Negotiating rapture is a risky business, but in his expressionistic solo work, pianist Brad Mehldau has repeatedly shown us that he’s unafraid of flying too close to the sun. Points given for the intrepid nature of this chosen approach: the celebrated improviser, who has carved an enviable career for himself in the last decade, invests in an excursion-based approach when alone at a concert keyboard. The thematic material that sparks his fancy may arrive with its own set of parameters, but like Keith Jarrett before him, Mehldau’s art, at least in the solo context, is centered on the rigor of exploration. Audiences genuflect because the pianist’s reveries have so much eloquence behind them. Grace, spontaneity, nerve – a typical Mehldau presentation makes sure that poise is being fueled by adventure.
You hear it time and again on the four CDs (and eight LPs) that make up this imposing set of pieces recorded in various European cities during the last decade. Known for including myriad pop tunes with the expected jazz nuggets and the stately classical choices, Mehldau isn’t one to play politely in the front yard, melody-wise; his purview stretches much farther afield, to places where there may or may not be paths leading him home. The 32 performances on 10 Years Solo Live have an unmistakable mission: offer a theme, set a mood and launch an expedition. The guy in the captain’s seat has a strong grip, and he only lets things slip a few times.
Let’s dive in to mood first – important stuff to Mehldau. By his choice of material and preference of tone, he’s been positioned as a dude with an affinity for melancholy. Covering cloudy Jeff Buckley, forlorn Elliott Smith, dreamy Nick Drake and glum Radiohead illustrates the kind of introspection he gravitates toward – few pianists do sullen with as much command. Each of the above artists turn up here, and as the improvs unfurl and the melodies disappear in the rear view mirror, it’s easy to hear just how smitten Mehldau is with the oft-somber variations that come spilling from his instrument. The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony” provides luxurious appointments; Pink Floyd’s “Hey You” is a doorway leading to a foggy evening saunter; Massive Attack’s “Teardrop” casts its allure by investing in the chill of isolation. Whether or not you fully absorb the musical mechanics that the pianist puts into motion during his recitals – his ornate passages often rely on a stacked series of intricacies, and yes they do occasionally lapse into overly steely machinations – you won’t forget the vibe that permeates the action. Atmosphere has plenty to do with Mehldau’s art. But even when the pathos snowballs, there’s a real-ass wash of emotion floating in the air somewhere.
Variety of attack helps sell the specifics of his chosen pieces. A classical upbringing mixed with a jazz career has positioned him as a pianist of multiple approaches. He shakes the notes of Léo Ferré’s “La Mémoire et la Mer” into an eerie meditation, and one of two spins through “Knives Out” is jittery enough to spook you for a week after the last note decays. The pianist loves him some sustain pedal, and from low-register drones to right-hand trills, there’s plenty of dynamic range at work. There are passages when he injects the music with so many notes and so much reverberation that it comes off like three keyboard players are swirling together.
At the other end of the spectrum are romps that compel because of their stark specifics. Trane’s “Countdown” becomes a feisty etude where every note bolsters the next and future architecture rather than momentary sweep is paramount. That’s also why the hammered phrases on Monk’s “Think of One” are such a welcome balance to some of the more rococo maneuvers, which can lapse into garishness now and then. No one’s going to mistake Mehldau for Martial Solal, but he’s got plenty of esprit in that right hand, and when his sunny side comes out, his own steely brand of bounce is refreshing. Strolls can be as revealing as sojourns, right?
He really pares down when his heart hits his sleeve. He enters McCartneyville three times here, and from “And I Love Her” to “Blackbird” he lets those indelible melodies have a front row seat while he adds his lagniappe. The latter track sounds like the most luxuriant music box theme ever. Whether ambling through “I’m Old Fashioned” or referencing “Waterloo Sunset” with a tear in his eye, he gives over fully to the sentimental. One terse Brahms Intermezzo winds up providing as much tenderness as McCartney’s “Junk.”
Ultimately, because of its breadth, 10 Years Solo Live is a curatorial victory. I reviewed the album from a CD advance, and each of the discs boast a title that illuminates Mehldau’s intent. “Dark/Light, “E Minor/E Major” and other such headers – segues rule and the lay-out of the tracks continuously enhances the impassioned story line. On the eight-LP vinyl version the suites are cut to even more pithy subsets because you’ve got to flip over the records. I made a micro playlist of “Los Angeles,” “Monk’s Mood” and the second spin of “Knives Out,” the performances that comprise the box set’s Side 12. It too had a sweet little narrative. Connecting the dots is the imperative with this undertaking and if you can charm a listener into digging Bobby Timmons up front and Brian Wilson at the finale, some major ground is gained. Counting on his perspective to see him through, Mehldau gets the job done with invention and insight.