Some of Johannes Brahms' music was just a hop, skip and syncopation away from ragtime piano. So it's not surprising that 30-year-old jazz pianist Brad Mehldau holds the composer so close to his heart. But emulating Brahms is the least of Mehldau's worries, as comparisons to the late jazz great Bill Evans tend to follow him wherever he plays.
Like Evans, Mehldau prefers the trio format, performing last week at Scullers with bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jorge Rossy. A so-called piano intellectual, Mehldau lived up to his reputation, often quoting Bach-not only Johannes Sebastian, but Carl Philip Emanuel, whose "Solfeggio in C minor" was heard in skeletal form during one improvisation.
Aside from the somewhat indeterminate allusions to classical music, not a familiar melody was provided in the first set. Mehldau related that the compositions are all "untitled," perhaps suggestive of works in progress. This is not to say that the tunes were inferior, but indeed the trio seemed intent on making these songs as aurally esoteric as possible, with Grenadier's bass line rarely walking and Rossy's beat rarely metered. It never came off as pretentious, but nevertheless made for a challenging listen. Mehldau joked at the end of the set that perhaps only one melody would have not escaped recognition, the jazz standard "Alone Together," that is, if he had not "butchered the melody."
With the second set came both a change in mood and approach. Mehldau yielded to ever-longer improvisations on more melodically emphasized ballads, many of which were named and a few of which have even appeared on albums, such as "Resignation" from 1999's Elegiac Cycle. Comparisons here to the classical forefathers might be inappropriate, as Mehldau himself is a master of the piano ballad, but the languid shifts and poignant phrasings are all nonetheless reminiscent of the great French romantic Chopin.
It's not to say that there is something inherently preferable about melody over improvisation, or ballad tempo over fugue. But Mehldau, like Bach, is at his best slowed down. Like Glenn Gould playing 32nd trills as eighth notes, Mehldau proves that virtuosity is not dependent on quick pace alone. Yet even at a more leisurely speed, Mehldau's improvisational line exhibits an overall concern with counterpoint, which at once indicates his post-bop tendencies and classical training. But here they tend to be more appropriate, as Mehldau's impromptus have a tendency to fall into the trap of classical meter at brisker tempos.
Mehldau ended the night with an encore performance of his piano rendition of Radiohead's "Exit Music for a Film," this time adorned with so many mordents that it resulted in a more antagonistic piece than even the original lyrics ("I hope you choke") might suggest. But the crowd nevertheless voiced supportive yelps.
Mehldau's improvisations have been criticized for being overly verbose. Yet it would be extremely reductive to base a judgment of music solely on how compelling it is. Beyond cursory appearances, Mehldau has a style that rightly deserves recognition. It is with little doubt that he will be one of the most significant jazz performers of our time. Perhaps it is because Mehldau is so gifted that comparisons to Evans are constantly made, or as one audience member boldly pointed out, "The comparisons that are made between Mehldau's trio and that of Evans's are mostly because it's three white guys playing piano, bass and drums."