YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Music from life's mess

Chaos and beauty compete on Brad Mehldau's 'Largo,' an album that defies labels. Is it still jazz? The pianist doesn't think it matters.

November 17, 2002|Lynell George | Times Staff Writer

As evening crackles to life on Hollywood Boulevard, Brad Mehldau ventures out. Just like old times.

He wandered away from this old, cacophonous neighborhood not so long ago, but as he winds across the Knitting Factory's crowded main stage, he slips right back into it, its rhythm and attitude. California casual, his brick-red shirt untucked, rumpled, his dark hair tousled, the pianist appears ready to retire to a wrap-around porch with a cold beer, just in time to catch the first neon flickering on.

In fact, as if teasing out the illusion, he walks past the piano, reaching instead for two mallets, then hovers over the vibes. Out tumbles a spacey, herky-jerky intro that builds into a tricked-out version of Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Wave" before drifting into the Beatles' "Mother Nature's Son."

Arranged around him are shiny tools for improvisation: two upright basses. Two drum kits. The piano. And, through the evening, a parade of brass and woodwinds. Mehldau is hip to hip with his utility men, bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jorge Rossy, long the backbone of his top-flight jazz trio.

On this fall night, drummer Matt Chamberlain and bassist Darek "Oles" Oleszkiewicz add another layer of texture and sass to a set of compositions that elude easy descriptors. The band, which changes incarnations throughout the evening, takes its turns through the disparate cuts that make up Mehldau's latest recording, "Largo" -- part valentine, part journal of sonic sketches of his life in Los Angeles in the late '90s. This performance feels more like a no-holds-barred workshop than a prosaic "let's toss the solos around and sail to a close" club set.

Tonight offers a through-the-keyhole glimpse of raw improvisation that just a few hundred people -- musicians, fans, curious bystanders -- are lucky enough to witness. Mehldau and his producer-conductor-compatriot, Jon Brion, are in effect sketching as they go.

Out saunters "Dusty McNugget," a strutting, loose-hipped original that has been getting a fair share of crossover airplay for something from a "jazz album." Angular, thudding with acoustic drum-and-bass and Mehldau's own sly, funkified approach, it all feels buoyed by the spirits of both Thelonious Monk and Frank Zappa. Its humor is intrinsic, and never winking.

Pressing forward, the band disassembles the recognizable -- say, Radiohead's "Paranoid Android" -- or pares "Dear Prudence" down to its chassis.

A gleeful Brion, in turquoise suit coat and bird-nest coif, serves as antic ringmaster, trapezing from role to role. Conductor, sideman, cheerleader, he leaves no perspective untried, whether banging on the vibes as if on water pipes or crouched in a corner for a kid's-eye view.

Horn and woodwind players make their way on and off stage, and Mehldau is letting it all go: "I don't know who they are, but it doesn't matter. They know who they are," he jokes, his face slightly bewildered. About midway through, he scratches his mussed head: "I've never done this thing before. A set list ... I've never had such a big band to introduce," he marvels.

His face is relaxed, alight, as if all of it is quickly sinking in, happening right before his eyes. He's careful not to blink.

In select company

So where is jazz going?" Musicians and critics have been pulling at this for decades. A miffed Thelonious Monk once fired back a response both as direct and elliptical his playing: "I don't know where it's going. Maybe it's going to hell. You can't make anything go anywhere. It just happens."

The heart of jazz is the rush of what happens in a moment. That is the essence of improvisation, the excitement of pushing forward without signposts. Jazz itself is in a moment of improvisation, struggling with reinvention. As jazz, the marketing category, struggles for footing, Mehldau, at 32, has found his. He's among a small young coterie of straight-ahead jazz musicians -- the Marsalises, Joshua Redman -- who sell records, mount relatively ambitious tours and enjoy some crossover recognition. He has recorded nearly a dozen discs that mix solid original compositions with creatively realized standards. He has an articulate, warm style that is infused as much by classical training as by street chops. His improvisational intuition pushes him toward the murky and uncharted, but he always finds a way back. So what's got some jazz purists' noses bent out of shape?

"Largo" bends expectations about what jazz is. Although Downbeat magazine featured Mehldau on its September cover, heralding his "New Jazz of a New Generation," in the same issue's "The Hotbox" column, the new album didn't rise above "good": " 'Largo' starts with a lovely 'When It Rains,' then, like the rain, starts to sink into the ground," wrote critic John McDonough. Added Jim Macine, "The track-to-track change of dynamics and instruments becomes disjunctive."

Los Angeles Times Articles