Saturday, February 28, 2004

Brad Mehldau Trio - 28/02/2004, Antwerpen

Brad Mehldau - p
Larry Grenadier - b
Jorge Rossy - d

The concert took place in a grand old theatre with huge marble pillars and high domed ceilings covered in frescoes. I was sitting up in the nose-bleed third balcony and when the lights dimmed, a beautiful sight was revealed: the cones of light the projectors that the spotlights left on the dust particles hanging in the air coming through golden arches. I could also look down upon the pretty Flemish girls and that one women in a sparkly dress.

The trio came out and set off on Thelonious Monk's "Off Minor." It recieved much applause, but I found the performance rather poor: it was the tamest Monk rendition I'd ever heard. There was no sense of adventure or risk-taking and, crucially, little rhythm to Mehldau's playing. I've always thought that playing Monk was primarily about rhythm (take Roswell Rudd, Ben Riley and even Fred Hersch with Nasheet Waits on the former's recent live album, just to point out a random few), so when it's not there... When Larry Grenadier took a brief solo, the song breathed again - everything he plays seems to have such life to it.

Then came Cole Porter's "I Concentrate on You," with a light Latin beat. Here, Mehldau was far more in his element as he sang out the melody and improvised just as melodically. The concert was gathering steam. After the song he launched into a fairly long talk. Nothing remarkable about that, except that he did it all in Dutch. Not flawless Dutch and not always comprehensible (my Dutch is roughly as good as his, and we speak it for the same reason: women. His (and singer Fleurine's) kid is real cute, too.).

Radiohead is a Mehldau fixture, and this time "Knives Out" was played. Later on, he played Nick Drake's "River Man," which was transfixingly beautiful. For me, Mehldau really has a great feel for conveying Drake's and Thom Yorke's weird voices through the piano. Not just the notes, but the emotions contained within them. On "Knives Out" the first 2/3rds of his solo were fully contrapuntal and extraordinary, as he managed to land on the theme's familiar chords from completely unexpected places.

The Radiohead was followed by "All the Things You Are," a staple in Mehldau's repertoire. The intro to this piece was the highest point of the concert and nearly made me cry. Mehldau played densely polyrhythmic and, again, contrapuntal lines that seemed to rework the composition 3 or 4 times in the space of a few minutes. I know some people find his left hand exertions irritating, but I love them and those were a few minutes of overwhelming beauty and technique.

Then, a rather unheralded side to Mehldau (or at least, a side I've never seen mentioned) surfaced. When I saw the trio a couple years ago, they played an encore that resembled this, i.e. a slow, soulful and bluesy song thatreminded me of - call me crazy - Ray Charles in its golden late afternoon glow. I don't think that this aspect of his playing has been captured on record and I really wonder if anyone else hears it this way, as it's a connection even I'm surprised at making.Needless to say, it's an aspect I greatly enjoyed.

The last song before the encore was, I was later told, a Beatles song, and was improvised upon in kind of a more abstract version of Mehldau's song mode. It didn't make much impact on me, as the pianist skittered up and down the keyboard, not saying very much.

The first encore was an unannounced Monk tune, which started off much better than "Off Minor," as Mehldau's brief intro had all the adventurousness and rhythm I had felt lacking in the opener, but the soufflé fell a bit as the song wore on.

It was also the fastest tempo of the night, at just-less-than-up. I didn't feel that a second encore was really deserved, but it did yield the "River Man" mentioned above, so all was forgiven. This reading was much better than the version on Art of the Trio: Vol. 3, which I find too repetitive. Even though this is a relatively simple song, it took me a long time to figure out what metre they were playing it in. Even though Rossy and Grenadier were accenting the beginning of every 10-beat bar, they were also subdividing the vast expanse within each bar like crazy, seeming to come together and drift apart almost at random. Combine that with Mehldau's sheer accuracy of interpretation, and it made for a powerful last impression, indeed.