Brad Mehldau Trio innovates and inspires in Lawrence chapel

Laura Streyle

The night ended with every seat in the Memorial Chapel flinging to the upright position – the whole audience rising to their feet as the three members of the Brad Mehldau Trio sauntered to the middle of the stage, receiving the rapturous energy of the hall. With his tired arms hanging across the shoulders of trio-mates Jeff Ballard and Larry Grenadier, Brad Mehldau collapsed the trio into a grateful bow.
“We’re very honored to be here,” Mehldau informed the crowd of Appletonians, Lawrentians and enthusiastic visitors. Coming from a man who has successfully channeled the soul of music into audiences around the world through his piano playing, Lawrence can take that statement as a compliment.
The trio opened with “Dream Sketch,” one of Mehldau’s compositions that is the musical child of a “ten-minute power nap,” according to Mehldau. “Who knows, the tune might actually be from a ’70s TV commercial,” he joked.
Easing into another Mehldau original that pays tribute to jazz trumpeter Clifford Brown, the Trio continued the set by playing the swinging lines of “Twiggy.” The next number had Ballard, the trio’s ever-ready drummer, juggling an assortment of percussive tools to keep the beat alive.
Throughout “Wyatt’s Eulogy for George Hanson,” a number that was inspired by the free-spirited film “Easy Rider,” Ballard used his hands, drum sticks, brushes and the handles of mallets to drive the experimental character of the tune.
The trio finished off the set with a rendition of Elvis Costello’s “Baby Plays Around,” showcasing their masterful ability to listen and respond to each other’s playing. The layers of Grenadier’s double bass voice and Mehldau’s singing melody line weave so gently through each other that it becomes almost impossible to hear one voice without hearing the touch of the other.
At one point during the Costello piece, Grenadier folded his hands on his bass and rested his head on his arms, soaking in Mehldau’s sound. Ballard absorbed the sound in his own eager way, quietly anticipating Mehldau’s next phrase. The virtuosic playing that Mehldau did during the Costello piece revealed his engrossing technical prowess.
Having had the chance to chat it up with Mehldau after the concert, junior piano performance major Michael Smith shared some insight on Mehldau’s playing: “In the Costello solo, he utilized a lot of the same techniques found in Schumann’s symphonic etudes, which he was playing through before the performance.”
After the audience begged for more from the group, Mehldau, Grenadier and Ballard returned to the stage for their encore selection: Sufjan Stevens’ “Holland.”
Without a doubt, the Brad Mehldau Trio finished off Lawrence’s 100th Anniversary Jazz Series season by celebrating the vibrancy of music that has been heard before and the innovation of music that has yet to be discovered.

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