Brad Mehldau

Friday, June 30, at the Cleveland Museum of Art

Jazz pianist Brad Mehldau can come across as a dour guy. Anyone familiar with his liner notes, interviews, and the letters he writes to jazz magazines probably remembers his diatribes against critics and the acoustic renaissance in contemporary jazz or his lengthy philosophical discussions on the elegy, Romantic composers, and the role of the artist. Building on that musty image, he frequently refers to many things both Teutonic and 100-plus years old -- Hegelian dialectics, Beethoven, and Rilke, to name a few. If this gives you an impression of the young pianist as a stuffy-before-his-time Europhile, that impression couldn't be further from the truth. Trained as a classical pianist and still very much attached to classical music, Mehldau quickly began incorporating harmony into his improvisational style, moving away from horn-style (single note) soloing and borrowing from composers like Brahms and the aforementioned Beethoven in the process. His playing retains a decidedly classical feel, but remains unfailingly bright, passionate, and energetic. He excels at ballads and reanimates standards that have been played thousands of times over. And though he never lacks for an opinion on just about anything musical and knows quite a bit about the history of jazz, classical, and pop, he plays as if he's unencumbered by any of it.

So far, Mehldau has chosen to play and record most often in the trio setting -- the notable exception being his melancholic solo piano lament Elegiac Cycle. His latest recording, The Art of the Trio, Vol. 4, Back at the Vanguard also features collaborators Jorge Rossy on drums and Larry Grenadier on bass. The album finds him playing standards and a few originals. Mehldau has repeatedly expressed his own personal interest in established jazz structures over freeform improvisation. The album also includes a song for which Mehldau has gotten a little attention -- a cover of Radiohead's "Exit Music for a Film." The tune gets an eight-minute workout, building into a maelstrom climax Thom Yorke probably never envisioned.