I’ve been a fan of pianist/composer Brad Mehldau since the beginning, 1995’s Introducing Brad Mehldau. A product of the famous jazz program at Hall High School in Connecticut (also the alma mater of saxophonist Noah Preminger) and of study at The New School with Fred Hersch, Mehldau came on the scene with impressive training and his early recordings brimmed with vitality, energy, and enthusiasm—so much so that he simultaneously parodied himself and celebrated his music with a brilliant, cheeky cover of “Blame It on My Youth” in 1997 (on a CD audaciously named The Art of the Trio, Volume 1—promising more to come from a performer then just twenty-seven years old).
In most ways Mehldau lived up to his early promise, recording a series of trio and solo CDs, working in collaboration with important artists from across a wide range of musical forms, and consistently applying his skills—which I take to be an ability clearly to articulate melodic lines across a multitude of variations and/or when played simultaneously, whether in contrast or in sync with each other.
Mehldau’s career has featured beautiful original tunes and inventive covers of material ranging from The Beatles, to Radiohead, to Soundgarden. The once I heard him live (in a tiny club in London) in a solo show, he played “Mother Nature’s Son” for 45 minutes and the time seemed to pass almost instantly; my impression as a listener was then that he could have gone on and on without exhausting either the musical material, his own imagination, or the audience.
It is thus with a somewhat heavy heart I report that the Brad Mehldau Trio’s new CD Ode is mostly a disappointment. The playing throughout is competent. The CD is all original compositions, a rarity with Mehldau. Indeed there is beauty to be found on the disc, most especially in the titular track. If the idea of an “ode” is a formal artistic meditation on a subject or person or event (and thus somewhat removed from the “personal” or “interior” mode of the “lyric”), then I think Mehldau succeeds and accomplishes what he was attempting to do; my reservation is almost wholly that the resulting music fails to engage the listener.
I’ve heard the disc now at least once a day (and often more times than that) for just over a week. I cannot whistle or hum even a single tune from it. With the lone exception of “Aquaman” (an upbeat, even propulsive song which takes both an initial smooth melodic string and a secondary staccato outburst through a range of contrasting appositions and admixtures), I lack the ability even to articulate any kind of formal description or evaluation of the materials at hand. I don’t advance the thesis that the music is boring or amateurish or a repetition of what Mehldau’s done before or even that it doesn’t hold some occasional pleasures. It seems to me throughout the disc to be background music desperate for an interesting conversation to make you unaware of its presence.