The Brad Mehldau Trio — Mehldau on piano, Larry Grenadier on bass, and Jeff Ballard on drums — have not released an album together in four years, 2014’s Blues and Ballads. You know how it goes– artists create, move onto other ideas, take time creating on their own until the time is right to bring something just so to your usual collaborators. Sure, Mehldau spent the last four years vamping on Bach, jamming with a genius mandolin player, and playing a sideman, but there’s just something so satisfying about hearing these three guys together again, jamming over original tunes, dazzling us with jazz standards, and playing rock covers in that model that we all know and love. Seymour Reads the Constitution! is certainly a return to form for these guys.
The lead single and album opener “Spiral” sets the pace for this album immediately, playing with a left hand ostinato that seems to constantly move like silkworm eating a leaf, leaving Mehldau’s right hand to put in that all too famous work, for Ballard to go H.A.M., and for Grenadier to order his steps so poignantly well as always. Their take on “Almost Like Being In Love” is a sprighty, jaunty tune that gets a fairly standard, but speedy arrangement that will make you grin from ear to ear and has everyone functioning on all cylinders. Elmo Hope’s “De-Dah” is just plain fantastic– simple, neat, truly honoring the classic tune without feeling like a history lesson. “Ten-Tune” has that vibe of being math-y (it is called “Ten-Tune” and it shouldn’t be difficult to count the reasons why) but once it gets into gear, one barely thinks about it when all manner of feeling takes over. Their take on Paul McCartney’s “Great Day” is a rootsy but expansive, as expected.
That’s the main thing about this album– as it’s a return to form, it does manage to check off certain boxes for a Brad Mehldau Trio album. This isn’t to discredit it. Mehldau, Grenadier, and Ballard (and Jorge Rossy before him) has been one of those groundbreaking piano trios for two decades now, defined as much by their acumen on their instruments as they are by the choices they make in what they play in particular. “Ten-Tune” as a composition sounds technical in the same way “Into the City” off 2010’s Highway Rider did. Yes, there’s a McCartney cover, because it’s not exactly a Beatles song. Hell, “Spiral” is very similar in form to “August Ending” off 2006’s House on Hill. That’s the nature of composition, particularly over time, and especially with Mehldau. We’ve heard these ideas, they’re being reworked and expanded upon, and they’re always a delight to hear, even when recombined into something new. To say that Seymour Reads the Constitution! is playing the same game we all know and love isn’t a complaint. These three have been changing the game for years, only to find the game has caught up to them as of late. It’s fine if they’re still sailing in the same waters; those waters have always been mighty deep.
Seymour Reads the Constitution!, the new album from the Brad Mehldau Trio, is out now on Nonesuch Records.
Nextbop Editor-in-Chief Anthony Dean-Harris hosts the modern jazz radio show, The Line-Up, Fridays at 9pm CST on 91.7 FM KRTU San Antonio and is also a contributing writer to DownBeat Magazine and the San Antonio Current.