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Brad Mehldau & Chris Thile

Pianist Brad Mehldau and mandolinist Chris Thile have cultivated omnivorous tastes from Bach to Dylan to Radiohead, and their virtuosic covers have a way of not only honoring the source, but enriching it. Jazz and bluegrass have an often overlooked improvisatory link, and listening to them deconstruct and reconstitute Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” and Fiona Apple’s “Fast As You Can” exposes a harmonic richness beneath the surface. Through these duo interpretations, they also present a multicultural alternative music history, tracing a common thread between western classical, Irish and American folk, the Beatles, and the jazz tradition. To them, it’s all American.

Wed., Sept. 10, 8 p.m., 2014

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Christian McBride & Brad Mehldau

The Blue Note Jazz Festival continues a tradition of unlikely collaborations with a series of duo performances by bassist Christian McBride and pianist Brad Mehldau, the latter replacing Andre Previn at the last minute. McBride has worked with Sting, Bruce Hornsby, and Renee Fleming; Previn has re-worked a number of classic pop songs ranging from Cole Porter to Radiohead within a career as an excellent bandleader. Outside of his rigorous touring schedule, McBride serves as the associate artistic director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem while Mehldau has been active in both his trio and an experimental duo with drummer Mark Guiliana.

June 6-8, 8 & 10:30 p.m., 2014

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Jazz for Obama 2012 – Symphony Space – 10/9/2012

Better than: The debates.

The pianist Aaron Goldberg has been organizing jazz benefit concerts for every presidential election since 2004 to raise money for the Democratic side. I’m the kind of person to shy away from partisan events in general, where, I’ve found, sanctimony can hang heavy in the air. But I decided to attend last night’s Jazz for Obama concert–the latest installment in Goldberg’s endeavor, held last night at Symphony Space–because he had enlisted so many remarkable jazz musicians to perform.

As it turned out, Jazz for Obama was, simply, an outstanding jazz concert, one of the best I’ve seen in a while. (According to the event’s website, it has raised $37,840; tickets cost at least $100.) There were, of course, moments to remind you that you had attended a political fundraiser: When the singer Dee Dee Bridgewater, who hosted the evening, sang the Isley Brothers song “It’s Your Thing” in a duo with the bassist Christian McBride, she used the title of the song to remind those in the crowd of their responsibility to vote. A good point, but probably not something you have to say to a large group of mostly middle-aged people on the Upper West Side.

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The Best Jazz Shows in New York City This Week

Other musicians, it seemed, expressed their politics less directly. The saxophonist Jimmy Heath, all smiles, sweetly dedicated “There Will Never Be Another You” to President Obama. In “105,” Becca Stevens sang, using a text she borrowed from the poet Jane Tyson Clement: “A Necessary evil is portioned to the heart/ We might as well acknowledge the devil from the start.” (Make of that what you will.) The bassist Henry Grimes played “Freedom Jazz Dance” in a trio with the pianist Geri Allen and the drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts. Grimes played an army green bass, covered in stickers, and wore an Obama pin on the lapel of his suit jacket.

About 25 musicians performed last night–the youngest, if I’m not mistaken, being the 18-year-old trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, son of the Latin jazz pianist Arturo (who also played), and the oldest being Roy Haynes, 87. That’s a pretty big difference in age, but it reflects jazz’s capacity for continuity and surprise.

And most of the surprises at Jazz for Obama came from drummers. As the pianist Brad Mehldau played a Thelonious Monk tune with McBride, Watts snuck up to the drum kit, picked up a pair of brushes and joined in. Mehldau and McBride looked over with amused gratitude; it was exactly the kind of late-set move the concert needed to get re-energized.

Haynes, who wore a green jacket and velvet pants, tap danced up to the drums before sitting down to play. He dominated the song, taking a solo full of raw, one-stroke smashes. At one point, he casually left his seat to walk around and hit the other side of the bass drum with his drumstick.

About half way through the set, Ravi Coltrane played “Wise One” (a composition written by his father) in a quartet with McBride, Allen and the drummer Ralph Peterson. It’s a deep, searching tune, executed terrifically by the entire band, but Peterson’s drumming amazed the most. He delivered hurricanes of rhythm, evoking the raw power of Art Blakey and the loose intensity of Elvin Jones.

At some point, it was revealed that Peterson had driven down that evening from Boston, where he teaches, to play in the show. For one song. Right after that he was driving back north for a class the next morning. It was probably the most righteous thing anyone had done that evening.

Critical Bias: I’m voting for Obama, and I really like jazz.

Overheard: “That was a great show,” multiple times, in the bathroom.

