Wellington Jazz Festival, Town Hall
March 8 | Reviewed by Brannavan Gnanalingam

THOSE OF US who have worked retail in our lives, will no doubt have had horrific experiences with jazz pianists playing popular songs on endlessly repeating muzak CDs as if it was some sort of special circle of hell. However, when jazz pianist Brad Mehldau cranks into his Radiohead or Sufjan Stevens, he manages to retain his own distinctive sound and showcase his breathtaking virtuosity – while also paying homage to the music. An excellent Wellington Jazz Festival closed with another stellar performance, as the Brad Mehldau Trio showcases some exceptional skill and musicianship.

But it’s not just his famous covers that has led to critics declaring him one of the best jazz pianists around, and some have argued he’s the best since Hancock. The early part of the set focused on his solo work. The show kicked off with ‘Dream Sketch’, and the control shown in terms of dynamics and performance was a masterclass in ensemble playing. The music had a tendency to meander in the early part of the set however, especially on ‘Twiggy’, and it took a while for the interplay to really develop. The set really took off with the marvellous Easy Rider referencing ‘Wyatt’s Eulogy to George Hanson’, where an ominous motif exploded in all sorts of directions. The trio played ‘Lady in the Dark’ from a Kurt Weill/Ira Gershwin collaboration, and ended the main set with ‘Holland’ from Sufjan Stevens’ Michigan album. They came back after a standing ovation to menace the crowd with Radiohead’s ‘Exit Music for a Film’, leaving the audience with the haunting ‘we hope that you choke” refrain melting off the piano.

While Mehldau has gained considerable plaudits for piano playing, the rest of his trio demonstrated some considerable skill. Bassist Larry Grenadier show great control, and led from the front on occasions, while drummer Jeff Ballard reminded how conservative and simplistic most popular music drummers are. Unfortunately he was only given the one chance to really cut loose, but his incorporation of all sorts of rhythms and timbres was wonderful. Ultimately however, it was Mehldau’s show. His piano playing has an unbelievable control of rhythm – it was almost as if he didn’t even need a drummer, while his melancholy soundscapes left the majority of the audience in raptures by the end.