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Brad Mehldau Trio at Duke's Baldwin Auditorium - December 11, 2014

Ben Gray
Staff Writer

The Brad Mehldau trio played Duke University’s Baldwin Auditorium last night. Mehldau is coming up on twenty years since the 1995 release of Introducing Brad Mehldau, which was followed by his Art of the Trio series and a number of mind-blowing solo piano and piano trio albums, to say nothing of his work as a sideman and on a number of other projects like Largo, Highway Rider, and Mehliana. I mention this up front because after putting together this incredible catalog of work and after blowing so many minds with his staggering piano playing, it can be very difficult to listen to the Brad Mehldau trio in December 2014 with fresh ears. As the band has evolved, the spotlight has moved from Mehldau’s piano to a far broader circle to include more equal contributions from bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard. This is not to say that Grenadier and Ballard haven’t been playing their asses off for years now! But the Mehldau trio’s current playing has a very equitable feel, with fewer pyrotechnics from Mehldau than the listener might be accustomed to based on those previously mentioned records. That said…

The show opened with a left-hand arpeggio from Mehldau’s piano that was unmistakably Mehldau-ian, if that’s a word. That opening arpeggio indeed led into a Mehldau original whose title I missed. The second tune was also a Mehldau original, "Sete", named for a French fishing village that he visited recently. Both of these tunes were mellow originals, in the vein of something like "26" or some of the other originals off of his recent Ode album. After these originals, they launched into Elmo Hope’s "De Dah", a be-bop burner that felt looser than the two originals that came before it. "De Dah" featured particularly winning solos from Grenadier and Ballard, with both improvising nicely based on the tune’s main riff. "De Dah" was followed by a couple of Brazilian tunes, including "Vibrações" by mandolinist Jacob do Bandolim. This was a great, subtle tune with a beautiful melody passed back and forth between Mehldau and Grenadier and a really fine piano solo from Mehldau - fewer mind-boggling fast runs, but the way this solo was constructed with a great arc and interaction between his two hands was truly beautiful. The final tune of the set was "Since I Fell For You", which Mehldau announced as a torch burner, and indeed it was. The trio got into a great groove that almost called for a smoky-voiced soul singer at times, and there was an extended solo piano break that had Mehldau really digging into his piano playing more than the tunes that came before this. They closed that tune as a trio and received their applause to end the set. They came back onstage then to play Sufjan Stevens' "Holland." This was a mellow, beautiful way to end the show, and was particularly interesting in that Mehldau finished on a very much unresolved chord, eliciting a smile from Grenadier.

Brad Mehldau Trio - "Holland" (Burghausen, 2008)

The Mehldau trio of 2014 is a different animal from the Mehldau trio of a decade ago, and is seemingly less muscular than the incarnation of this band that appeared on albums like Day is Done. That said, these three musicians appear to be able to play whatever they’d like, and the restraint they show is something to hear in itself, making the times that they do open up into a mind-boggling run up and down the keyboard, or a big drum fill, all the more exciting.

The Mehldau trio has a few more shows on the east coast of the United States in the coming days:

December 12th, 2014: World Cafe Live - Philadelphia, PA
December 13th, 2014: Berklee Performance Center - Boston, MA
December 14th, 2014: Sawyer Theatre at The Egg - Albany, NY