Twentysomething Chutzpah

Jazz Pianist Brad Mehldau Enlivens 'The Art Of The Trio.'

By Dave Irwin

IN THE JAZZ world, it takes serious chutzpah for a twentysomething to call his album The Art of the Trio. It's even gutsier to do it no less than three times. But when the critics poll at Downbeat magazine, the bible for jazz musicians, also names you the "No. 1 Talent Deserving Wider Recognition," maybe you can pull it off.

Music Pianist Brad Mehldau has the chops to match the chutzpah. He's being hailed as a genius and virtuoso for his improvisational creativity before he's even reached 30. His response? "My most gratifying experience is playing in a small club," he says quietly.

The Brad Mehldau Trio, which includes bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jorge Rossy, will open the Tucson Jazz Society's Plaza Suite Fall concert series on Sunday, September 13, at St. Phillip's Plaza. This season represents a transition for TJS with the departure of Executive Director Yvonne Ervin. Under her leadership, TJS grew from a sleepy 500-member organization to a 2,200-member powerhouse with a budget of $250,000. Peter Williams was recently named to replace Ervin.

Williams comes with a strong appreciation of jazz and non-profit organizations through his work at a number of public radio stations in California, including stints as program director and station manager.

Other performers in the weekly Plaza Suite concert series (continuing through October 25) include Margo and Michael Reed from Phoenix, Kitty Margolis, and Tucson ensemble 'Round Midnight with John Ronstadt, among others.

Mehldau will clearly be the high point of the season. Just back from Europe, his performance in Tucson is timed with the release of his fourth CD and his second album this year, The Art of the Trio, Vol. 3.

Mehldau began making his mark on jazz only a few years ago, with the critically acclaimed Introducing Brad Mehldau CD in 1995. Classically trained, he shifted to jazz as a teenager and then studied at the New School for Social Research in New York. Listeners first heard him with the Joshua Redman Quartet, before he moved on to his own solo career, signing with Warner Brothers Records.

With his second album, The Art of the Trio, Vol. 1, and especially his third offering, live at the Village Vanguard, The Art of the Trio, Vol. 2, comparisons with jazz giant Bill Evans were inevitable--even down to their similar playing postures. Mehldau, however, dismisses any similarities, saying he's as different from Evans as he is from Led Zeppelin. He's interested now in the interactivity of a trio, as opposed to the piano-with-accompaniment styles of Evans or Keith Jarrett.

"There's always going to be obvious similarities, because of the genre and the instrumentation," he says. "There's only a certain amount of sonic possibilities that you can do with a piano, bass and drums. But beyond that, because you're playing in that context, it's no reason to think about what's come before you. The way you get creative is to just really deal with what's going on right in the moment."

Grenadier and Rossy have appeared on all of his albums, developing an increasingly telepathic rapport.

"One of the things that happened between The Art of the Trio Vol. 1 and 2, Mehldau explains, "is we became more interactive in the sense of getting away from roles that are traditionally established with a piano trio or a rhythm section. Larry, on the live record, is almost never walking and Jorge is not marking time a lot on his hi-hat on two and four. One thing I really love about Jorge is that he's thinking tonally and melodically. We began thinking more about playing just between the three of us, and developing something where we're all taking care of the forward motion, that we don't have to have a set groove."

Mehldau is now more likely to cite John Coltrane and Miles Davis than any pianists as his influences. "It's hard to say who influenced me more than anyone else, because at a certain point, what you're trying to do is get away from influences and drop them."

He also cites a seemingly unlikely choice, bassist Charlie Haden.

"It's not as much an instrumental thing with Charlie," he explains. "He's one of those musicians like Miles. With great musicians, I'm never thinking about it in terms of their instrument. What I'm aware of with Charlie is melody. He has a very melodic approach to improvising, extremely simple; and that beautiful sound that he gets, a roundness of tone, which are things that you can translate onto any instrument."

"What we're doing, on the surface, is what people have been doing for years with jazz--taking pretty simple harmonic form and using them as a jumping-off point to something abstract. Once you're jumping off, it's all about your personal sentiments melodically, harmonically and rhythmically, how you're going to abstract those. A lot of the creativity comes in your narrative, your story-telling, how you build the solo, how you suggest a form and a shape, off the cuff.

"That's what excites me about jazz. You get to improvise, and people are expecting that. They expect to see you make stuff up."

The Brad Mehldau Trio performs at 6 p.m. Sunday, September 13, in the courtyard at St. Philip's Plaza, 4380 N. Campbell Ave. Tickets are $5 for TJS members, $10 for non-members, available at the gate only. Doors open at 5 p.m. For more information on this and upcoming shows, call the Tucson Jazz Society hotline at 743-3399. TW

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