Word filters through the most discerning Dublin circles when news that someone of Brad Mehldau’s stature is riding into town. Accompanied by bassist Larry Grenadier, and drummer Jeff Ballard, it seems that every pork-pie hat and pair of knee-length suede boots have been spruced up to greet Mehldau’s latest visit to Irish shores. Not that jazz is in any way shy when its stage antics connect with the kind of pilgrimage aesthetic that gripped more than one punter this evening. In their most cocky context, Mehldau’s indulgences sometimes over-power the glaringly obvious beauty his playing can possess, 18 minute arrangements of Nick Drake or Barbara Streisand mean that a few toes may already be secretly clenched before a note is even played. Perhaps it’s best if the tried and tested by his standards are sent out as feelers, Alice In Chains’ Got Me Wrong instantly hits the target with a few admittedly biased groovemeisters, though there are signs that a special evening is on the cards when some of Mehdau’s own compositions, one he idiosyncratically labels by its studio working title, leave no doubt that as a writer, the Connecticut pianist’s unique niche may finally be reaching beyond the novelty value limitations.
As things take a melancholic turn, it is noticeable just how Mehldau can stand out as a modern day take on the pioneering genre-poking of Bill Evans. Something Good from The Sound of Music reaches a melodic serenity Richard Rodgers could not have initially imagined, to the point where it seems even Jeff and Larry are swooning at their boss’s majestic journey into one of life’s most beautiful grooves. Grenadier’s Jimmy Garrison swagger takes indulgences to the point where Mehldau in turn sits back to contemplate how far into the night they can go, Jeff is soon in on the act too, rattling off his ride cymbal in between gently brushing his snare drum, all worthy of an audience who can safely sit back knowing they are on to a winner.
Soon some nondescripts who obviously blagged their way in from the social pages of the Sunday Independent think they may have cracked the code, saying grown-up words like “avant garde” as loudly as possible during the interval. Well, it is Dublin after all. Usher, any chance of a large bottle of ether and some cotton wool pads over in the corner please?
Much of this trio’s success rests on Brad Mehldau’s life-long knack for taking what are called cover versions in any other walk of life and refusing downright to fall into the clutches of self-defeating irony. Evidence is clearly found in how they can deconstruct and re-imagine Nick Drake’s Time Has Told Me and still preserve Drake’s initial wry melodic concerns. The punters become admittedly more biased counting merits by the bucket load, not that the proceedings are entirely flawless. Mehldau’s gracious undertones are at times grating, when he should be cutting Ballard’s energetic showboating a minute short, or letting Larry have a flutter too many when restraint would not be seen as an overtly conservative ploy. Sometimes they look like two Engagè Volontaires just crawled in from the desert. What’s the old adage about the crowd paying to see sweat?
A brief Irish visit finishes in the Cork Opera House the following evening, whether Mehldau and his cohorts see fit to follow this evening’s lead or if circumstances will allow is another one for the archives. One thing is for certain, with an overdue studio album on the cards and enough tasty samples dished up this evening, the Brad Mehldau Trio have gone from a strength somewhat based on novel reputation to a genuine powerhouse of modern jazz. Despite the odd flaw amongst the tentative experiments, a Saturday night’s adventures turn out to be just the sweetest darndest thing to hit town for a long time.