It is hard keeping pace with Brad Mehldau’s relentless activity. In the past two years alone he has released the lengthy, slightly insipid double disc set Highway Rider, an outstanding live solo piano set (admittedly recorded back in 2006), another live recording with jazz legends Lee Konitz, Charlie Haden and the much missed Paul Motian, a duo collaboration with classical pianist Kevin Hays and this year two brand new albums with his longstanding trio.
Mehldau is probably the closest thing the jazz world has to an international piano star, selling out large concert halls around the world and the most obvious heir to the exalted throne currently occupied by Keith Jarrett. Yet his music, apart from drawing from the contemporary pop world for a new standard repertoire, largely brooks no compromise. Here is a musician whose approach is defiantly thoughtful and considered, whose technique is peerless and whose orchestrations and improvisations on his instrument are elaborate and compelling. Mehldau’s music cannot be appreciated in a short flurry of background listening – his work takes time to cast its spell.
In contrast to this year’s earlier Ode, Where Do You Start largely focuses on interpretations, both from within and beyond the jazz tradition. In spite of its pristine recording quality and some typically outstanding playing, Ode felt oddly dynamically flat. Thankfully, that peculiar defect is largely rectified here, not least on an inspired development of Sufjan Stevens’ Holland, which feels both subtle and authoritative – a real journey through music. Equally brilliant is the group’s empathetic, enraptured take on Elvis Costello’s Baby Plays Around. In Mehldau’s hands, it feels like a longstanding part of the standard repertoire, full of history, aching and longing.
The trio also demonstrate their mastery of swing and awareness of the tradition with versions of Brownie Speaks and Airegin. On the former, Jeff Ballard’s drums brilliantly complement the melody. In fact, the whole piece showcases the trio’s experiments with musical conversation (Mehldau’s comping behind Larry Grenadier’s bass solo is delightfully sparing and supportive). It also swings brightly and Ballard’s concluding solo is a fluid, expressive delight. Airegin is taken at a brisk pace, but it sounds relaxed and commanding rather than frantic. The musicians still manage to leave breathing space.
Some of Mehldau’s detours into the pop world might seem predictable this far into a long career but there are, perhaps wisely, no Radiohead covers here. This is ground now well traversed by Mehldau and by many others. Instead, there’s a groovy, gospel-tinged take on Hey Joe that, whether consciously or not, recalls Keith Jarrett’s enduringly popular trio take on God Bless The Child. It’s a brilliant exhibition for Larry Grenadier’s inventive bass playing – somehow both singing and gritty at the same time. Nick Drake’s Time Has Told Me is gold for Mehldau – he amplifies its reflective and lyrical qualities.
Where Do You Start is, in addition to being a superb showcase of these musicians’ technical flair and expressive confidence, a typically thoughtful, informed and intuitive statement. Mehldau can make beautiful music from the calmest, clearest ideas (the closing title track being a prime example), as well as stretching out both imaginatively and playfully. More than just a worthy addition to an outstanding catalogue, this is one of Mehldau’s best.