March 16, 2005

Jazz at Lincoln Center

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As far as modern jazz goes, the current selection in today’s world is not nearly as rich as it was in the 50s and 60s. Fortunately, this past Friday night I was able to witness a performance by two heroes of the modern era. The pianist Brad Mehldau and guitarist John Scofield each performed a set with their trios at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater in New York City.

I was immediately struck by the small room’s architecture. Jazz at Lincoln Center, which is actually seven blocks away from Lincoln Center on West 66th St, is the triumph of jazz diplomat and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. The new facility, which is housed in the AOL/Time Warner Building at Columbus Circle, includes several small facilities which are perfect for intimate concerts. The Rose Theater combines elements of traditional concert halls and a more modern all-around seating design. Although I sat in the cheap seats, above and behind the performers, my view afforded a fantastic view of Mehldau’s flying fingers and Scofield’s constant two-step and enthusiastic expressions (which are normally hidden from the general audience).

Mehldau is a deliberate, introspective pianist, and his hour and a half set allowed ample time for complex expression. Despite a claim to a vast discography that features dozens of original compositions, Mehldau played mostly his personal interpretations of standards from Cole Porter to John Lennon and Paul McCartney. One of the most remarkable things about the trio Mehldau performs with is the way they pay attention to one another; even the new drummer Jeff Ballard (who took Jorge Rossy’s place for the first time) seemed to keep with the group’s groove the during the entire performance.

A typical Mehldau cover has the following format: Brad usually starts with a harmonic dissonance that changes major to minor and vice versa. Without looking up, his bassist and drummer will join after about a few minutes. The brilliant bassist Larry Grenadier then usually takes a solo, and because of the group’s small size, Grenadier is allowed enough time to layout a thorough development in his playing. During this interval, Mehldau “comps,” or fills in melodic gaps with various chord structures, basic thematic fingerings, and strategic silences. In fact, silence is this trio’s best friend as it allows individual members to feature their chops or let the audience take a breather from their constant amazement.

At some point, a telepathic signal is sent as Mehldau takes over for the majority of the piece, exploring the limits of harmony, syncopation and tonal segues. Although others in the audience disagreed with me on this point, I thought Ballard’s solos (as he traded eights with Mehldau) were stunning. The parts that are to be most savored, however, are at the end of each song, when Mehldau’s musicians drop out and the pianist is allowed to finish alone. His touch is remarkable, and in terms of emotional inspiration, no pianist seems to exhibit such a wide range of feeling as Brad Mehldau does.

Guitar great John Scofield was equally impressive. Performing with bassist Dennis Irwin and drummer Bill Stewart, both exceptional but not excellent musicians, Scofield played more straight-ahead standards such as “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” Among the trio of current guitar giants (which includes Pat Metheny and Bill Frissell), Scofield is my favorite because of a signature tinny tone which was featured in the introduction of many pieces. As each selection began to take shape, the group seemed not to know exactly which direction the piece was going, in terms of group structure and tempo, but the groove was set eventually. As Irwin and Stewart attempted to keep up, John Scofield took us through an incredible range of stylistic approaches — ballads, be-bop and modernism — sometimes without warning.

There is no doubt that these men are virtuosos in their field. What I like best about Brad Mehldau and John Scofield is that their incredible talent is neither too selfish nor too submisive — they realize the art of the jazz trio, and bring its potential to new lyric limits.

Archived article by Eliot Singer
Sun Staff Writer