Brad Mehldau Trio ‘Blues and Ballads’ (Nonesuch) 4/5

brad-mehldau-trioSimple things get lost over the course of time. We all get caught up in life’s incredible journey and sometimes, for whatever reason, lose sight of such things. And then, when something happens that helps us rediscover these simple things, they become astonishing. Like feeling a gentle breeze, seeing the happiness that lies behind a smile, or understanding the history of a man through the look in his eyes. Brad Mehldau has the gift of making the simple things astonishing. His touch and feel just on one note has that rare capacity to reveal the simplest of things in one astonishing moment. On his latest trio release “Blues and Ballads”, together with Jeff Ballard (drums) and Larry Grenadier (bass), the pianist leads the trio through a set of standards and classic tunes, with an almost nonchalant depth of beauty that provides the listener with one of his best trio albums in recent years. Perhaps reminiscent of one of his much earlier trio albums “The Art Of The Trio Vol. 3: Songs”, there’s a generally laid-back feel here with some of the trio’s interpretations of the music at hand quite stunning. There’s no Nick Drake or Radiohead covers this time, the choice of tunes ranging from traditional jazz compositions to pop ballads, but once again Mehldau proves himself incredibly adept at putting a new, intriguing slant on the music he chooses to perform. The music is warm, captivating and thoughtful, with more than a hint of romanticism coming across in Mehldau’s own inimitable style. Rather than the album featuring a few blues numbers and a few ballads, the pianist’s gorgeous melancholia successfully merges both of these themes, each style melting effortlessly into the other.

The stand-out track by far is the trio’s interpretation of The Beatles’ classic “And I Love Her”. Having thoroughly lost myself in last year’s incredible release “Ten Years Solo Live”‘ which featured Mehldau performing this same tune solo, I was keen to hear how this version compared. Whereas the solo version takes the listener on a deep, dark, meandering journey of emotional power and brilliance, this version is much lighter, with the pianist generally keeping more to the main tune. But it is no less incredible. If I had to choose a top 10 individual tracks for the year, this would be right up there. It’s the perfect example of how Mehldau doesn’t so much cover a piece of music by playing the tune and then soloing over it, he kind of lives and breathes inside the tune, with improvisations and major/minor chord changes creating a meditation on the tune that develops into new and surprising experiences along the way. And in this case, as the last 3 minutes build toward an almost operatic, emotional discourse, I felt shivers down my spine at the change of a chord or the thrill of a few notes. Simply stunning. Many of the tunes are all about the melody, and Mehldau’s deft interpretations therein. Once again, I love the simplicity of “Little Person”. The melody at the centre of the tune needing little embellishment. “Since I Fell For You” and “Cheryl” both bring together the blues and the ballads in the way that the trio create space and time, the energy coming from the occasional flurry of excitement and the thoughtful intensity in between. “I Concentrate On You” has a slightly Latin feel to it, the bass and drums effortlessly driving the tune itself. Whilst “My Valentine” and “These Foolish Things” could be seen as perhaps more like Mehldau sitting at his piano with Ballard and Grenadier enjoying the laid-back vibes.

The music of “Blues and Ballads” is fresh and poignant. Whilst some of the tunes might not reach the heights of former glories for the trio, as with many of Mehldau’s recordings, there are tunes on this album that most definitely do. And once more it highlights the seemingly endless talent and invention that Mehldau gives to the listener.

Mike Gates