Brad Mehldau and his celebrated trio made a triumphant return to a packed concert hall at the Barbican last night. The pianist, bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard are truly a group of equals, each musician contributing more as as a soloist than a more conventional trio accompanist. Mehldau has said that what Ballard and Grenadier each bring to the music in the performance is inseparable from the tunes themselves. This was demonstrated to the full in a sumptuous set approaching two hours. It was full of surprises and included three encores.
The selections featured a mix of Mehldau originals, Good Old Days, Twiggy (a nickname given to Mehldau’s musician wife, Fleurine, by Christian McBride) and Highway Rider, and a typically eclectic choice of tunes suited to the trio’s ability to reimagine standards or other classics – Elmo Hope’s De-Dah, two Jerome Kern compositions, The Folks Who Live on the Hill and All The Things You Are, an early Lennon and McCartney – Babies In Black and McCartney’s Great Day. His Monk-inflected Good Old Days and The Folks Who Live on the Hill were the type of slow ballads that continue to showcase the lyrical approach taken by the trio to date. Mehldau likes to to play what he describes as a “walking ballad”, where he can “really sit in that tempo and stay there”.
It was no surprise to enjoy a performance of great riches. The playing was uniformly dynamic, Ballard conjuring extraordinary nuance of expression from the most minimal of kits, deftly extracting authentic conga sound and rhythmic counterpoint with his acoustic hand drumming on snare and tom-tom. Grenadier’s expansive sound and economically elegant bass-lines underscored and complemented Mehldau, part of whose signature style is to use the left hand to direct the tempo such as in Highway Rider, while his solos take shape, before bursting into flower on the right hand. No two tunes develop in a similar vein, nor do they end in predictable fashion. Mehldau’s range as instrumentalist allows him free rein to look deep into the core of a tune, and to explore its tonal, and often atonal, possibilities to the utmost. His command of dynamic shifts in tempo takes the breath away.
We are witnessing the enduring excellence of a true original in jazz composition, whose stock continues to rise. A standing ovation after three encores set the seal on a remarkable night to uplift the senses.
Brad Mehldau Trio at Barbican Hall, London. 9 March 2020