In listening to the five years of the Brad Mehldau Trio represented in this box set, one hears the unfolding of a new and significant part of modern jazz history, as the end of the 1990s opened the door on the explosive creative renaissance of the music in the 21st century. Nonesuch has compiled the five releases in the Art of the Trio series, as well as an additional disc of unreleased recordings from the same period (1997-2001), offering a serious reconsideration of what has already been accepted as a "next step" for the jazz piano trio's history. On Vol. 1, Mehldau, bassist Larry Grenadier, and Spanish drummer Jorge Rossy intriguingly and seductively begin uttering the first sounds of their new language via Mehldau's originals, such as "Lament for Linus" and "Ron's Place." By 1998's Vol. 2: Live at the Village Vanguard, it's firmly in place: Mehldau is extremely impressive in the encore where he offers a wild, independently moving two-hand improvisation on John Coltrane's "Countdown." As importantly, Grenadier and Rossy don't react to him so much as anticipate and lift off; they find their own rhythmic wavelength, yet never forsake the pianist's invention. Grenadier's imaginative yet rhythmically firm melodic statements help to create a time stretch that Rossy completes by using his cymbals in counterpoint to his snare and hi-hat. The pair sync, then open space, but there is little space between them, and the pianist -- with his intense engagement with and reaction to them -- builds a harmonic, often melodic bridge. Together they bridge the gap between the sound of time and its elasticity, and the oblivion of empty space. On Vol. 3: Songs, another studio date, Mehldau's gorgeous arrangement of Nick Drake's "River Man" and Radiohead's "Exit Music (For a Film)" open up jazz's fakebook, insisting on developing (more) contemporary tunes as "standards." Want evidence? Look at the number of jazz musicians who have followed him since. It also gave listeners a wider portrait of Mehldau as a composer in his own classically influenced compositions -- "The Folks Who Live on the Hill" and "Song-Song."
Vol. 4: Back at the Vanguard features a series of fine Mehldau originals -- "Sehnsucht" and "London Blues" among them -- alongside revisioned standards, a live version of the Radiohead number, and an unlikely choice in Miles Davis' "Solar." Here Mehldau's extended harmonics are underscored by an inherent sense of nearly sung melody, stretched into sublime openness by Rossy and Grenadier. This trio's balancing act between spaciousness, rhythm, and swing is clearly evident in Vol. 5: Progression, which was recorded at the Vanguard in 2000. Beginning with "The More I See You" and followed by Mehldau's lengthy "Dream's Monk," the sheer exploration of lyric frames, the complex harmonic architectures, and the shimmering and even tender play of counterpoint and intervallic improvisation between these three men are nearly astonishing -- three very independent voices are all performing as a unit without sacrificing anything. It reveals that after four years, they'd traveled the distance: from attempting to create a new kind of collective voice for the piano trio in jazz, all the way over to inventing a new poetic language for it. Other standouts here include "Cry Me a River," an extended live version of "River Man," and Mehldau's complex and beautiful "Quit," "Sublation," and "Resignation." The final disc here, Additional Recordings 1997-2001, reveals to a greater extent the unique grouping of codes and signs that made the trio so exciting to hear and watch. Possessing a long liner essay by the Bad Plus' Ethan Iverson and this stellar extra disc, and given the price, this box is a welcome addition to any jazz fan's shelf.