Wednesday, February 15, 2006

The Calm After The Storm

Brad Mehldau Trio - The Barbican Hall 13/2/06
The Gossip - Cargo 11/2/06

For all the rapturous acclaim he frequently receives, I've struggled to appreciate Brad Mehldau (the otherwise rational John Fordham has just given one of the dates on this tour a five star review in The Guardian). Most baffling of all is the fact that he is hailed as an innovator for tackling popular songs, when more inventive acts such as The Bad Plus are often regarded with suspicion for taking a similar approach, albeit with much less reverence for the material. Still, with a ticket given to me as payment in kind for a couple of recording sessions, I went to this show determined to keep an open mind. Sadly, I remain unconvinced.
A handful of impressive moments peppered this set from this new trio (drummer Jeff Ballard has joined Mehldau and bassist Larry Grenadier during the past twelve months). Mehldau certainly has a talent for drawing out every last breath of musicality from his unorthodox repertoire. Although it started tentatively, the opening take on Nick Drake's 'Day Is Done' swelled to something approaching majesty, without resorting to ratcheting up the volume. The furious, fast-paced take on Radiohead's 'Knives Out' was curiously effective, although it largely dispensed with the nervous, reflective mood of the original. Ballard sustained some rigorous hard-bop style swinging, which almost directly opposed Mehldau's audacious stretching of the melody and fluid, elegant improvising. It made for a striking contrast. Best of all was the new interpretation of Soundgarden's 'Black Hole Sun' - a piece of music that, for me at least, could easily have felt stilted through over-familiarity. The trio handled it adroitly though, turning it from sludgy rock ballad into something both limber and haunting.
Still, it's difficult to see why Mehldau is frequently placed at the very vanguard of contemporary jazz. Much of his playing tonight seemed defiantly classicist - rooted much more in the conservatories of Central and Eastern Europe than the jazz clubs of New York City. This is a criticism that has been levelled against Keith Jarrett in the past - and more recently against the new wave of contemplative piano trios led by Esbjorn Svensson and Tord Gustavsen. Yet whilst Svensson and Gustavsen achieve a meditative calm, Mehldau's playing feels limited by formalism and conceptual theory. There's little spirituality or soul to be found in tonight's set. The worst culprits are Mehldau's own nameless compositions, which meander in fairly sleepy and aimless fashion.
The most exploratory musician on stage was drummer Jeff Ballard, who seemed determined to display the whole gamut of possible sounds from the drum kit. He tapped on stands, played the rims and even dispensed with sticks altogether, using the kit as a set of hand drums. This could frequently be compelling, but often to the detriment of the music, particularly when the trio drifted between a plethora of different ideas, often failing to establish a coherent mood or feel before trying something else. The encore of McCartney's 'She's Leaving Home' veered off at several tangents, with Ballard somewhat pointlessly switching between three different tambourines and disrupting the stately rhythm in the process. It probably didn't help that, despite their longstanding acceptance within the jazz canon, McCartney's compositions do not necessarily benefit from this kind of academic exposition. All the lingering melancholy of the original seemed to have been sidelined in Mehldau's needlessly florid arrangement. The band worked much better when they settled on a sustained and cohesive exploration of a single idea - such as on 'Knives Out' or the closing minutes of 'Day Is Done'. Such moments were sadly not frequent enough to enliven what was mostly an unenlightening performance. Whilst there was plenty to admire in this trio's control and dynamic subtlety, there was also little to really inspire or move.
Whilst Mehldau's trio maintained a rigorously stately demeanour, Saturday's performance from The Gossip could not be gutsier. Similarly, whilst Mehldau was studied, this was in keeping with the untutored, DIY ethos of punk. Swigging whisky and denouncing the evil machinations of the mainstream music industry at every opportunity, singer Beth put in a splendidly shameless performance which was almost magnetic in its intensity. Subtlety is not really this band's strong point, but then that's not really what they're about, and this show at Cargo was drenched in sweat resulting from a primal blues fever.
The band produce a frightful noise from a bare bones line-up of just guitar, drums and vocals (although there is a switch to bass for the delightfully groovy 'Listen Up' - More Cowbell!). The pace is pretty much relentless, although balance is provided by the exquisitely soulful 'Coal To Diamonds', which demonstrated a more considered side to Beth's vocal delivery. Particularly awesome was a brisk and taut performance of the title track from new album 'Standing In The Way Of Control' and a barnstorming 'Yesterday's News', with Beth performing from within the audience.
It was all riotously entertaining, if a little brief (in keeping with the mercilessly concise nature of their recorded output) and very pleasing to see an old friend from school days (Irene Revell) getting credit from the band for organising the Ladyfest tour that first brought them to the UK.

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