Live review | Brad Mehldau: Taking the library to school

Brad Mehldau, shown here in a separate performance, wowed a Library of Congress crowd last week. Courtesy M+MD

by John Cook
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Brad Mehldau
The Library of Congress
Mar. 1, 2011

Well, where to begin? Brad Mehldau gave an amazing solo performance in the Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress last Tuesday, Mar. 1.

I really wasn’t prepared for such virtuosity, since I hadn’t seen him
previously and readily admit I’m lukewarm about most of his releases.

But that evening, the capacity crowd witnessed complete mastery of the piano, combined with a sublime finesse. Brad’s extraordinary command extended beyond technique (something he has in spades) to tone, coloration, timing, rhythm, feel and inventiveness. He was clearly channeling the spirit, each tune becoming a vehicle for boundless explorations of great emotional depth.

I never thought I would ever want to hear anyone play Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (which he later identified as “an American folk song by Kurt Cobain“), but in Mehldau’s hands it became one. He carried the tune from a beautiful yet driving exploration of the theme through realms of imaginative improvisation and back.

While some songs brimmed with strength and built to crescendos, with the entire range of the piano blended into what seemed a single tone, Mehldau also displayed a beautifully subtle touch on the ballads, which dripped with tender feeling.

His take on Massive Attack’s “Teardrop” began so ravishingly that it could indeed bring teardrops. Then came a voyage into improvisations that had a darker tonal center and carefully scattered dissonances that probed the outer reaches of the theme before resolving arrestingly right back into that gorgeous presentation of the melody.

His take on “My Favorite Things”, which I have forever associated almost exclusively with Master John Coltrane, demonstrated that there is indeed another way to play this tune. It was a way that borrowed nothing and probed much new creative space.

Though his takes on others’ songs were perhaps where I found the pianist’s singular approach to sound and melody making themselves most easily evident, he also played a number of tasty originals. Relative to his other work with which I’m familiar, these seemed to receive a particularly intense and passionate treatment.

As he intimated, there was no set list. Mehldau played what he felt as it came to him — to the point that he had some difficulty remembering which tunes he had started from when sporadically trying to clue in the crowd. While that approach to performing might invite a musician to wander, it was triumphal in his hands. The crowd seemed to agree, and despite what is usually a relatively short time slot for programs at this venue, Mehldau returned for three encores before a voracious crowd.

Mehldau clearly has a rare gift for developing emotional centers within “standards,” and also the acumen to recognize that the concept behind playing standards (probing the popular song of the day) doesn’t belong in a museum, with content drawn only from the Broadway showtunes of a few generations ago. He makes whole new entities of modern pop songs.

Though he made light of his “extemporizing” in his remarks, that facility was a key to the complete success of this evening. I’m rarely excited by solo piano, and even less frequently feel anything from anyone with as substantial a level of commercial acclaim as Mehldau, but there were undeniable stretches of pure transcendence within this gem. Any performance that attains that level rates an A-plus.

Below is a set list:

“Blues” (untitled?) (Brad Mehldau)
“Club Med” (Brad Mehldau)
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” (Nirvana)
“Waltz for J. B.” (Brad Mehldau)
“Get Happy” (Harold Arlen/Ted Koehler)
“I’m Old Fashioned” (Jerome Kern) >
“Martha” (Tom Waits)
“Teardrop” (Massive Attack)
“My Favorite Things” (Richard Rodgers/Oscar Hammerstein II)
“Blackbird” (Lennon/McCartney)
“This Here” (Bobby Timmons)
“Bittersweet Symphony” (The Verve)

Brad Mehldau’s newly released solo piano CD is Live in Marciac. Also note that the Library of Congress hosts the Wordless Music Orchestra with Tyondai Braxton (son of famous saxophonist Anthony Braxton) this Thursday in a free show.

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  1. Nice writeup. I was sad to miss this one. I miss the days when you had to stand in line to get your tickets for LOC shows, instead of the horrible ticketmaster ponzi scheme that they have embraced (along with many smithsonian concerts). Oh well, I guess I will have to succumb at some point. Thanks for the insight on the performance.

    Amy K Bormet /
  2. I could listen to Brad play the piano forever. I especially love when he hits upon something interesting in an improv and you can watch or listen to him investigate it from every angle. Beautiful…

    Jeff Kent /
  3. @Amy : The secret is that if you go there the day of show they let in as many waiters as will fit just before the show starts, so it may not be that different than it was (other than the location of those seats). The available space seems to vary but if you go you should be able to get in. They are still free shows (which these days should be appreciated) though I do agree with your sentiment on the advance ticket thing giving $8 or so to Ticketmaster.

    John Cook /

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