Sometimes the measured approach is the exciting approach. When jazz elders Lee Konitz, Charlie Haden and Paul Motian connected with 40-year-old pianist Brad Mehldau for several sets of clever improv at Manhattan’s Birdland in the winter of 2009, there was no exclamation coming from the bandstand. Their ardor was closer in temperament to the kind you’d find in a chess game. Like the Modern Jazz Quartet, their actions were refined, but their art was gripping.
At least that’s how it sounds on this new disc, which finds the quartet steadily mulling over their options before making deliberate moves that weave in and out of each other’s spheres. A spray of cymbal taps by Motian triggers a rumble from the bottom of Mehldau’s piano. The pulsed thumping of Haden’s bass spurs a flurry of sideways notes from Konitz’s horn. The thematic material of chestnuts like “Solar” and “Oleo” becomes secondary to the extrapolations the unit steers collectively. On “Lullaby of Birdland,” the melody barely gets a mention. Its DNA is harvested by these masters for alternate purposes. Indeed there a few moments here prompting a head-scratch or two: “I thought I knew what tune this is, but now I’m not so sure.” For the most part, that’s a good thing. The music is perpetually morphing, and its creators are calmly in control of its destination.