Pianist Teddy Wilson and tenorman Don Byas would have turned 100 a couple of days ago. NPR Patrick Jarenwattananon traces their parallel histories here. Besides the swinging genius, drummer Jo Jones’ slapstick comedy act at the 4:08 mark really made my day. This guy has the most killing sideways glance (great drumming as well, of course!).
Anyone with an interest in modern jazz has at least heard of this genre-defying trio. For those who have been sleeping, this video from a 2004 concert at the Village Vanguard is fairly good quality youtube footage and a good place to start. To say that I love this band doesn’t even come close to describing my undying fandom. But until I put together a half-decent post on their music, check out Wolf Out, off their newly released album Made Possible. Watch the wolf creep out of the wood, feel the minimalist vibe, delight in the odd-meter mystery, enjoy this eerie animal.
Last night’s performance by the Brad Mehldau trio demonstrated beautifully the validity of improvised music in the bare-bones format of the jazz trio. Playing a well-balanced mix of new originals and pop covers, ranging from Charlie Parker’s Cheryl to The Beatles’ And I Love Her, the trio took on every song with unrelenting commitment, tasteful musicianship and a sense of drama that pulled me into the music and never let go. Helped by the impeccable acoustics of the Salle Pleyel the sound filled the house with so much presence that it felt like a full symphonic orchestra was playing. Mehldau has reiterated time and time again how grateful he is to his partners for their creative powers and how much his own playing is informed by theirs. Aside from the significant drums replacement of Jorge Rossy by Jeff Ballard in 2005, the trio has played together continuously, also forming the core sound of other major bands, notably those of luminaries Mark Turner and Kurt Rosenwinkel. It shows. A high level of cohesiveness permeated throughout the performance, be it in Grenadier’s contrapuntal bass figures constantly bouncing off Mehldau’s darkly lyrical lines or Ballard’s flexible and nuanced drumming. While Jazz has been shaped by such cornerstones as the jam sessions, the “sitting in” tradition and in-the-moment creativity, aesthetics and group sound have also been critical to the most groundbreaking artists of the music. How would Coltrane’s quartet have sounded without the dream team of Elvin Jones, Jimmy Garrison and McCoy Tyner? Mehldau is so deeply engaged with this tradition that when he lays out right after stating the melody of a song to push his band mates to the foreground, he’s not only paying tribute to them he’s also reaffirming that to be a sideman in his group is not to be an interchangeable gear in an immutable system.
The material selected for this concert reflects Mehldau’s penchant for relatively simple or short forms to improvise on. This may be his most exquisite gift: picking a memorable melody, laying out the contours by sparse painterly brushes and taking it as far as inspiration can take it, letting it build and build. Grenadier and Ballard are well attuned to this process, filling in when Mehldau seemed to ponder his next move in real time, or just pumping away with mind-blowing telepathy as he gained momentum. That night, the amount of activity from bass and drums was so intense that Brad’s lines were slightly muddled on occasion but the only thing to blame for this was the infectious groove the trio kept going.
Owning the tune seems to be the ultimate motive on Mehldau’s agenda, regardless of its composer. That he chooses to take on McCartney or Sam Rivers with equal passion is testimony to his dedication to the art of improvisation over any other stylistic concern. What boggles the mind is how long he is able to sustain interest, reconfiguring the parameters of the song, leaning hard into the piano to bring out the music and get comfortable with it. At one point through a 5/4 meter song, the band stopped and let Mehldau move into an introspective solo that exuded his more classical side. When they reentered to take the tune out, the intensity that had built up before the solo continued unabated.
Much ink has been spilled about how Jazz has shot itself in the foot by becoming too sophisticated for the masses. Sophistication and accessibility are not mutually exclusive notions. Thelonious Monk’s unique music was once dismissed as offbeat and dissonant and later castigated as simplistic. The argument misses the point. The kind of organic unity that these three fantastic musicians achieve in this particular trio has been a foundation of the most prominent jazz groups. To recognize the uniqueness of this music is to validate Mehldau’s contention that there is such a thing as an “art of the trio”.