Initial reviews of “Blues and Ballads,” Brad Mehldau’s first trio album in four years, seem to wax on, almost regrettably, about the downbeat and reflective cast of the music. Hello? The pianist couldn’t have been more succinct in tagging the makeup of the seven largely standard selections that comprise the recording or the intent behind his playing than in the title of this project, where blues, as in the reflective playing that patiently reaches to the heart of this cross-generational material, meets ballads, as in the very nature of the songs themselves. It’s a simple concept, really, and one that yields some of Mehldau’s most appealing playing on record to date.
“Blues and Ballads” begins somewhat expectedly with “Since I Fell For You,” a chestnut that reflects equally the attributes teased at by the album title. What is less obvious is how readily Mehldau adopts a blues persona he has seldom inhabited so completely in the past. His phrasing is patient and relaxed, yet colored with so much musical humidity that the piece seems unable (or unwilling) to move at a pace any brisker. The support of bassist Larry Granadier and drummer Jeff Ballard is complimentary, allowing the stride of Mehldau’s piano lead to adopt a New Orleans accent (albeit, a slow-moving one) that makes this version recall the Southern piano soul of Professor Longhair more than any of the pop stylists who have covered the tune over the last 80 years.
While the overall feel of “Blues and Ballads” is reserved and wistful, there are still wonderful variances within the trio’s playing. “Little Person,” a forgotten gem from Jon Brion’s moody 2008 soundtrack to “Synecdoche, New York,” is all quiet, inward piano grace, much of which is executed by Mehldau alone. But the decidedly autumnal warmth quickly gives way to the Charlie Parker staple “Cheryl” and a level of modal mischief that quickly recalls Thelonious Monk at play.
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But the most telling moments come near the end of “Blues and Ballads” with a pair of Paul McCartney works composed nearly 50 years apart. Mehldau’s arrangement of “And I Love Her” doesn’t so much borrow from the bossa-flavored original The Beatles fashioned a hit out of in 1964, but rather the orchestral, instrumental version overseen by George Martin. The “Blues and Ballads” reading isn’t as treacly, but its mood obviously propels this heavily introspective re-imagining of the tune.
A 2012 McCartney ballad “My Valentine” then retains the intimacy the rest of “Blues and Ballads” relishes but turns quietly dark, resulting in a noir-like soundscape that initially recalls Bill Evans’ gorgeously elemental introduction to “Flamenco Sketches” on Miles Davis’ immortal “Kind of Blue.” The resulting music then unassumingly wanders into the daylight of his trio’s sunny, quietly lyrical cast before retreating to the shadows his own shades of blue call home.
Read Walter Tunis’ blog, The Musical Box, at LexGo.com.