Brad Mehldau bridges a jazz divide

Brad Mehldau’s live performance at the Marciac Jazz Festival in southwest France is captured in his new album “Live in Marciac,” put out by Nonesuch Records. David Cazares has this review.

We all live to our own soundtrack. From the politics we follow, to the books we read and the music we listen to, many of us seem to be pursuing a singular course, sticking to what’s comfortable.

Breaking the boundaries that we impose on ourselves and listening to the other – while incorporating different perspectives into our own point of view – is rare. That’s just as unusual in music.

It’s refreshing to encounter a musician who explores other genres and styles as the pianist Brad Mehldau does on Live in Marciac. The album, released last month by Nonesuch Records, is his third solo recording.

Mehldau, a classically trained jazz pianist who usually plays with a trio, plays with precision and imagination on the CD, recorded at Marciac Jazz Festival in southwest France.

It’s a rare musician who shines in a solo performance, even on piano an instrument that offers the broadest pallet. But the 40-year-old does so remarkably on a diverse collection of tunes that include his original compositions, jazz standards and rock tunes. From Cole Porter’s It’s All Right With Me to the Lennon/McCartney tune Martha My Dear and Radiohead’s Exit Music (for a film), he takes the listener on a ride that spans several decades, telling stories along the way.

In a virtuoso performance, Mehldau builds on architecture and melody, delivering intimate, complex and intense interpretations of each song. He employs abrupt changes in tempo, gradual mood shifts, thunderous runs and repeated notes.

On some tunes, among them his composition Unrequited, Mehldau uses the structure as a base of creative exploration, powering through the numbers with a percussive left hand and multi-layered melodic lines with his right.

On others, he plays a short mini essay before touching on the melody, as he does on the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic My Favorite Things. But instead of evoking John Coltrane’s masterful interpretation, Mehldau gives the tune a light and airy touch.

He can also be lively, as he is on an intricate rendition of the Kurt Cobain song Lithium, pairing a rolling base line with an improvised theme. Though not a traditional jazz artist by any means, Mehldau is faithful to its roots, particularly on Dat Dere by Bobby Timmons, first recorded by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. It is a bluesy finale to a fine performance.

I first listened to Mehldau on his two dynamic recordings with guitarist Pat Metheny. On both, it seemed to me that Metheny brought out the best in Mehldau by expanding the pianist’s orbit — sometimes electrically so.

Though I think his playing still is a bit restrained, Mehldau clearly is turning up the juice. In bringing different influences to his work, he is evolving as a player and adding something to jazz, an art form rooted in improvisation that sometimes needs a push.

The music has its gatekeepers, purists who insist on allegiance to bebop, a style born of experimentation that is loved only by the most devoted fans.

Ironically, art that is meant to set our minds free so often relegates artists — and listeners — to categories. We are rock n’ rollers, country music buffs, pop music fans, practitioners of hip-hop’s lifestyle and salseros. We make only occasional attempts to integrate our musical tastes.

We bebop fans are guilty too.

As the trumpeter Nicholas Payton wrote on Twitter, “those fast tempos and flurries of notes alienated listeners and what was once American pop music became jazz.”

Mehldau shows that jazz need not be just for the artist and the connoisseur. By offering a varied palate, he’s opening the door for the curious to enter — and listen.

davidcazares2.jpgEditor’s Note: David Cazares is an editor for MPR News who happens to love both jazz and reading; he occasionally contributes his thoughts to State of the Arts. Brad Mehldau performs at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis on April 10.