The Brad Mehldau Trio. At the Lobero Theatre, Friday, January 20.
Any doubts that a piano trio could fill the Lobero with an abundance of music were quickly dispelled on Friday as Brad Mehldau kicked into his first number, “Granada,” a song from the trio’s new album Day Is Done (Nonesuch). It’s a ballad that begins swinging gently and builds to a heated series of Latin-tinged crescendos. Mehldau’s renowned technique involves sideways entrances to the theme, song-like middle register runs, and a left hand full of quirky independent melodies and offbeat, unexpected accents. In the current version of his trio, Mehldau is joined by two fabulous collaborators, bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard. The result is so cohesive and rhythmically focused that the trio might as well be a single instrument with three people playing it at once.
Ballard’s drumming took the spotlight in the second number, an untitled original that conjured the blues, waltz time, and the piano trio work of the great Duke Ellington. Much is made of Mehldau’s propensity to reinvent pop and rock, and the evening had its share of such covers, including “Day Is Done” by hip deceased British singer-songwriter Nick Drake and a thoroughly mesmerizing encore of the Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home” from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Mehldau’s arrangement of the Beatles song was the evening’s highlight, and it demonstrates what makes the Mehldau Trio’s music so appealing. First, Mehldau is not afraid to make music that is relaxing. Like Miles Davis on the iconic Kind of Blue, Mehldau embraces the fact that jazz properly played does more than just get under the skin — it drops down the spine to loosen the lower back. Next, Mehldau knows his post-Coltrane harmonics. These became particularly prominent as he pushed the middle eight section of “She’s Leaving Home” off into the modal stratosphere.
Maybe it’s his relatively young age (35) or the eclectic New York scene he came up through, but Mehldau is playing post-Borders music, mixing the best of the jazz section with the best of the rock, creating a dream space in which Sgt. Pepper’s can get mashed up with A Love Supreme. It’s a brave, idiosyncratic vision of contemporary music, and, in person or on record, it feels like heaven.