By Peter Margasak
Last year pianist Brad Mehldau dropped Blues and Ballads (Nonesuch), the first new album in four years from his long-running trio featuring bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard. In recent years his admirable artistic reach has resulted in electronically driven jazz-funk with drummer Mark Giuliani and thoughtful duets with expansive bluegrass mandolinist Chris Thile, on which he even sang a little (something I don’t need to hear again). For me, this trio remains his best vehicle, where his introspection and melodic grandeur achieve their most sublime platform. Like its predecessor, 2012’s Where Do You Start, Blues and Ballads features a mix of recent pop songs including Mehldau’s sometime collaborator Jon Brion’s “Little Person” and Paul McCartney’s “My Valentine” (from his 2012 album Kisses on the Bottom), classics such as the more predictable McCartney tune “And I Love Her,” and standards. One of Mehldau’s greatest skills is erasing things about a song that tie it to a particular era, which makes his treatments of contemporary songs seem timeless rather than gimmicky. The real pleasure of this recording is what he does with material written decades ago, adding a subtle bossa nova feel to “I Concentrate on You” and caressing the earthy blues of the Buddy Johnson opener “Since I Fell for You” with an elegance reminiscent of Ray Charles (the trio’s cadenza on “My Valentine” nicely bookends the track with the album’s opener). The band’s rapport is special: an album of ballads can become a sleepy affair, and Mehldau’s romanticism quickly grows overripe if left unchecked, but these performances are models of concision, muscle rippling through the prettiness and refined communication keeping each composition masterful.
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