Brad Mehldau ’10 Years Solo Live’ (Nonesuch) 5/5

brad-mehldau“10 Years Solo Live” is a fully immersive 4 cd or 8 vinyl album box set covering a compelling selection of live solo performances from pianist Brad Mehldau. Taken from recordings made throughout the last 10 years, the sheer scope and depth of this release is stunning. Mehldau’s ability to push the boundaries in his choice of material, alongside his own wonderful compositions, is evident more than ever here. From Monk to Bach to Radiohead to Pink Floyd to The Verve to Jeff Buckley and beyond, it is quite an incredible achievement for an artist to take on such a wide breadth of music and yet still retain his own unique style and originality… Mehldau is one of the few musicians on the planet that could succeed with this. Succeed he does; and some. The set is divided conceptually into four sections: “Dark/Light”, “The Concert”, “Intermezo/Ruckblick” and “E minor/ E major”, with the pianist exploring a whole host of themes and improvisations along the way in his own inimitable style. Mehldau’s influences stretch far and wide, from the beginnings of the jazz standard, through classical, rock and alternative pop music, but the music he performs throughout this five hour tour de force is always delivered in what can best be described as “The Mehldau Method”…where the innovative pianist takes a tune and sometimes with a gorgeous simplicity, or at other times with a twisted inside-out mentality, delivers jazz-hued masterpieces one after another. It’s an emotional experience, from start to finish.

Solo piano has almost become a genre within its own musical space in the world of jazz. Keith Jarrett and Fred Hersch spring to mind immediately as artists who have carried a torch and shine a guiding light on the multifaceted wonders of this instrument. Jarrett in particular surely has taken the piano into new frontiers with his spontaneous improvisations and solo concerts throughout the last half-century. There can be few that have such a natural gift when it comes to sheer skill and virtuosity, Brad Mehldau is most definitely one of them. His playing for me tends to have a melancholic yet adventurous spirit that is second to none in the current world of jazz. Often emotive, dark and beautifully downbeat, but also playful, light and wistful, the recordings put together on this set of albums represent a clear and insightful historical document of one man’s pursuance of a musical vision that will stand the test of time for many years to come. There are some truly spellbinding moments on “10 Years Solo Live”, too many to mention in fact, but for this listener, here are just a few of my highlights…

The journey begins with Jeff Buckley’s “Dream Brother”. The tune is instantly recognisable, with Mehldau interpreting Buckley’s timeless classic with a deft sincerity and moving subtlety. As the listener, it takes no time at all to be fully immersed in this music, curious and eager to hear how the tune develops. And a few minutes in, Mehldau drops into a stream of consciousness that takes us on a dream-like soundscape of unbelievable depth and beauty. As the track ends, I press pause and take off my headphones to draw breath, it’s that good. A lighter touch ensues with Lennon/McCartney’s “Blackbird”. This is a familiar path taken throughout the whole set; long, deep, developing improvised passages, interspersed with shorter, easier to listen to (yet no less brilliant) tunes. Depending on the mood, the listener can completely lose themselves in the longer pieces or dip into the shorter, more accessible tracks. It’s easy to see how Mehldau takes inspiration from originals written by the likes of Radiohead or Nick Drake – the pianist delving into the melancholy and heartfelt emotion of these composer’s music, but perhaps it is only Mehldau who could take a tune such as The Beatles’ “And I Love Her”, and perform it with such longing and tenderness before taking it down into the deepest, darkest recesses of the human soul. This is truly inspirational, unfathomable in its twisted beauty. In contrast, the pianist appears to be enjoying the brighter side of life on the classic “My Favourite Things”, employing a slightly playful air. “Waltz for JB” and “John Boy” are two gorgeous Mehldau originals that stand out. Part romance, part blues, they personify the pianist’s skill as a composer, every subtlety and nuance seemingly touching on a knowing chord within the human spirit. For me, there are times when Mehldau’s music touches a raw nerve within me – one that brings an unqualified pleasure, perhaps in the visual form of a painful memory or an exquisite thought…one might call it the light and dark that the pianist refers to, or perhaps the sometimes inseparable nature of pleasure and pain. This is summed up in the genius of Mehldau’s interpretation of Massive Attack’s “Teardrop”. There’s a hint of madness hiding behind the beauty, making for an incredibly striking piece of music, perhaps one of the most astonishing performances I have heard from the pianist. “Knives Out” is both melodically captivating and heart-stoppingly intense; another feature of Mehldau’s uncompromising search for understanding and empathy. Whilst “Monk’s Mood” and “I’m Old Fashioned” capture the essence of the jazz standard, there are even more surprises in the renditions of Pink Floyd’s “Hey You” and Nirvana’s “Smell Like Teen Spirit”. And these are just a few of the many highlights to be discovered here.

For Brad Mehldau fans, this is the release you’ve been waiting for; go buy it now. It doesn’t get any better than this. For modern jazz/ piano enthusiasts, this will be a welcome addition to your collection and one that will surprise and delight in equal measure. For me personally, this set captures one of the world’s greatest living musicians at his peak, the pinnacle of where one human being and his chosen instrument can take themselves and their audience to, through the vehicle of their music.

Mike Gates