Live In Marciac, a two-CD/one DVD set, is pianist and composer Brad Mehldau’s second collection of live solo recordings, joining Live In Toyko in his Nonesuch catalogue. This engrossing set, from a summer festival in Marciac, France, features both Mehldau originals and his ruminative explorations of material from such artists and writers as Nick Drake, Radiohead, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, and Kurt Cobain, along with American Songbook classics from Cole Porter (‘It’s All Right With Me’) and Rogers and Hammerstein (‘My Favorite Thing’).
The accompanying film offers a beautifully rendered, piano’s-eye view of Mehldau from this French performance, an extraordinarily up-close opportunity to observes his hands – and mind – at work. As London’s Daily Telegraph has noted, ‘He’s a pianist who has it all, technically speaking, and he also has a fabulously well-stocked brain that can mingle different musical traditions. He can turn a standard with consummate musicianship and real swing, he can mine the depths of a blues chord sequence, he can summon a rock-anthem ecstasy. And lurking in the background is a fascination with classical music, revealed in the way inner parts surge and pluck at the main melody.’
The release of this live set caps a remarkable year for the pianist, who just celebrated his 40th birthday in August. Mehldau was awarded the prestigious Richard and Barbara Debs Composers Chair at Carnegie Hall for the current season, in recognition of his “sensuous, cerebral, and incandescent” work. Through spring 2011, he is serving as an artist in residence at Carnegie Hall, programming concerts – including the recent live premiere of his latest original work, Highway Rider – and conducting master classes, as well as collaborating with other artists, such as mezzo soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, with whom he will perform an expanded version of his Love Songs. This honour marks the first time the chair has been given to a jazz artist and, as New York magazine put it, ‘Not just any cat – a pianist with broad influences and a cerebral style.’ In London Mehldau continues his Wigmore Hall curatorship in 2011 with performances in September and December.
Highway Rider, released on Nonesuch in March, has been universally acclaimed. Naming it one of the best jazz releases of 2010, Jazzwise declared, ‘Mehldau is once again breaking new ground.’ The Guardian concurred: ‘Highway Rider's contrasts and dramatic entries spring constant surprises, and show how much progress the mesmerising improviser has made as a big-ensemble composer. This is the kind of genre dialogue that gets classical/jazz crossovers a good name.’
As a jazz pianist, Brad Mehldau has always been at his best in two formats: the classic piano-bass-drums trio and as a solo player. Later in 2011, Nonesuch plans to re-issue his great The Art of the Trio recordings as a six-disc box set. Meanwhile, on Live in Marciac, Mehldau is heard playing alone before an enthusiastic audience at the August 2006 Marciac Jazz festival – his first solo release since 2004’s Live in Tokyo.
Live in Marciac consists of two CDs plus a DVD, altogether over 100 minutes of music. Remarkably, across its length the virtuosity and excitement levels never dip. After repeated hearings, the music sounds as fresh as ever. Typically for Mehldau, the repertoire is a mix of original compositions and an eclectic selection of songs.
Alongside standards by Cole Porter and Rodgers and Hammerstein are songs by Mehldau favourites Radiohead, Nick Drake and The Beatles. More surprising is the inclusion of James Shelton’s Lilac Wine – popularised by Jeff Buckley – and Nirvana’s Lithium. Although classically trained, Mehldau clearly listens widely, and is a magpie for a catchy melody.
Despite such diversity, the album has an overall sense of unity. Without going to excessive lengths, Mehldau explores each piece forensically, teasingly playing around with its melody and occasionally investigating side alleys. As is his habit, he revisits pieces he has explored before; for instance, this is his third version of Radiohead’s Exit Music (For a Film). Mehldau is constantly playing, never still, with both hands ranging across the entire keyboard. His music is so rich that at times it is possible to believe two players are at work.
The DVD is the first ever of Mehldau in concert; he is seen performing all but one of the album tracks. Being able to watch Mehldau’s hands, fingers, facial expressions, concentration, effort and sweat enhances the listening experience, providing an intimacy even denied to audience members. The DVD also offers the opportunity to see a scrolling transcription of Resignation while Mehldau plays it, making it the cherry on the top of an already excellent album.
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