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Brad Mehldau
Live In Japan

For listeners experiencing genres new to them, there's a certain difficulty in critical judgment — doubly so when the genre has a dense and deeply contoured past. Wide-eyed philistines could be blinded by an amalgam of clichés; newcomers may ignorantly believe they have before them fertile soil when all it represents, generically, is tilled and trodden ground, utterly barren, devoid of new life. So too can the naïve be lost amid a masterpiece, wondering if it is all this good, all so productive, new and vivified; such a first experience sets standards that are rarely transcended.

This is more or less the acknowledged background in the cliché "I don't know much about art, but I know what I like." Ignorance is a certain kind of comfort. Things appear; we like them or we don't, no matter what the musicologist can trace for us. Who has time, after all, to chase down all those back-catalogues?

I don't have that kind of time, or, well, that kind of money, so there's a gaping hole in my collection where the jazz should be. Consequently, I don't know much about jazz, but I know what I like. Brad Mehldau, to take a strikingly coincidental example, I like. He doesn't sing — he plays piano, but not like your little brother or sister. He might play "Chopsticks" or "Greensleeves," but you'd only know it by the slowly emerging fragments of a familiar melody. Jazz, as Mehldau reminds us in the best possible way, is largely interpretive, and not nearly as anxious nor insecure about it as lawsuit-happy rockers. Jazz permits the improvising musician to justifiably and equally be labeled a composer.

Mehldau's rendition of "Paranoid Android," for example, is the centerpiece of proceedings here, and he all but claims the song for his own. Alone on stage with only a piano (and an attentive, if hardly effusive, Japanese audience) throughout this disc, Mehldau uses the freedom of the solo form to salvage the best elements from Radiohead's original. He excises the pap and distils the British band's contrived, pompous and almost parodic multi-part prog-rock composition into an 18-minute masterpiece of truly affecting and complex emotions. Where jazz reinterpretations can often focus too much on the original's melody or, alternately, conceal it beneath the weight of academic noodling, Mehldau's "Android" pulls from the original the best melodic phrases and improvises around them. Taking a good four minutes of intro before even dropping the first hint of the original source, Mehldau glides effortlessly where Radiohead were stilted and rigid; Mehldau explores tangential harmonic ideas where others would simply follow the bouncing ball. In doing this, Mehldau gives the song a wrenching beauty largely papered over in the original, overwrought and encumbered as it was by its "Bohemian Rhapsody" rock-opera shenanigans and aspirations. (Mehldau is seemingly taken by Radiohead's music, having covered Kid A opener "Everything in Its Right Place" brilliantly with his backing band on the Anything Goes record of 2004.)

Elsewhere, he slowly wins over an audience surprisingly reluctant to applaud the opening tracks. As the adulation grows, so too does Mehldau's presence at the piano. Wandering along the faultline between jazz and classical music, Mehldau adopts and adapts his performance into either melancholic late-night jazz-club mode or tuxedo'd concert-hall performer (you know the scene: rigidly shaking his head, arched hands dramatically springing back from the keys) within the space of a few bars. Nick Drake's "Things Behind the Sun," for instance, is given a beautiful reading that makes it sound like a Russian classical composer marrying that country's rich chamber-music history to the American jazz tradition. The clear melodies of Drake's vocal are transposed and, like shards of sharp sunlight, they break through passages of frenetic, densely melodic piano work. Through all of this, it still sounds much like the deceptively simple folk song of Drake's Pink Moon.

In a stunning record stuffed with covers and only one original, Mehldau chooses Drake's songs to bookend the album (the soft-voiced Brit lad's "River Man" closes proceedings). Also reinterpreted by Mehldau are songs by Thelonious Monk, George Gershwin (who, like Drake, comes up twice) and Cole Porter. Such varied songwriters are brought together by the strength of Mehldau's exquisite vision, each a welcome player in this potent game of refiguring, reinterpreting and speaking to new audiences. It's rare that the songs of Monk, Radiohead and Gershwin can share the stage so effortlessly and without contrived, pretentious efforts at inter-generic/inter-generational "discourse." Evidently, each is here because it contains a good tune, that main meal around which Mehldau so expertly arranges entrees and desserts. To say this is not to mention it despite his utter brilliance as an equivocal pianist; it is to see that melody is what focuses Mehldau's musical vision. And with a foundational vision so strong and vivid, one doesn't need a map of jazz's terrain to know that Live in Japan is a towering monument to all that's great in music.

by Ben Gook

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