Brad Mehldau Brings Eclectic Mix of Material To Barbican Show

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As the lights dimmed and Brad Mehldau, Larry Grenadier and Jeff Ballard walked purposefully to the Barbican stage last night, who knew what to expect from the pianist and his band, currently among the most influential piano trios around. Early miniature motifs and try-outs by Brad gave away no clues and for a while, despite the first two tunes coming from Brad’s pen, the cadences and melodic snatches sounded as if they came straight from Lennon and McCartney. Mehldau has recorded fine versions of ‘Dear Prudence’ and ‘She’s Leaving Home’ but last night’s concert veered away from obvious covers and left the door wide open for rococo flourishes, deep crab-like improvising and integrated interplay with Grenadier and Ballard. Scampering along happily for most of the gig, even playing the kit with his hands at one point, Ballard’s biscuit-tin vibrations and fast hands were every bit as captivating as Grenadier’s super fast lines and rock solid walking lines, particularly on Brad’s tune based on Charlie Parker’s ‘Confirmation’.

Indeed, at times the band seemed happiest in bebop territory or playing the blues, but the highlights came elsewhere from Brad’s eclectic versions of Sufjan Stevens’ ‘Holland’ and the gorgeous version of ‘Something Good’ from The Sound of Music with a magisterial almost-symphonic a cappella cadenza from Brad. All that was missing from the performance was the intimacy of a small jazz club with the trio’s sound bouncing of the ceiling and the up-close feel. The sterility of the large concert hall denied us the impact of, say, that achieved at the Village Vanguard heard on the recent Live double album. But Mehldau proved once again that he’s willing to take risks with new material and unbuttoned improvising, pushing the jazz trio to new territory in the process.

Stephen Graham