Throughout the '90s, the institutions of jazz have largely prized technical proficiency and an obliging attitude over individual vision. So we've got an entire generation of superhyped younger players pushed into the limelight by the PR-fed media long before they've begun to think for themselves. Sure, some of these well-trained fledglings can simulate the jazz of their elders with a modicum of musicality. But when asked to make a meaningful statement in their own voices, they're invariably tongue-tied.
Then along comes pianist Brad Mehldau. In an era of yes-boys, he says no -- with the courage, confidence, and articulation of an artist who knows what he's about. This, in itself, is remarkable. But what's more, the jazz establishment is actually letting him speak.
From the creative tune selection in his rapidly growing discography to the exhaustive self-penned liner notes on many of his CDs, Warner Bros. has surprisingly granted the 29-year-old Mehldau the space to flex his personal agenda. The label allowed the pianist to perform a fair number of originals alongside the requisite standards on his substantive 1995 debut Introducing Brad Mehldau. Two years later WB released Mehldau's widely acclaimed series of discs (four volumes to date) under the banner The Art of the Trio, which included a pair of standout live recordings from the famed Village Vanguard in NYC. With the exception of the second volume in the series -- which features a covers-only program, from Thelonious Monk to "Moon River" (and, in the notes, a fun mind-bending Platonic dialogue on the irony-music relationship) -- the albums are evenly split between brilliant Mehldau compositions and often striking variations on familiar themes, both jazz (Miles, Trane, Rodgers/Hart) and pop (Radiohead, Nick Drake). The pianist's moody lyricism, pliant sense of rhythm and form, and intuitive improvisations with bandmates Larry Grenadier (bass) and Jorge Rossy (drums) give the trio efforts a distinctive appeal. But it's Elegiac Cycle, an all-original suite of solo works issued earlier this year, that confirms Mehldau's stature as mainstream jazz's newest wunderkind.
In the erudite album notes, the pianist expounds unpretentiously on the interconnections of life, death, and art. He considers the mortality/immortality dialectic, the mystical communion with the dead that music sets into motion, the transcendent reach of deeply personal exploration, the fractured contemporary notion of romanticism... and concludes that an elegy ultimately "celebrate[s] those very things that make us mortal." His compositions illumine these concepts, illustrating cycles of life, death, and rebirth with a melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic fluidity that's compelling in its pathos, virtuosic in its quick-shifting execution. Great dynamic leaps, swinging rhythmic bounces, and full-fleshed harmonies combine in nearly every piece with classical precision and a jazz-like feeling of rhapsodic anticipation.
There's attitude in Brad Mehldau's music: a fearlessness to articulate the visionary impulse. Jazzheads are spinning.
Brad Mehldau plays solo piano as part of the San Francisco Jazz Festival's Discovery Series Sunday, Oct. 31, at 7:30 p.m. at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, Mission & Third streets, S.F. Tickets are $20-32; call 788-7353.