Thursday, April 29, 2010

Joshua Redman and Brad Mehldau

Tuesday, April 28 on the MainStage
reviewed by David Beckett

Pianist Brad Mehldau and saxophonist Joshua Redman are both first class listeners, which was clear from the first note of last night’s well received concert, as they began with The Falcon Will Fly Again, a duet from Highway Rider, Brad Mehldau’s new recording.

For jazz musicians—even players as skilled as Mehldau and Redman—playing duets can be a bit unnerving. Without a bassist and drummer, a hundred years of precedent falls away along with the matrix of conventions about form and some of the swing that can make, say, a piano/bass/drums trio cohere and seem to move of its own accord. There’s no “walking” bass line for propulsion, and no drummer delineating the sections and bar lines, adding a sense of texture and color. Two musicians simply rely on their experience playing together, rely on the compositions . . . or listen like mad and trust each other.

And listen they surely did. Both men can create a narrative arc while improvising; no mean feat. Good improvisers are content to insert familiar riffs into a form, which can be very exciting, but superior players like Redman and Mehldau think like composers, seem to hear the whole song, and have more to offer than riffs.

Rather than accompany other players in the way jazz pianists typically do, Mehldau uses both hands, showing his love of romantic composers but sounding like nobody else. This is his way, and it’s surely helped him find a place in the jazz world in recent years. Redman played the theme of this first piece as Mehldau limned the changes this way. Then, rather than play a melodic solo with the right hand while dropping chords in with the left, Mehldau played his solo as he might have playing a piano concerto with an orchestra. Finally, they restated the theme to finish the piece.

They played one of Redman’s next, called Note To Self, and followed it with a Jeff Buckley song called Dream Brother. At this point Redman made remarks from the stage, thanking the audience and joking about the April snow storm. Charlie Parker’s Cheryl, a blues, followed: a return to a particular jazz vernacular, a fascinating contrast with the first three numbers.

Brad Mehldau’s first five recordings as a leader featured a trio of bass, drums and piano—making the case for his place in jazz history. Redman’s recordings as a leader have been varied, featuring different sorts of ensembles and a lot of marquee players from the jazz, rock, and classical worlds. They’ve played and recorded together often before, but playing duets live seems a particularly brave choice, particularly as the evening continued.

One of Joshua Redman’s followed—Disco Ears—a three pager, sounding more like these two men in particular, rather than any other school or sound. Mehldau took a moment to speak, and mentioned that both he and Redman often listened to music their jazz musician colleagues found puzzling. A gorgeous example followed: Interstate Love Song, by Stone Temple Pilots, played so neatly I might have guessed it to be some lovely little-known mid-century popular song.

Then, one more jazz standard, and finally an encore: My Old Flame, with Mehldau playing very quiet “stride” style piano and Redman whispering the melody. Even when playing something everybody’s heard before, Mehldau and Redman sounded like nobody else, alone together, as it were.

David Beckett is a realtor and a jazz director at WWPV FM. He’s been involved with the Burlington Discover Jazz Festival since 1983.

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