I'm a bit of a latecomer to the Mehldau phenomenon. For a good few years I was put off even the most cursory of investigations of his talents by the effusive, gushing hyperbole John Fordham wrote about the pianist in The Guardian every Friday. Even when Mehldau wasn't being reviewed, the artist under Fordham's scrutiny always ended up being compared to him (in terms of that general all-round genius quotient). Was Fordham on commission?
My interest should have been pricked, but I'm a stubborn and curmudgeonly type, happier celebrating an artist in obscurity than going with the easy option. It took two closely linked writing assignments, reviewing Metheny/Mehldau and Chris Cheek's Blues Cruise, to get me on board. It later transpired that my usually reliable attention to detail had failed to log that Mehldau was the highlight of Joshua Redman's highly listenable Moodswing, a personal favourite of recent times. The clues were being assembled in my mind you might say, but I'm too slow off the mark to be a real master sleuth. More like Columbo coming back for 'just one more thing' with a knowing glint in his eye, perhaps.
With hindsight Fordham had a point. Let's just say it now. He was right! Mehldau plays with unerring taste and deceptive complexity. His playing around the beat, harmonic tensions and amazingly strong left hand mark him out from the pack. I'm now fully on board and have just about caught up with my investigation of his expanding but still manageable discography. Impressive as it is, I always like to hear people live for confirmation of their talents, and all I needed was a chance to go and see for myself. With a top class international venue like The Sage on the doorstep it was inevitable that I wouldn't have to wait for very long.
That chance came on Saturday, so enough of this already tedious pre-amble. The first pleasant surprise was that the organisers had chosen to put the gig on in the smaller and more intimate Hall Two. A really nice medium-sized room, our seats overlooked the stage from right to left and were elevated enough to give an impression of being on stage with the trio.
The next remarkable thing was the trio's new line-up. Gone is Jorge Rossy and in comes Chick Corea's erstwhile drummer Jeff Ballard. I know my Canadian drummer friend Gregg Brennan was a bit sniffy about the change and is very much a Rossy man. By instinct I'm skeptical about Corea when it comes to matters of taste and judgement, but it has to be said that Ballard fitted perfectly with the trio's high levels of connectedness. Our seats overlooked his kit and it was great to see all of his many percussive details performed in such forensic detail. Using high measures of restraint Ballard coped admirably with the trio's re-constructionist aesthetic, suspending ego to just follow the music. Louise, in her continuing jazz-awareness building, was impressed with his use of 'woolly pom-pom sticks'. Ballard was a winner!!
The material was a mix of Mehldau originals, old standards and what he almost certainly hopes will be the standards of tomorrow. Opening with two untitled originals, a state of Jarrett-like trance was quickly induced. Samba e Amor was a finely wrought Latin excursion, then the trio opened up on Sonny Rollins' Airegin, trading fours in time honoured fashion. A slow examination of I Cover The Waterfront gave space for a long unaccompanied Mehldau arabesque, and again Jarrett came to mind. Unlike Jarrett, Mehldau doesn't gurn or grunt. His improvisations are no less wide ranging or rigorous, but accessibility comes easily. He has the rare gift of being an uncompromising but easy to digest musician.
Another remarkable Mehldau talent is his ability to pluck contemporary material and adapt it for improvisation. On Saturday there was no Radiohead, Nick Drake or Oasis on offer, but his choice of Sufjan Stevens' Holland was inspired. Stevens is an American folksinger/songwriter who draws on electronica and the post-rock scene, Unknown to me, I quickly sought out his Greetings From Michigan: The Great Lakes State so that I could hear the original. Its repetitive but beguiling harmonic cycle was emphasised and underpinned by bassist Larry Grenadier's richly woody bass-slides. The piece instantly drew me in was the highlight of an uncommonly brilliant performance, probably for both of us.
Encores tend to be obligatory and sometimes annoying, but on Saturday the only complaint I could have was that Mehldau only offered us one of them. A performance of concentrated improvisation of this quality, pushing the two hour mark, can't be bad really. Next up for us is Billy Cobham's Cuban band Asere on Thursday night. Let's hope my decision to buy tickets wasn't a Corea-esque lapse in judgement. Oh, and just one more thing...