A frankly unexceptional edition of "Piano Jazz" recorded in 1996, its distributor must have reasoned that Brad Mehldau's star has risen sufficiently to warrant release of the date some eleven years later. The best exchanges are those in which both performers' enthusiasms come across as genuinely felt, as expressed in their personal reflections about the music as well as their own music-making. To date, perhaps only two sessions have excelled sufficiently in both areas to merit replaying: Oscar Peterson's and Bill Evans'.
Oscar expresses the expected confidence of the heir-(no longer)-apparent to the Tatum throne, gleefully alluding to his prowess and take-no-prisoners approach, then taking off his game face just long enough to share a few of his tricks (e.g. playing the melody in chromatic seconds for extra bite and brilliance); Bill talks about his early struggles as a sideman on wedding gigs and the challenge of playing solo piano, before simultaneously explaining and demonstrating how the forms that shape his constructions derive from a piece's organic shape rather than fakebook sheets with their mechanical, often arbitrary and inaccurate chord sequences. His duet with Marian is the most exciting of any I've heard on "Piano Jazz" because he places her in the maelstrom of his anticipatory phrasing and surging sonorities. Yet though he gives Marian the ride of her life, he keeps it sufficiently within reach to make Marian's excitement palpable when she realizes she's survived the treacherous undertow of Bill's rhythmic-harmonic complexity.
The piano sonorities sparkle with delight and gemütlikeit on Peterson's date just as they resonate with power, depth and emotion on the Evans' outing. On the present occasion, however, there's not much life or richness in the textures of either pianist's sound or forward motion or energy in the playing.
Two minor surprises: Mehldau's writing reveals a mind conversant with theory, aesthetics, and history--no insults intended, but he's as close to an "intellectual" as practically any musician who comes to mind--yet I've never heard so many "yeh's" in response to Marian's admittedly bland and innocuous comments (she may have gone in cautiously, quite sensitive to the presumptive ways of youthful genius). Secondly, I would not have predicted Mehldau would invoke the name of the aforementioned, identity-threatening forebear. Perhaps, in consideration of his elderly host, he was in a forbearing mood himself.
In all fairness, with Oscar there was no generation divide and with Bill only a single generation whereas the two generations separating Mehldau from McPartland may have contributed to the deference and respect that rob this exchange of some much needed give and take not to mention vitality. Also, give Mehldau--along with Oscar and Bill, Dave Brubeck and Chic Corea--credit for not being too proud, preoccupied, or parsimonious to accept the invitation. There are several "major"--even popular and financially successful--players who have thus far declined to appear on "Piano Jazz" with its devoted but comparatively small following and even smaller budget.
Nevertheless, this is one 30-minute disc you may find not worth the asking price.