Friday, November 26, 2004

Brad Mehldau - 21/11/2004, Brussels

First of all, a big, big thank you to my friend Jef!

I first saw and heard Mehldau solo almost five years ago, in Salamanca, Spain. The next day I bought Art of the Trio Vol. 4. I've since seen his trio twice.

Flagey's main hall was full, all its 700 seats and vertigo-inducing three balconies. I was sitting directly behind and slightly above the pianist, ie. I was on stage left, a great position from which to observe his left hand.

Mehldau is the jazz world's great champion of Radiohead, so it was fitting that he start with "Knives Out." Most surprising about it was that it confirmed a trend I noticed the last time I saw him play (and goes counter to Francis Davis's implied opinion that Mehldau's style is not evolving): while the spare melody notes rang out, Mehldau would lay down a thick pea-soup fog of uncertainty, which sounded like a blend of ecstatic atonality and pensive dissonance. This harmonic daring is something I first heard him do on a stupendous intro to "All the Things You Are" and which I don't think he was doing before.

Then came a sad pop waltz with country overtones, Paul McCarthney's "Jump." Next came a Mehldau original, "Los Angeles." I haven't heard the Places album it comes from, but this driving and orchestral piece was the first instance of my main gripe with this concert: it's simply too much. Too much over-wrought drama, not enough humour. A tad more breathing space could have brought things into starker relief, especially as (due to the piano, the playing, the acoustics or my placement, I do not know) notes tended to blend together, obscuring overall shapes and rhythms.

I love the piano's lower register because it brings a physicality (the strings are so long, you can feel them vibrating, the wood shaking) and a menace (that rumble!) to the piano the other registers don't really have. Of course, it's not the most distinct register. Mehldau was down there all night (I think you could have counted the number of times he ventured into the upper fourth of the keyboard on the fingers of one hand), which was cool, but compounded the above-mentioned problem.

On we went to another highlight, Monk's "Monk's Mood." When I last saw the trio, their Monk was rather poor, but alone, Mehldau was great. His chords sounded like Monk's, his rhythm was steadier and he included plenty of digressions (or "harrumphs" as I think it is appropiate to call these monkisms), which amused until, astonished, you realised that a digression had flowed into the next statement. "Think of One" contained an incredible display of Mehldau's famed left hand independence in which it became another soloist alongside the right hand, while an accompaniment was still going. I have no idea where the accompaniment was coming from. It was a tour-de-force, but not bravura, if that makes any sense. And it swung.

Skipping ahead, he ended the main part of the concert with "a song I haven't played for a while," (yeah right) "Paranoid Android." Here's where I come back to the lack of humour. When he reached the loud guitar riff part for the first time, pounding it out, I thought it was pretty funny, kitsch even. Then I wondered if Mehldau saw even the slightest bit of humour in it (as The Bad Plus undoubtedly do in their rock covers). His body language says he doesn't, but who knows.

In an interview, Mehldau has said that the real challenge in covering newer pop songs was arranging them so they sounded good. That concern was made clear as he launched into an improvisation that weaved the further melodic elements into itself, so that there wasn't merely a tossed-off head, but also a body. Then came the majestic dirge part, at which point I had a sonic vision of the 700 listeners in the audience, which I could see as they were all to my right, stand up, become a choir (or a massive, real, choir suddenly emerging, maybe from under the stage, maybe) and gravely intone Thom Yorke's lyrics, whatever they are. It would have been glorious, but, unfortunately, it didn't happen.

The first of the three (!) encores was another Mehldau staple, Nick Drake's "River Man," which wasn't nearly as much of a tear-jerker as it was in Antwerp with the trio (where it was the second, and last, encore). The second encore was a slow, bluesy tune that offered a bit of the breathing room that was too often lacking. The third encore was The Beatles' "Mother Nature's Child." There's a great version of this on Joel Frahm's duo CD with Mehldau, Don't Explain, but on this occasion, it was nice but a bit perfunctory, especially as Mehldau ended it suddenly, as if to say "Okay, now that's enough of that."