Album Review: Blues and Ballads by Brad Mehldau Trio
Excellent, Based on 4 Critics
The Guardian - 80 Based on rating 4/5
American piano master Brad Mehldau has played both Bach and electronic funk in the UK recently, but this is a return to acoustic jazz with his long-running trio (Larry Grenadier on bass and Jeff Ballard on drums) and a tracklist of classic songs. But if all that sounds too familiar, forget it. Mehldau is a genius (and a still-improving one) at taking predictable materials to unpredictable destinations.
Brad Mehldau might be a bit overlooked these days, with the field of jazz pianists who are taking the music into the future so rich and crowded. Robert Glasper brings hip hop to the acoustic jazz piano, Jason Moran fractures the art while bringing it back together, and Vijay Iyer seems to be shuffling a deck of classical minimalism, funk, and modernism. There are plenty more (Marc Cary, Aaron Parks, John Medeski, Ethan Iverson .
Brad Mehldau's warm, utterly enveloping effort, 2016's Blues and Ballads, finds the pianist leading his trio through a set of well-curated standards and covers. The album follows up his genre-bending 2014 collaboration with electronic musician Mark Guiliana, Mehliana: Taming the Dragon, and smartly showcases his return to intimate acoustic jazz. Admittedly, the title, Blues and Ballads, is somewhat misleading, as Mehldau only tackles one actual blues with his jaunty, off-kilter take on Charlie Parker's "Cheryl." Otherwise, the blues of the title is implied more in the earthy lyricism of a handful of ballads.
A deceptively sweet-sounding set which, once you cotton on to the pianist’s way of treating a few mainly well-known tunes, is absolutely absorbing. Instead of the usual jazz method of improvising on a tune over and over again, known as “playing choruses”, he plays the song with a few variations and then goes into a kind of free meditation on it. And every phrase is a cliffhanger.