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Brad Mehldau, described as one of the “most adventurous” jazz pianists to emerge over the past 20 years, draws from the work of such eclectic sources as Thelonious Monk, George Gershwin, Ornette Coleman, the Beatles, Radiohead, J.S. Bach, and Johannes Brahms. The concert offered by Duke Performances oscillated between classical chamber music-like pieces and contemporary jazz in a trio setting. Chamber Jazz? Possibly, since at times it brought to mind the very structured playing of the Modern Jazz Quartet in the 1950s and ’60s.* It should also be noted that Mehldau is somewhat of a Renaissance man in that he has ongoing collaborations with a wide variety of contemporary artists and musicians ranging from the great soprano Renée Fleming and chamber ensembles to edgy jazz electronics. According to the program notes “(There are) … two sides of Mehldau’s personality – the improviser and the formalist – (and they) … play off each other, and the effect is often like controlled chaos” (sic).
Mehldau’s cohorts for this performance were longtime collaborators Larry Grenadier on acoustic bass and Jeff Ballard on drums. The simultaneous communication among them was palpable, as such cohesion is vital in any small group setting.
The first piece set the style of playing for the evening that blended both improvised classical and jazz approaches to an original composition by Mehldau that featured impressively executed solos by his two partners; particularly notable was the drum solo using neither conventional sticks nor brushes but an unusual hybrid stick-brush combination probably made out of thin bamboo shoots. A device that was employed throughout the concert, especially during the piano solos, was the use of counterpoint as an aspect of improvisation; this was potentially quite effective in a tonal piece in 3/4 time that started to build both melodically and rhythmically to a climax rather akin to some Indian musics; unfortunately it failed miserably. There was no climax and it petered off into a rather bland ending.
There were two Latin-based tunes, one being a slow samba played in a classical vein, and a second one (“Vibrations”) which had a much stronger feel to it but lacked somewhat in dynamics. One frustrating part of Mehldau’s playing, skilled as it is, was his propensity to stick to the middle octave range on the piano; on the one Bebop tune that was played (attributed to Bud Powell and/or Elmo Hope), this aspect was a limitation, and the inherent blues feel of the bebop era seemed missing.
An aspect that was not missing was the creative interactions between solos of the pianist, bassist, and drummer, in one instance alternating from entire choruses to four bar exchanges.
The inclusion of a couple of American Songbook standards towards the end of their 90-minute set was a nice touch. Frederick Lowe and Alan Jay Lerner’s “Almost Like Being in Love” was played very successfully at breakneck tempo with stunning solos by Larry Grenadier and a most subtle ”melodic” drum solo from Jeff Ballard, largely on cymbals. Buddy Johnson’s composition “Since I Fell for You” began as a slow ballad with a 6/4 rhythm and light backbeat that eventually morphed into a slightly funkier mode; this is one place where a laid back “blues feel” could have been most effective.
A dominant feature of these pieces was the counterpoint approach to much of the playing in this concert. While this is a perfectly valid device, in jazz it begins to sound repetitive, and indeed counterproductive, in that it can inhibit an essential component of the genre – swing. Although it has now become a cliché, as Duke Ellington famously once put it, “It Don’t Mean a Thing If it Ain’t Got That Swing.” The Duke was right!
As a footnote – and it has been noted over the past year by others – the total renovation of Baldwin auditorium at Duke has resulted in the creation of an elegant venue with stunning internal architecture and superb acoustics (a huge improvement!), the latter of which was evident at this concert. Even in the rear of the auditorium, the “electronic enhancement” of the sound is clear and virtually imperceptible. However it would have been nice if more attention had been paid to the layout and rise of the seating in the orchestra section, thus allowing a less obstructed view of the now wide-open stage. The seats themselves, while being comfortable, could have been spaced more generously in both longitudinal and lateral directions, i.e. making its occupants feel less like being in airline Sardine Class.
*Editor's Note: Readers may recall that the author of this review brought the Modern Jazz Quartet and numuerous other world-class jazz ensembles and artists to Raleigh to perform at the late-lamented nightclub, the Frog and Nightgown.