Jazz piano isn’t my main thing, but it’s a whole different story when Brad Mehldau plays. Brad often does inventive covers of modern pop songs, particularly shining on Beatles tunes, and he adds classical and blues elements combined with the occasional funk. He can really groove, or he can be tremendously tasteful and melodic.
He also comes out of a Los Angeles jazz scene that featured music producer Jon Brion, who has worked with a range of artists including Kanye West and Fiona Apple. So Brad comes from a community that is open to innovation and experimentation in terms of what defines jazz.
Tuesday night I got to hear him play at SF Jazz, and it was one of the best concerts I’ve attended. Brad was with his trio, including Bay Area-native, bassist Larry Grenadier, and drummer Jeff Ballard. They opened with a jazz standard made famous by Sinatra, “Almost Like Being in Love,” although it was almost unrecognizable in their arrangement. The tune was kind of an odd, quirky start, featuring Brad’s meandering and experimental solos and then ending with trading solos (eight measures and then four and then two each) with Ballard on drums. In retrospect, I found it to be one of my least-favorite tunes of the night, just because the arrangement was a bit challenging to absorb.
But one of my favorites was the second tune, a Mehldau original called “After the After,” featuring haunting piano work in trill style and numerous key changes to give it an atmospheric but groovy feel.
After those more ethereal tunes, he played probably my favorite of the night, an awesome cover of jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery’s “West Coast Blues.” It’s a blues waltz, and Brad completely rocked it on the solo, overlaying classical phrasing on top of blues scales. Ballard’s drum solo was one of the best I’ve heard, as he kept the waltz time on the high hat and bass drum while going ballistic poly-rhythmic on everything else he could bang. It was a tour de force.
Next they played a gorgeous Brazilian tune from the 1940s called “Vibracao” (Brad said it was written by a guy whose name translates to “Jack the Mandolin Player” in english). It sounded a lot like an Antonio Carlos Jobim song, kind of bossa nova and full of beauty and joy.
The trio followed it with an original called “Ballard’s Balls” (they unveiled the working title at our show). The melody sounded a lot like West Coast Blues, which was distracting. But the groove was fantastic, featuring Ballard’s excellent work on the snare drum, and I could picture the song evolving nicely as they play it more.
Brad ended the set with a beautiful ballad and jazz standard, “Where Do You Start?“. It featured some haunting solo piano work by Brad, and the song reminded me of the joy conveyed by “Vibracao” earlier in the set.
For the encore, the trio completely rocked it on a cover of “Hey Joe,” made famous by Jimi Hendrix. Grenadier played his solo like a rock guitarist, totally owning his upright bass and practically stealing the show at that point. But then Brad’s solo took over, building to a finale by using that walking-bass line sound that Jimi used at the end of his guitar solo.
And with that, the trio left the stage, leaving us to groove on our way out the door. I’ll definitely try to catch his show the next time he’s in town.