Ode is pianist Brad Mehldau's long-awaited new studio set playing trio with bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard, their first studio recording since this ‘graceful powerhouse’ of a lineup, as the New York Times recently put it, made its Nonesuch debut in 2005 with Day Is Done. This time, however, all the tunes are Mehldau originals, written with Grenadier and Ballard in mind. As the pianist elaborates, "I feel that what they bring to the music in the performance here is inseparable from the tunes themselves. It was music I wrote to play with them specifically."
After over a decade’s eminence as a piano trio leader, Brad Mehldau began to diversify around five years ago, investigating the possibilities provided by expanded settings. He’s also been devoting more time to completely solo performance. Mehldau’s last studio trio album was released as long ago as 2006, and it’s now been four years since the Live set, recorded at New York’s famed Village Vanguard club.
The post-2005 line-up (where drummer Jeff Ballard replaced the long-serving Jorge Rossy) has been comparatively lacking in documentation when compared to the extensive recorded existence of the original trio. So, Ode has been eagerly anticipated, especially in the light of the threesome’s ongoing live reputation.
All of Ode’s material is self-penned, with Mehldau avoiding his accustomed exploration of standards, whether they’re jazz, rock or pop in origin. The current trio has been refining a deeply funky expression, not in the conventional sense of the word, but in their music’s general pneumatic attack. The pulse has been intensifying. Mehldau’s tunes are becoming faster in their pacing, his soloing fluency sympathetically accelerating. Ballard and bassist Larry Grenadier are co-conspirators in this increasing orientation.
On the title-track, Mehldau’s keeping a solid riff rolling with his left hand, leaving his right hand free to dance. The trillings are ever more elaborate. Dream Sketch moves into a bass solo, but the piano and drums are still adding accents and responses. Listening to Stan the Man, it could be said that Mehldau is becoming the new Art Tatum, or even the new Oscar Peterson. He gives the crazed pointillism a rest whilst Grenadier delivers an equally sprinting solo, then the drums tattoo as Mehldau eggs them onward.
The leader is an exceptionally thorough worker, as he chews over a melody’s myriad possibilities, working out variations with staccato finesse. He navigates midway between an expected jazz improvising framework and a more linear pop song format. Each tune usually unwinds with a deeply-rooted logical progression. Momentum is invariably paramount. Melody lines are crucial, but Mehldau is still journeying far beyond their beginnings, once a piece is underway.
All three players are articulating a ceaseless stream of fresh ideas throughout this electrically energised session.
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