Appearing just three months after Brad Mehldau's elegant solo piano album Elegiac Cycle, Art of the Trio, Vol. 4: Back to the Vanguard provides a remarkable contrast to the refined, cerebral, hypnotic affair that was released before it. Not that the performances on Back to the Vanguard aren't hypnotic, since they're utterly captivating. The difference is that this live recording captures exactly how vital and impassioned Mehldau's playing is. Working with bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jorge Rossy, he turns these songs -- including three originals, one Miles Davis number, two standards, and Radiohead's "Exit Music" -- inside out, finding the heart of the song, and exploring a bewildering array of variations of the themes and chords. This music surges forward, unhinged and forceful, complex but completely accessible. Mehldau spends much of his liner notes on the defensive, explaining how many jazz critics have misread his music. He has a point -- he has often been ghettoized as a jazz intellectual, but as this exceptional album proves, there is considerable emotion and feeling and plain excitement behind his music, even during the mesmerizing quiet sections.
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AllMusic Review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine