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February 24, 2004

Brad Mehldau evolves on latest jazz experiment

Over the past 10 years, Brad Mehldau has created a body of piano trio music to rival some of the most hallowed names in the jazz canon. When Mehldau broke onto the jazz scene in the early '90s, he was celebrated as one of the more articulate members of a rising school of young, Bill Evans—influenced pianists. As the years progressed, many of his equally promising classmates failed to grow, wallowing in a style that values virtuosity at the expense of subtlety. Mehldau, on the other hand, has emerged from those heady, early years as the most sensitive pianist of his generation, crafting a distinct pianistic sensibility that balances technical mastery with a pristine touch.

Mehldau's music hasn't taken shape independently, but has grown alongside two other formidable musical personalities that make up the Brad Mehldau Trio—the bassist, Larry Grenadier, and the drummer, Jorge Rossy. The trio has been one of the most consistently performing units on the jazz scene for the past decade, but has not recorded an album since 2001 or a studio album since 1998. Anything Goes, their current release, is paradoxically both the most restrained and most adventurous studio album the Brad Mehldau Trio has produced, a standards and covers-only effort that juxtaposes the group's maturity with its increasingly unique textual treatments.

Perhaps the most striking quality of Anything Goes is the presence of a deliberate polish that was less apparent in Mehldau's earlier work. On his early live albums, Mehldau was apt to dazzle the audience (and likely himself) with flashes of unrestrained virtuosity. The music built in densely knotted chords, then resolved in a flash of brilliance that propelled Mehldau and his audience into a beatific musical stratosphere.

Mehldau still has awe-inspiring abilities, but over the last few years he noticeably tried to temper his virtuosic outbursts, exploring new sonic horizons and subtle keyboard dynamics. Mehldau's last release, Largo, was a heavily produced, large ensemble experiment that plunged into a wide array of sounds utterly alien to Mehldau's trio work. Largo was a failure as an album, but a tremendous success as an exercise; one can hear Mehldau's broadened vision throughout Anything Goes, especially on the rollicking "Get Happy" and the trance-like "Everything In Its Right Place."

Anything Goes is a restrained and beautiful work, but its maturity occasionally obscures its emotional immediacy. On several tracks—"Nearness of You" most notably—Mehldau pulls back from his ideas right as they are ready to burst into a dazzling flame. If Mehldau followed all of his ideas into the stars, he would be acknowledged as a gifted show-off who was more concerned with style than substance. However, his hesitancy to explore fully most of his ideas robs his solos of their full intensity. At his best, Mehldau will plunge into each solo and follow it to its appropriate end—be it a densely packed cluster of chords or a quiet, half-played note. Too often on Anything Goes, Mehldau raps us up in coiled, musical anticipation and then stops just short of a musical orgasm.

Yet on the whole, Mehldau's restraint serves him well on an album of this type. The most involving solos of Mehldau's recorded career are documented on his live Village Vanguard albums, the performance setting calling forth an emotional immediacy that is far more difficult to achieve in the studio. Thus, on Anything Goes, Mehldau has decided to place the impetus of artistic invention more on an affinity for the different textures of each song than the improvisations built off of them. On "Skippy," Mehldau delivers a highly individual treatment of the Monk standard by subjecting it to a deeply respectful deconstruction. Mehldau's solo never loses its connection with Monk's composition, offering us direct melodic quotes and a textural congruency between improvisa tion and original composition. By using this grounded approach, Mehldau eschews virtuosic bravado for deep reverence, creating an impressive display through his attention to the underlying textures of Monk's piece.

Anything Goes is a reassessment rather than a bold step forward, but it is consistently beautiful and elegantly realized. The dynamics of Mehldau's touch are strikingly documented. Each note seems to carry the weight of a lesser player's crescendo. The album's strengths and weaknesses rest on what Mehldau does not play as much as what he does. The economy of notes—at least in comparison to his earlier work—gives the album a mature poetry. However, this economy also keeps it from achieving the grandeur of improvisatory triumph.

Brad Mehldau is still best in the immediacy of a performance setting where his ideas can simultaneously express reverence and a high-flying boldness. Nonetheless, Anything Goes is a very fine representation of his playing. Anything Goes may be restrained and occasionally frustrating, but it is supremely worth owning.