Brad Mehldau Trio, Friday 14th June, Barbican

By the time the trio of Brad Mehldau, Larry Grenadier and Jeff Ballard took a bow, gracefully accepting the rapturous applause following their second encore, we’d been immersed in their sound and conversation for close to two hours. This short blog is, I think, a meditation on quite why it was such a magical and moving couple of hours.

The trio came on to stage to applause and after a dip of the head from Mehldau, a gesture of recognition to Ballard and Grenadier, he settled at his impossibly low piano stool and stroked the keys. A ripple of arpeggios, the current started flowing, my first reaction was ‘Hello Brad’. Unrequited is a quintessential Mehldau piece, and if your gateway to his music was, as for me, the ‘Art of the Trio’ series, then the piece from Volume 3 with subliminally shifting cadences, intoxicating propulsion, and singing contrapuntal melodies is like an old, much loved friend.

This wasn’t a ‘greatest hits’ show however. They continued with Moe Honk a recent tune that appeared on ‘Round Again’ a quartet outing with Joshua Redman. The slowly stomping chord progression set the scene for the first of many conversational exchanges with Ballard on drums, before accelerating to a blistering tempo. The clarity and ease with which bass and piano dodged between the surging pulse from the drums, and sprinkled diverging fluid and sinuous lines belied the fabled virtuosity of these players. There was nothing showy about the playing, if anything the sound is more distilled, breathing more (even more!) than of old, but these are remarkable musicians, and it was there to be seen.

I sighed, more than once, thinking ‘no-one does this quite like them’. Gentle John, a Mehldau tribute to John Scofield, has an infectious gently shuffling, almost even quavered groove which is somehow their groove, with a melody that sounds as if you should have heard it before, singing from the lower register of the piano, even as apparently at least two other hands maintain the groove and decorate and accompany the melody. The trio can take a ballad at Shirley Horn tempos, and tonight it was The Nearness of You, a ‘time-stood-still’ episode, the lyrical line squeezed out, harmony bent in and out of shape, to leave us breathless. Then, after Grenadier’s gloriously sculpted solo and a return to the the theme, a cadenza from the piano that was more ‘condensed sonata’. There were glancing allusions to fragments of melody, developed and changing shape on the fly, harmony evolving into astringent textures, before sliding into a resolution.

Ode, Into The City, Ten Tune, the trio dipped into more recent repertoire, there is huge catalogue after all, as well as a standard, Sweet and Lovely and a visit to the wider canon with And I Love Her. Mehldau’s reference points in classical music are much anlaysed elsewhere and overtly explored in some of his own work, as are the astonishing freedom and melodic invention in his playing. I didn’t leave thinking about those things. I left thinking how groovy they are, how this trio have their own language now, and it’s ‘a three’, dependent on the way they work together. I left thinking, this may be a language so familiar it’s like an old friend, but it’s an old friend still saying new things, sounding fresh and surprising me. To my ears they were on top form at the Barbican. I left thinking the world has a bit more beauty and serenity in it than when I arrived.

Addendum: South West connections

  1. The Barbican was pretty much full on Friday, so I was quietly entertained, after settling into my seat next to a friend, that two rows in front at least half-a-dozen musos from Bristol arrived (two of whom I’d travelled up with); I don’t think Barbican allocates seats by geography, so presumambly a random occurence
  2. Tenuous connection this, but Paul McCartney did an ‘under-the-radar’ warm up for Glastonbury in Frome, Somerset on Friday. To those in the know, Frome is something of a hotbed of South West jazz activity. I like to think that as Mehldau was giving And I Love Her the trio treatment on Friday, Maca was wrapping up his set in Frome: Synchronicity.

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