Random Notebook Dump: The comedian Andy Borowitz, who made an unexpected cameo to introduce the show, had some funny remarks about MSNBC, which he called “Fox for vegans.” Then he likened the channel’s new slogan, “Lean Forward,” to the directions you’d hear at a rectal examination.

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Joel Frahm

The tenor sax whiz is known mostly to those in the know, a conundrum that needs to be rectified tout de suite–his mix of beauty and brawn should be heard by everyone around. Frahm’s forte is gliding through standards, bending them to fit his vision, and imbuing it with personalized grace. See that 2004 “Oleo” duet with Brad Mehldau for proof. This show will be mic’d up for a live album, and guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel should be a provocative foil for his old pal.

Mon., Feb. 28, 9:30 p.m., 2011

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MR. MEHLDAU GOES TO CARNEGIE

Brad Mehldau is a wise man now, but he still carries the mythology of a remarkably prodigious start: As a high schooler, the pianist won Berklee College’s Best All-Around Musician Award, then studied under Fred Hersch and Jimmy Cobb at the New School for Social Research and recorded with the Joshua Redman Quartet. His coltish enthusiasm is still evident in his swath of influences—Brazilian dance, Bill Evans, Soundgarden—and, some 20 albums in, his fiery post-bop technique is heralded like few others in contemporary jazz. Places, his spry 2002 concept album about favorite cities, professed love for Perugia and Paris—and those seem like lovely places to visit, but the space between Mehldau’s syncopations is somewhere to live.

Wed., Feb. 11, 8 p.m., 2009

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Jersey Jazz Jammers Hold Down the Low End, Flirtatiously

Near the end of the Benevento Russo Duo’s roiling second set at Rothko, Marco Benevento announced that the gritty barn burner they’d just played was based on an improvisation by pianist Brad Mehldau and drummer Matt Chamberlain—”my heroes, my lovers,” the keyboardist called them. A step back to when organists held down the low end (Benevento’s left hand), the Duo are the happeningest manifestation of a trend that began with Medeski Martin & Wood’s urban-jungle boogie and has inspired such keyboard-led threesomes as the OM Trio, Vorcza, and the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey. This wave plays looser, scruffier, funkier, and more electrified forms of the sort of rock-influenced chamber jazz triage dealt by the Mehldau, e.s.t., and the Bad Plus.

New Jersey soul mates who met in their middle school jazz band, Benevento and Russo perch directly across from one another, lock eyes, and perform music of intense physicality and almost flirtatious intimacy. Benevento tend to play slightly ahead of the beat, lending their jazzy, jammy urban boogaloo an anxious, urgent undercurrent. Their first set included “Becky” (music for a mechanical bride), “9X9” (an Afrotronic meditation in 10/8), and other tunes from their excellent Best Reason to Buy the Sun, and was something of a wash thanks to the chattering class.

Their second set, though, was closer to shattering glass. The pair played loud and freely before gliding into “The Three Question Marks,” one of Sun‘s more intricately crunchy tunes. Their readings of Elliott Smith’s “Waltz #1” and Radiohead’s “Myxomatosis” are less facile crowd-pleasers than opportunities for muscular remixtures. Benevento’s palate ranges from jazz piano to ultrafuzz guitar sounds, while Russo swings as hard as he pounds—he dances with his drums, then takes them home to enjoy his etchings and a post-coital smoke. A stripped-down punk rock version of a keyboard trio on the one hand (they’ve jammed to Bad Brains material elsewhere), Benevento and Russo also echo something closer to the Eastern model of a soloist and drummer sharing an evening’s séance together. A case of less is more? More or less.

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Great White Mope

My father-in-law was in the hospital with pneumonia when I heard Brad Mehldau at the Village Vanguard in late September, so I left my cell phone on. That nobody called was a double blessing—no troubling updates from Florida and no petulant scolding from the bandstand. Don’t get me wrong: that theatrical sigh of exasperation you hear when someone’s cell twitters during a concert is very likely to be mine. But the second time it happened during a Mehldau set in an Oakland nightclub a few years ago, his reaction was so out of proportion—and so prissy—that I couldn’t help laughing in agreement with another writer at my table who leaned close and whispered, “Aw, poor baby.”

