybody is listening for what's going to happen to the energy we've created. Are we going to maintain this energy? Are we going to change direction? As you play, you're listening to what's going on, and you're listening ahead.

EL [to PM]: How do you mean that?

PLE: Says the woman who's been married to him for 30 years...

PM: Really good players pre-hear. Some people hear exactly what they're going to play next. Others pre-hear the overall shape of what they think is probably going to happen next.... Everybody's improvising all at once, and the structure is being created as we're playing. You're trying to feel your way ahead in the music, through listening to the energies and sounds that are coming from other players.

EL: God, I'm always in the moment. I can't think a second ahead.

PM: I'm not talking about thinking. I'm talking about being aware of where things are going, as well as where they are.

EL: That's cool that you can do that.

PM: I don't know that I can do it, but I think it's ideal. How successful you can be varies from case to case, from moment to moment.

PLE: Does it matter what kind of response you're getting from the audience?

EL: Oh, you have to be careful about that. You really do. I figure: I'm doing the best I can, and this is all I can think of at the moment. I hope you enjoy it, but if you don't, I can't play you, I can only play me. I'm not doing this because I'm trying to fool you.

PLE: What do you do when it's not working?

PM: You try to find another direction in the music that's going to be more profitable, something that's going to work better for everybody. Maybe you just ran yourself down some cul-de-sac and can't figure out to get back on the main drag. [In that situation, I tell myself], "Take the horn out of your mouth, and listen for a second."

EL: You just stop for a moment and listen, try to finish your statement, and then pull back into traffic. You reach a certain level of competence where you're not going to put in a crappy performance. And even if people screw up the parts, which can happen, or somebody comes in wrong, or all of the things that can go wrong do go wrong, everyone else compensates. As an ensemble, you develop game plans. Part of performance art is learning to cover your ass. If you've had to cover your ass enough times, you can do it pretty well.

PLE: Charles Mingus once said, "You can't improvise on nothing. You gotta improvise on something." What is your starting point?

EL: If you're playing free? If you have some chops, and you've been playing music for decades, that's not nothing; that's a lot. Nothing would be no chops, no training.

PM: You're improvising on what you know. It's pretty rare to play things you don't know while you're performing. If you play for an hour, the amount of time you're playing something new -- that you're able to execute but that you haven't played before -- is pretty small. We don't do very many things that are pure free improvisation.

PLE: Your concert coming up on May 1 [with Adam Linz and Phil Hey] will be free improvisation.

PM: That one will be, but it will be the first time in a long time that we've done a performance like that.

EL: Playing with Adam and Phil is not nothing.

PM: That's one of the reasons we have so much confidence it will work well, because Adam and Phil are involved.

PLE: How are you preparing? Are you rehearsing?

PM: No rehearsing. No charts.

EL: That's part of the preparation -- no preparation, no preconception. We don't want to fall into some habit of playing, which you do if you play a tune enough. We're hoping our playing will at least be competent, that it will rise above competency.

PM: It should be incredible.

EL: I don't know if it will be incredible or not.

PLE: What advice would you give to somebody going to hear improvisational music for the first time?

EL: Don't pick it apart, just let what you hear wash over you. Go along for the ride. Don't try to think about it. Be open to it.

PM: Letting it wash over you is really important, even for experienced musicians. If you're listening to someone like the Cecil Taylor Unit --

EL: That's a tidal wave.

PM:  -- you're not going to listen to every single note. That's not the point.

EL: Especially in free music, you're not listening to a soloist being supported by other musicians. It's not melody and accompaniment. It's counterpoint. It's polyphony. Listening for the composite sound is what you should be doing, rather than trying to pick out "Which player should I pay attention to now?"

PLE: Many people think they need to understand jazz, especially free improvisation, before they're willing to give it a try.

PM: People don't need to understand music to enjoy it, and it doesn't make any difference what kind of music you're talking about. Sometimes people don't take to [free improvisation] right away, but we've had plenty of experiences where people who have no background will hear it and be taken away with it. When Phil Hey and I made our duet record [Let Them All Come, 1977], I gave a copy to my grandmother, who only listened to Johnny Cash. After listening to it, what she said was, "You boys really feel all that, don't you?" She understood what was important about the music right away.

Ellen Lease and Pat Moriarty
Originally published on mnartists.org on April 21, 2010. mnartists.org is a project of the Walker Art Center and the McKnight Foundation. 
View a video of a performance by the Ellen Lease/Pat Moriarty Quintet.
Learn more about/order Chance, Love, Logic.

Photo by John Whiting.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Irv Williams: A Life in Music

Jeff Bailey (L) and Irv Williams at Irv's 90th birthday in 2009
In the spring of 2009, Irv Williams is playing a shiny new tenor saxophone. He has a young miniature schnauzer named Ditto who, in Irv’s words, is “very exuberant about everything.” He’s writing new songs for his next CD, his fifth since 2004. He has two regular weekly gigs, one at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis and the other at Il Vesco Vino on West Seventh in Saint Paul. He’s making plans to celebrate his birthday with parties at both the Artists’ Quarter in Saint Paul and the Dakota.

