REVIEW: The Art of the Trio: Recordings 1996-2001

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Monday November 28, 2011


The Art of the Trio: Recordings 1996-2001
By: John Kelman

It’s hard to believe that it’s only been fifteen years since Brad Mehldau emerged on the scene, so prevalent and influential has the pianist become since then. At the same time as he was gaining some significant attention for his work with saxophonist Joshua Redman on Moodswing (Warner Bros., 1994), the then 24 year-old pianist had been recruited by Redman’s label, releasing Introducing Brad Mehldau in 1995’“an apt if not entirely accurate title; while it represented his first recording with true international reach, his co-leader debut actually came the year before with When I Fall in Love (Fresh Sound New Talent, 1994), in the democratically named Mehldau & Rossy Trio.

But it was with the release of Art of the Trio, Volume One (Warner Bros., 1997) that Mehldau lept into an even brighter spotlight, settling into one of the two trios featured on Introducing for a lineup that, with bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jorge Rossy, would remain constant for the next decade, until Rossy decided to return to Spain to study and refocus. It was precocious, indeed, for Mehldau to release an album with a title of such import, but unlike many young artists who were emerging at the time’“many still not fully-formed or ready for a leap into leadership’“Mehldau proved that he may have been a relative youngster, but he was absolutely ready for the limelight as a leading player, interpreter and composer, with Volume One’s four original compositions, scattered amidst four standards and one Beatles tune, as rooted in Bach as they were in bop.

It’s all too easy to look for obvious comparisons when faced with a new talent as startling as Mehldau was in 1995, but if surface-only references to seminal jazz pianists past and present’“in particular Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett’“rankled the young player, looking back at The Art of the Trio: Recordings 1996’“2001 with the benefit of knowing where Mehldau’s career has gone since, it’s easy to understand why. The truth is that this box set’“which collects the six CDs that made up Mehldau’s five-volume Art of the Trio series, plus a seventh disc of additional live tracks recorded between 1997 and 2001’“serves as a refresher course on how to properly treat an artist who appears, seemingly out of nowhere, with a fresh perspective on a well-worn tradition.

There’s little doubt that Mehldau knows plenty about that tradition, but as early as Art of the Trio, Volume Two: Live at the Village Vanguard (Warner Bros, 1998), the pianist was already demonstrating a remarkable facility that has, in the years since, evolved into a sophisticated and still seemingly impossible ability to do, with one hand, what most pianists need two to accomplish (for a chance to actually see Mehldau’s hands in action, there’s the DVD that’s part of the Live in Marciac (Nonesuch, 2011) three-disc set. As his solo builds on a lengthy look at Cole Porter’s often-covered “It’s Alright With Me,” Mehldau clearly adheres to form’“though, at times, it seems as though the entire trio is barely hanging on at the edge of a precipice, so pliant is the push-and-pull going on amongst them’“but with jagged contrapuntal ideas seeming to flow independently from each hand, even as they twist and turn, diverge and re-entwine in a manner that might be hypnotic if it weren’t so positively exhilarating, the pianist’s voice is already distinct and unmistakable.

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