At the Allen Room, Jazz at Lincoln Center, on Saturday, October 6.
I think I enjoyed Brad Mehldau’s show more than any other jazz set I’ve attended in New York. That’s a tribute to Mehldau, who’s amazing, but I suspect it’s also because Mehldau is a pianist whose technique and style I recognize as a classically trained pianist myself. He seems to understand and appreciate the instrument in much the same way I do, and how could I not respond to that?
The simplest piano pieces feature a melody in the right hand and accompaniment in the left, but the instrument has much more potential than that. It can carry a melody—or multiple melodies—at any register. It can avoid melody altogether for something more textural. The best composers (or improvisers) take advantage of that, varying melodic and harmonic structure, employing both legato lines and percussive rhythms. Great piano music doesn’t stick to a narrow range of color; it creates a rainbow of sound.
Mehldau’s piano improvisations are great in that marvelously versatile way. Most of the tunes he used as foundations were unfamiliar to me, which might have been unsatisfying if his playing weren’t so impressive. As it was, the easy entry point of a well-known melody hardly mattered. Mehldau handily brought even the most obscure tunes to vibrant life—throwing them around the scale, setting them against each other, juxtaposing them against driving ostinatos. The harmonies were sometimes pure and lucid, sometimes thick and chromatic; the meter shifted, and the rhythms hit surprising accents.
And of course he was making it up, more or less, as he went along. That always stuns me—though it’s a big part of jazz, of course, the improvisation. At the start of the set, during the obligatory I’m-so-happy-to-be-here-tonight patter, when he made the equally obligatory reference to how incredible the Allen Room is (the backdrop is an enormous wall of glass looking out onto Columbus Circle and, beyond that, Central Park), Mehldau said something about the view being an inspiration to him as he played. And that might be perfunctory, too, I suppose, but surely it must be true, also. Mehldau’s intricate cadences and hurtling melodies did seem redolent of the buzz of lights and movement below. Sometimes oddly serene, sometimes a tumult, both the music and the view that night felt like the quintessence of what New York has to offer.