The Omnivore's Dilemna

Washington City Paper | August 14, 2006
House on Hill

Brad Mehldau Trio


Love Sublime

Brad Mehldau and Renée Fleming


With his tattoos, penchant for covering Radiohead, and a heroin-troubled past that would strike most as odd, if not anachronistic, Brad Mehldau is hardly your typical jazzbo. But perhaps the most exceptional aspect of the pianist’s story thus far is that his original trio lasted a full decade, from 1994 to 2004. Were it an earlier era—say, the ’60s, before jazz-as-popular-music was completely eclipsed by rock—that kind of longevity would be impressive. John Coltrane, one of the genre’s best sellers and one of Mehldau’s musical heroes, kept his classic quartet together for only half that long. Nowadays, preserving the same group of freelancers beyond a handful of albums or gigs is a feat that borders on the heroic.

So is it any surprise that, on archival release House on Hill, Mehldau takes an opportunity to revisit one of this era’s most durable bands? Granted, not much has changed between old drummer Jorge Rossy’s departure and new drummer Jeff Ballard’s arrival. Mehldau, who is sometimes referred to as the Bill Evans of his generation, dominates the trio with his Gen X take on cool jazz pianism. A gregarious melodist and even more gregarious improviser, this 35-year-old former child prodigy has so much to say that his band mates seldom get space for their own statements. On last year’s excellent Day Is Done, for example, Ballard is relegated to strict—albeit unorthodox—timekeeping, and bassist Larry Grenadier takes but a single solo.

Yet despite Mehldau’s primacy, the biggest difference between that album and House on Hill, culled mostly from the leftovers of 2004’s Anything Goes, is indeed the drumming. In the new band, Ballard amplifies Mehldau the rockist, making explicit the edgy signifiers the original trio merely implied. Rossy, by contrast, sounds as if he’s acting as counterbalance, trying to offset the guy who told the Guardian that jazz is “gobbling up everything in its way.” That tension is most evident on House on Hill’s “Boomer,” a midtempo cut that, due to the circularity of its central riff, almost demands a block-rockin’ beat. Rossy obliges, acknowledging rock and funk, but plays so delicately that he and the rest of the band fail to, well, gobble up everything in the way.

Those in search of more successful noshing will likely be disappointed. Not only are the pop rhythms missing, so are the covers that have peppered much of the trio’s recent output. Thus, there’s no Nick Drake, no Beatles, and, sorry, no Radiohead. Instead, Mehldau fills House on Hill with self-written material—songwriting that, modern vibe aside, is never all that radical. (Or at least never as radical as, say, that of the Bad Plus, a popular and instrumentally identical group that has riled the jazz police with its alt-rock antics.) In other words, House on Hill is, simply, a piano trio record. Which hardly means that Mehldau omits his childhood influences—such as Steely Dan and Stevie Wonder—it’s just that they’re buried beneath the echoes of Keith Jarrett’s gospelized balladry (title track), Paul Bley’s dulcet experimentalism (“Backyard”), and, of course, Thelonious Monk’s whimsical modernity (“Happy Tune”).

All of which might still yield a rather schizophrenic effort were it not for Mehldau’s tendency to suffuse compositions with an air of melancholy. That’s true throughout House on Hill—even on “Happy Tune”—but nowhere more so than on opener “August Ending,” a lovely cut that, as the title implies, evokes the pathos and humidity of summer’s failing light. That the leadoff is scarcely the best track suggests that this pensive album adds up to more than just a victory lap or a stopgap until the new trio’s next release. House on Hill itself is something else entirely: further evidence that a set of Mehldau originals stands up just fine on its own.

There’s nothing vaguely “alt” or edgy about Mehldau’s other new album, either. Love Sublime, a one-off with soprano Renée Fleming, documents the pianist’s Carnegie Hall–commissioned exploration of the art song, a pairing of solo keyboard and vocalized literary text that, according to the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, dates back to the 18th century. Mehldau composed the music and, along with the 48-year-old Fleming, selected the poets, 20th-century writers Rainer Maria Rilke and Louise Bogan. To most fans of his trio, however, Love Sublime will seem less like a Mehldau album than one by the gal who gets second billing. That’s because the Juilliard-trained Grammy-winning vocalist is, as anyone with season tickets to the Met can tell you, a diva at the peak of her career. Mehldau just can’t compete.

Not that he really tries. On opener “Your First Word Was Light,” Mehldau tinkles the ivories so sparsely and haltingly that he recalls 20th-century minimalist Morton Feldman more than Brahms or any romantic affiliated with the art song. An extreme case, the tune is nonetheless indicative of the pianist’s approach here. Seldom does he play as densely and expressively as he does when leading his own trio. On “I Love You, Gentlest of Ways,” for instance, Mehldau seems to avoid the keyboard whenever Fleming is singing, as if he’s throwing out the occasional icy chord just to keep her in key. And even when he sounds more like the guy who sells out the Village Vanguard—on, say, the Joni Mitchellesque “I Love the Dark Hours of My Being”—he is never bold-faced enough to seize the spotlight.

That, without a doubt, is real estate that belongs to Fleming. Unlike Mehldau, who is virtuosic, not flashy, Fleming revels in the pyrotechnic gestures that are an opera star’s—not to mention a more strident jazz musician’s—stock in trade. Her singing has been described, in the Wall Street Journal, as “golden-hued” and, in the Financial Times, as “lustrous” and “shimmering.” Here, in this stark setting, it is bombastic as well. There is perhaps no better illustration than “Extinguish My Eyes, I’ll Go On Seeing You,” a performance that matches the melodrama of the Rilke poem upon which it is based. When Fleming sings, “Break off my arms/I’ll take hold of you,” she wastes little time scrambling for the upper reaches of her vocal range, turning the last word of each verse into a high-pitched display of melismatic prowess.

As a sample of Fleming’s abilities, the moment is both a tour de force and tough on the ears, which, come to think of it, is an apt description of Love Sublime as well. It’s hard to imagine either musician’s fans embracing this admirable-yet-unlovable disc. Mehldau and Fleming are both better served by more lush, melodic environments. But of the two, the accompanist is the least recognizable: Mehldau barely hints at the kind of songwriting chops that make “August Ending” such an emotionally resonant tune. Given that he wrote everything—even the album’s vocal lines—this aspiring polymath would do well to ask: What’s the good in gobbling up a genre if you lose your soul?

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