Three years passed between the release of the Brad Mehldau's Day Is Done and this live outing. What's so significant about this is simply that the former record marked the debut of drummer Jeff Ballard, who had replaced longtime kitman Jorge Rossy. Ballard is a more physical, busier, and more energetic drummer, allowing for Mehldau and bassist Larry Grenadier to up the ante in terms of dynamic and rhythmic options. Day Is Done offered a number of wonderfully contrasting moments where Mehldau, a big pop music fan from all eras, wove a tapestry from Burt Bacharach and John Lennon to Nick Drake and Colin Greenwood, from Paul Simon to Chris Cheek, as well as inserting a few of his own compositions. House on Hill was released the following year, but the material preceded the arrival of Ballard and was recorded as part of the sessions for 2004's Anything Goes. This trio has also recorded with Pat Metheny on two dates in 2006 and 2007. This is the first live date to feature the group on its own, and it is a very healthy helping.
Comprised of two discs recorded at the Village Vanguard during a six-night stint in October of 2006, it showcases the many varied strengths of this already deeply intuitive group. Disc one staggers covers of popular tunes as disparate as Noel Gallagher's (of Oasis) "Wonderwall," Chico Buarque's classic "O Que Será," Chris Cornell's (of Soundgarden) "Black Hole Sun," and Ray Noble's gorgeous ballad "The Very Thought of You" with two of his own compositions. Disc two comes more directly out of the Mehldau songbook, wit three of his own tunes, a Jimmy Heath number, and a standard, and closes with a stunning reading of John Coltrane's "Countdown." The way the trio treats "Wonderwall," beginning with Grenadier and Ballard's funky soul-jazz bass and drum interaction before Mehldau enters the melody, cutting it with large helpings of the blues and soul, is killer. Sure, it has his trademark elegance, but it's the rearrangement of the number with its taut rhythmic groove while keeping the melody all but danceable that's the treat. The beautiful breakbeat and tom tom work by Ballard is uncluttered but it's extremely knotty and busy. The groove is at the center and he brings it home while Grenadier accents it constantly.
Contrast this with the next tune, the pianist's "Ruby's Rub," that swings right out of the gate, and yet the way Mehldau changes his sense of dynamics and time with sudden starts and stops, leaving that space for Ballard and Grenadier to adorn however sparsely, is what makes this such a modern work. The Buarque song is given an extrapolated treatment here as it switches from samba to bossa to funk and even modalism while never losing its lyric sensibility, and -- what may be the best thing here -- note the hand over hand soloing Mehldau does in the middle of the tune and have your breath taken away. "Black Hole Sun" is completely re-harmonized and its melody is ever present but it is an entirely different tune in the hands of the trio. Finally, disc one closes with the Noble ballad, offering a hint as to just how subtle this rhythm section can be. It offers this lithe, almost ethereal bottom that is nonetheless circular and firm, allowing those big spaces between Mehldau's solo lines the room to float right through and enter the listener as gracefully and emotionally honest as any singer.
Disc two kicks off with the bandleader's "Buddha Realm." It contains all of the deep rhythmic interplay that this trio does best. As the pianist articulates one of his knottier melodies with long lines that twist and turn inside themselves, Ballard double- and triple-times the band while rolling the ride cymbal enough for a solid pulse to come shimmering through. Grenadier follows both men, offering the middle ground between the flights of two brilliant soloists. It's exciting, innovative, and offers proof that piano jazz, or at least the true rubber-meets-the-road-jazz piano trio still has lots of tricks up its sleeve in the present day. This is genuinely new jazz, not just a showcase over a rhythm section. More evidence is on the Heath number "C.T.A.," where the hard bop charge roars from the starting line and becomes a multi-valent harmonic bank of ideas and extensive methodical and wire-walking creative articulations as Grenadier's tough solo indicates. The nearly 15-minute reading of Coltrane's "Count Down" makes great use of the energy of the original, but the knotty counterpoint solo Mehldau uses to open it is a throw off; a momentary feint. His opening volley of intensely pointed ranginess is worthy of Oscar Peterson. The solo is wildly inventive because the entire harmonic structure of the tune is in there, pushed to the brink by the deep register, right-hand chord voicings he employs that walk the line between stride and post-bop. When the rhythm section enters, the mood changes. It's still very quick and athletic, but it is brighter as well; colorful as well as dynamic and fast.
Live is deeply satisfying on all levels including the price point. Mehldau and Nonesuch have made the purchase of the double-disc set very attractive. Those new or curious about the trio will be astonished by what's here, pure and simple. For seasoned jazz fans and those of the pianist in particular, this is nothing short of total delight.