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Jazz pianist Mehldau amazes in ‘Where Do You Start’

Album Review | 4 out of 5 stars

Published: Thursday, September 27, 2012

Updated: Thursday, September 27, 2012 01:09

For anyone concerned with the increasingly institutionalized, curatorial nature of contemporary jazz, pianist Brad Mehldau’s latest album, “Where Do You Start,” is a welcome breath of fresh air. As many contemporary jazz albums lean towards either hyper−esoteric technical accomplishment or nostalgic reiterations of past trends, Mehldau seems to be doing something altogether different.

Within the context of his trio, which includes bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard, Mehldau is exploring all of the sonic possibilities available to an open−minded instrumentalist and song interpreter with his immense talents.

Mehldau has received much acclaim for his wide−ranging appreciation of music and his unique ability to adapt songs of all genres to the open formats of jazz, classical and solo piano. This is evidenced beautifully on “Where Do You Start,” which sports reinterpretations of songs by artists as diverse as the folk exemplar Nick Drake, the Brazilian songwriter Chico Buarque, Sufjan Stevens and Alice in Chains. In fact, there is only one original Mehldau composition on the entire album: the subtly propulsive “Jam.” The rest are covers.

Given the huge breadth of Mehldau’s source material, the remarkable cohesion of the album is truly impressive and speaks highly of the pianist’s abilities as an interpreter and arranger. It doesn’t hurt that he is backed by one of the tautest and most communicative rhythm sections in contemporary jazz. Jeff Ballard’s drumming walks the line between melodic commentary and fluvial timekeeping, constantly trading between additional rhythmic input and pulling back to let the other members of the band take the groove over.

The same can be said for Larry Grenadier’s bass playing, which gives the trio a melodically compelling and expressive foundation. The nuance and complexity of his playing is soft spoken but ever−present. Anywhere you listen on the album, you can hear him giving the tune more than just a routine bass line. Nowhere speaks of this more clearly than the trio’s exceptional interpretation of Nick Drake’s classic “Time Has Told Me.” Grenadier’s bass solo is restrained and adheres faithfully to the melody of the song, but his keen sense for inflection and rhythmic displacement give the performance an exuberance that any but the most accomplished bassists would fail to deliver.

“Aquelas Coisas Todas” presents another high point for the album. Ballard’s drumming shifts and trades between speedy rimshot accents, manic hi−hat runs and Latin−inflected fills on the toms, giving the song a Brazilian vibe that complements the groove of the original piece. After a sprightly intro, Mehldau’s playing slows down to become almost contemplative as it shifts through some thick harmonic changes, creating a strong contrast to Grenadier’s devilish rhythms. As the song progresses, the two approach a common ground of intensity and Mehldau’s virtuosic, double−handed runs in his solo mark a point of intersection between all the members of the trio as they collaborate for some of the most invigorating interplay of the album.

Even though Mehldau shows himself quite capable of bringing pop, rock and folk into the sphere of his trio’s playing, he is just as adept at giving jazz standards a fresh interpretation. His breathy, spaced−out rendition of Sonny Rollins’ “Airegin” begins gloomily, with Mehldau playing the melody over a plodding, funereal left hand ostinato that eventually breaks out into broader chords. Mehldau’s strong sense of space and timing give this performance its bite. Though the pianist could easily fill the song with bebop runs and jam pack it with his virtuosity, he holds back. Even when he does play an expertly executed flurry of notes, it’s almost always surrounded by space on both sides.

When the trio kicks into full swing halfway through the track, Mehldau still keeps the listener on the edge of his seat with his remarkable juxtaposition of excess and minimalism. The concluding drum solo is deliciously rhythmic without being in your face and Grenadier keeps a groove while maintaining complex commentary on the toms.

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