To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, music writer Nate Patrin shares his perspective on the second night of Intuitive Expression: A Brad Mehldau Celebration. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!
Describing Brad Mehldau‘s rapport with his instrument is a slippery proposition. You could start with his chops (which are subtle when they need to be and flashy when the moment is right), or how he’s able to dart from elegant simplicity to careening runs of dizzying, joyous intensity like it’s the most natural thing in the world. But it’s his stance that gives him away – hunched over, head cocked, eyes perpetually shut, and an oddly beatific rictus of deep-focus purpose on his face. With every nimble transition or coaxed out counterpoint to one of the trio’s other soloists, he had the appearance of someone who knew exactly where everything came from and was supposed to go, as though every note was simultaneously dedicated to typing out the transcript of an unlikely but true slapstick story.
The 100-minute, two-encore set with his core trio (Larry Grenadier on bass; Jeff Ballard on drums) was deceptively brisk, even during the ballads – though it’s worth noting that songs that started as ballads on the surface frequently had the tendency to rear back and expand into something louder and more complex. Ballard’s drumming was at the center of some of the more aggressive moments: whether soloing or doubling up Grenadier’s zig-zag basslines, he manhandled the backbeat to the precipice of collapse and back again, daredevil rhythms that were free to wander when Mehldau’s piano carried enough steady momentum.
That left the pieces easy to follow yet hard to predict, grabbing attention with its tradition-acknowledging yet canon-expanding nods to bebop (Elmo Hope’s “De-Dah”), old pop standards (“These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You)”), and the tangential outside improvisation of Sam Rivers (“Beatrice”), launching off the initial inspirations to find the notes between the chords and the beats beneath the rhythms. The pull between nuanced, subtle interplay and hard-charging, emotional catharsis used its three-man tug-of-war dynamics most engagingly on “Seymour Reads the Constitution,” a composition Mehldau stated was inspired by a melody he heard in a dream where Philip Seymour Hoffman read the United States Constitution to him – a week before he died. It was a fitting tribute, equal parts complexity and pathos. Which meant it fit in perfectly with the trio’s set, and the breath-snatching compositional vertigo Mehldau brought to it.