Given his advancement of the jazz piano trio, along with the more visible restlessness that lurks under the lyrical turns of his playing, one might suppose Brad Mehldau is a stylistic disciple of the great Bill Evans.
Certainly there are enough hints in the former's new covers album, Where Do You Start, and in a newly unearthed pair of New York performances from piano pioneer Evans, Live at Art D'Lugoff's Top of the Gate, to link these two players and jazz generations.
But Mehldau has proved to be an unwilling disciple and has, both in interviews and (to a degree) on recordings, purposely distanced himself from Evans' legacy. One can only imagine why. Both cultivated strong new audiences for the piano trio, both echoed the music of jazz and pop contemporaries, and both revealed deep melodic sweeps in their playing — the kind that can come only from being versed enough with a tune to slice it down to the roots and explore its deepest lyrical secrets.
Mehldau does exactly that during Where Do You Start's centerpiece tune, the 1989 Elvis Costello delight Baby Plays Around. It begins with a whisper of nostalgia, as if it could wander about and become Someone to Watch Over Me. As the Costello compositional base emerges, the rhythm section of drummer Jeff Ballard and longtime bassist Larry Grenadier provide affectionate propulsion. But the piano approach remains subtle, luminous and powerfully emotive. The spirit of Evans' jazz impressionism is clearly at work here.
Where Do You Start nods to other inspirations, too. Mehldau's cover of the '60s warhorse rock anthem Hey Joe sounds as if it was reborn by the riverside with a humid stride and a harder percussive edge that suggests Keith Jarrett, and Alice in Chains' Got Me Wrong has an understandably darker base that brings to mind the less busy acoustic music of McCoy Tyner.
Mehldau's references to Evans, intentional or not, might not be so visible if the work of the latter, who died in 1980, were not so liberally represented by a seemingly unending library of archival concert recordings. Top of the Gate spreads two sets from the same October evening across two discs with a stellar trio of bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Marty Morell.
The piano tone is what hits you most. Even though there is noticeable (and, frankly, complementary) audience ambience, the playing is robust and bright, with Gomez lovingly working off of Evans's lyricism, playfulness and subsequent intensity on two takes of the Jerome Kern standard Yesterdays that are the tops of Top of the Gate's two exuberant discs.