Brad Mehldau certainly has a way with an enigmatic song title. The piano supremo, returning with Ode, his first trio recording since 2005’s Day Is Done, has meticulously crafted a series of odes to a range of characters, ranging from his son (Days Of Dilbert Delaney), through vintage cartoon characters (Aquaman), to Jack Nicholson’s turn as the perpetually inebriated lawyer in Easy Rider (Eulogy For George Hanson). In adapting such a deferential approach to his song writing, Mehldau has successfully managed to veer away from composing works which simply serve as showcases for his own virtuoso skills and instead focuses on the terrific interplay between Mehldau and his sidekicks, Larry Grenadier and Jeff Ballard.
After emerging in the last decade as a pianist of undoubted skill and verve, Mehldau has refused to conform to any jazz traditions, instead absorbing influences from the likes of Radiohead, Steve Reich and Philip Glass, managing to display breathtaking originality without ever resorting to needless bombast. This relentless independent streak, often bordering on the cerebral, has always been tempered by a populist vibe; Mehldau has managed to milk the pop idiom to take full advantage of audience crossover, placing him at the crossroads between mainstream appeal and left-of-field trailblazer.
Ode arrives on the back of a remarkably productive period for Mehldau. His eight years with Jac Holzman’s Nonesuch label has seen the release of a box set, a chamber ensemble album and collaborations with Pat Metheny, Kevin Hays and Patrick Zimmerli, among others. Considering the sheer amount of output, it is refreshing to listen to the Trio grasp the chance to work on the 11 originals on Ode, which begin with the unravelling contours of M.B., dedicated to late saxophonist Michael Brecker, whose spirit, according to Mehldau, is in the “relatively high heat of the performance”. This pace of performance maintains throughout the record, apart from the aforementioned Eulogy… and Dream Sketch, the latter a beautifully languid composition, peppered with Ballard’s deft brushwork which gradually builds into a robust workout, replete with Grenadier’s double bass weaving in and out of the richly detailed piano.
What’s most immediately notable about Ode is the gloss and sheen attached to the performances and production. But this never serves to overtly suffocate the music; if anything, the trio has far more space to breathe than in previous releases. The brisk Stan The Man features extensive soloing from Ballard, while Twiggy – an ode to Mehldau’s wife rather than the world’s first supermodel – is a sumptuous, joyous affair where our piano hero finally does get to display his technical prowess; this segues into the cascading scales of Kurt Vibe, dedicated to guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, an acknowledged influence on Mehldau over the years.
If this was an early-career album from a less distinguished musician, it may be dismissed as almost too conventional – the trio rarely shirk from their responsibilities as an incredibly tight, controlled group of musicians. But considering Mehldau’s pedigree, this focus on interaction rather than improvisation is to be welcomed. Ode is an often scintillating and always joyful listen from beginning to end. While the theme of the album may be dedications to others, what Mehldau has ultimately crafted is an ode to the confidence, style and precision of his own trio’s playing, displaying all the panache and charm of old companions reuniting once more.