On August 17, 2009, Williams—fans call him “Mr. Smooth”—turned ninety. He has lived in Saint Paul for forty-seven years, moving here in 1962 to be closer to his job at the Sherwood Supper Club, now long gone. Most of the clubs he has played over the years—Cassius’s Bamboo Room, the Flame Bar, the Red Feather, Freddie’s, the Crystal Coach, the Top of the Hilton, Suzette’s—have shut their doors, been torn down or redeveloped.

Williams could have left town, hit the road with Duke Ellington, Count Basie, or Louis Armstrong, ended up in New York, and become a star. Instead, he chose to stay and become part of Saint Paul’s history.

Along with playing at every jazz club in the Twin Cities since the 1940s, Williams has taught in the public schools, lectured at the University of Minnesota, and mentored many musicians. In 1984, he was the first jazz musician to be honored by the State of Minnesota with his own “Irv Williams Day.” His picture appeared on the Celebrate Minnesota state map in 1990 (he appears on this year’s Almanac cover; take a look).

Williams was named an Arts Midwest Jazz Master in 1995 and is a member of the Minnesota Jazz Hall of Fame. He plays a new sax because his old one is now in the “Minnesota’s Greatest Generation” exhibit at the Minnesota History Center.

Acclaim is appreciated, but for Williams, it’s all about the music. His first instrument was the violin, which he played as a cute little kid growing up in Cincinnati and Little Rock. The older he got, the more other kids teased him for playing a “sissy instrument.” They also called him “Ir-vin-ee” because his name was Irvine, with an e at the end.

Williams dropped the violin and later the e. By the time he was eleven, he had switched to clarinet and then to tenor saxophone. He started playing professionally at fifteen. He attended college as a pre-med student, with plans to be a doctor like his father, but music’s pull was too strong. Besides, there was plenty of work for young sax players during the Big Band era of the 1930s and early ’40s. When World War II began, Williams joined the Navy and came to the Naval Air Station in Minneapolis with the U.S. Navy Band.

He had ample time to practice his horn and explore the Twin Cities. On his first weekend here, he met the great bassist Oscar Pettiford and his family. Pettiford introduced Williams to the local jazz scene and places like Buford’s BBQ and the Elk’s Rest. Williams remembers, “We walked into the Elk’s Rest, I didn’t have a horn, and a guy named Rail says, ‘You can play my horn.’ So I played it and their mouths dropped open. I always like that.”

Two marriages and nine children followed. When money was tight, Williams worked two jobs: dry cleaner by day, jazz musician by night. Today he’s free to spend as much time as he wants on his music. He walks and talks a bit slowly, and he admits to having problems with getting tired, but many people believe he has never sounded better.

After all these years as a musician—Williams started playing violin at age six, so he’s had eighty-four years of playing and practicing, learning and trying to get better every day—does he still enjoy it? “I enjoy it more than ever now,” he says. “I can’t slack off. I have to put every ounce of myself into my music. That’s what I do. It keeps me going—myself and my dog.”

His tone is breathy and warm. Sometimes his playing is like a kiss on your cheek or a gentle hand on the back of your neck. He’s a master of the love song. The next time you and your sweetheart are alone together, if you’re old enough, forget the R&B and play a little Irv.


Originally published in the 2010 Saint Paul Almanac.
Photo by John Whiting.

Friday, April 9, 2010

News about e.s.t.

Well, not really about e.s.t., which no longer exists, but about the group's former bass player, Dan Berglund. This just in from Hopper Management:


Only two weeks after they concluded their highly successful tour of the UK and Ireland Dan Berglund´s TONBRUKET will be out on tour again – this time in Germany, Austria and Switzerland (please find tour dates below).

Don´t miss out on the chance to see the former bassist of e.s.t. with his new outfit, featuring John Lindström (Per Texas Johansson) on guitar, Martin Hederos (Soundtrack of our Lives) on piano and Andreas Werliin (Wildbirds & Peacedrums) on drums.

Their new album “Tonbruket” has charted in Sweden at No. 15 of the pop album charts and in Germany on No. 3 of the JVC Jazz Charts.

Mojo magazine gives 4 out of 4 stars and writes: “From e.s.t.-ish ambient rock through haunting alt folk to riff-heavy prog, this is a compelling electro-acoustic smorgasbord, full of melancholy beauty and life-affirming surprise”.

And the Musikwoche in Germany titles: “Neue Entfaltung der e.s.t.-Magie“ (New enfolding of the e.s.t. magic).


Reactions to Berglund's new band and CD are mixed. There's a concert review worth reading on The Jazz Breakfast blog (UK). Ian Mann reviews the CD (and other reviews) at The Jazz Mann.

I always liked e.s.t. as a whole very much, but it was Berglund who most often caught my eye and ear, with his big bald head and muscular, effects-filled arco playing. He was like something out of "The Matrix" or "Dark City"--not in a bad way, just otherworldly. Sounds like he's going more in a rock direction, which doesn't surprise me at all.

More about the CD here.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Brad Mehldau Trio at the Dakota: Concert review

When: Tuesday, April 6 • Where: DakotaWho: 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.