Like Keith Jarrett, whom he resembles in his sacramental approach to jazz and faith in the ways of the hand, Mehldau sure makes it difficult for a critic to be on his side. The last time I heard Jarrett’s Standards Trio, one tune concluded with him raising his plastic water bottle in a toast to Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette; you’d have thought they’d just achieved transubstantiation rather than a reasonably swinging “Bye Bye Blackbird.” Like high fives after a home run, it seemed the masculine equivalent of “You go, girl,” bespeaking a rah-rah affirmation as foreign to Hank Jones as it would have been to Joe DiMaggio. Mehldau’s preening is more subtle. Among the forms it takes are his wordy essays on the creative process for JazzTimes and his liner-note beefing with writers who liken him to Bill Evans. Mehldau is right to insist that he has little in common with Evans (for starters, his beat isn’t nearly as lithe), and right that the comparison amounts to racial profiling—a point of view that casts white jazzmen as “introspective,” in contrast to their “expressive” black counterparts. Then again, a pianist who hunches over the keys exactly as Evans did and assigns his copyrights to Werther Music probably has it coming.

None of this would be worth talking about if Mehldau’s solos weren’t also a little too fussy and self-involved, and if—again, in common with Jarrett—he weren’t prodigiously talented despite it all. My biggest quarrel with Mehldau’s Art of the Trio series—dominated by standards, usually recorded at the Vanguard—is that your early thirties is awfully young to start releasing the same album over and over again. The occasional solo album, two featuring only his originals, and the Jon Brion–produced (and oversweetened) Largo were inconsequential variations on the formula. As if to add spice, Mehldau occasionally interprets newer pop songs alongside golden-age ones, but because he favors Nick Drake, Thom Yorke, and other great white mopes like himself, this hasn’t exactly drawn him out.

Live in Tokyo, Mehldau’s new solo album, starts with Drake’s “Things Behind the Sun” and ends with a brooding “River Man,” a song whose newfound popularity with jazz performers (Andy Bey has also recorded it) is puzzling, given that Drake hinted at jazz in his supple phrasing, not in his barren melodies. Radiohead has become a Mehldau specialty, but once you remove its apocalyptic production and Yorke’s boy-in-a-bubble vocal, there’s not much left to “Paranoid Android”—certainly not enough to justify Mehldau’s nearly 20 minutes of vamping and Chopin arpeggios. He’d be better off sticking to the standard repertoire, especially Thelonious Monk and Cole Porter. “Monk’s Dream” is this recital’s master stroke, a rigorous examination of the composer’s pouncing melody and each of its underlying rhythms that finds Mehldau putting his abundant technique to a higher purpose than showing off. He turns two Gershwin tunes into overwrought études, and recasts Porter’s “From This Moment On” as a semi-dirge, foolishly resisting the lyric’s call for “only whoop-dee-do songs.” But for confirmation of Mehldau’s insight into Porter, go to the title track of Anything Goes, from earlier this year.

You might never guess it from the execrable De-Lovely, but behind their sophistication, some of Porter’s best numbers were rhythm songs, and this is the angle from which Mehldau, bassist Larry Grenadier, and drummer Jorge Rossy approach “Anything Goes,” teasing the melody along by syncopating it and postponing its cadences—a device pleasantly reminiscent of Ahmad Jamal’s trios in this context, and one that Mehldau frequently draws on even when playing unaccompanied, possibly his modernist adaptation of stride. Other highlights from Mehldau’s liveliest trio album so far—not to say it doesn’t have its longueurs—include a sprint through Monk’s “Skippy” and a version of Henry Mancini’s “Dreamsville” (the background music Peter Gunn and Edie Hart chilled to) so swanky Rossy might be keeping time with a swizzle stick instead of brushes.

Which brings us back to the Vanguard a few weeks ago. There were two ways of viewing the personnel on this gig: as a new edition of Mehldau’s trio with a replacement drummer (Jeff Ballard) and saxophonist Mark Turner sitting in, or as Mehldau guesting with Turner, Ballard, and Grenadier’s group Fly. Either way, Mehldau was a revelation. Adding a horn to the fray silenced the pretentious hush that often surrounds his piano, and itchy solos that made stops in the church and the barrelhouse as well as the recital hall recalled the promise he showed in the early ’90s as a member of Joshua Redman’s band. But the alchemy worked both ways. Fly is a potentially great band with which the unassertive Turner tends to float ethereally over bass and drums; Mehldau’s vigorous comping and tricky counter-rhythms brought him down-to-earth now and then, without demanding he stay put, and he responded with uncharacteristically heated blowing. The set I heard consisted of three complex Mehldau originals that went untitled—”some things I’ve been working on.” I hope they turn up on his next CD, along with Turner, Grenadier, and Ballard.

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Maybe He’ll Tackle the Bellamy Brothers and Bright Eyes Next Time

Jazz-pop has expanded lately, with Brad Mehldau, the Bad Plus, and Dr. Lonnie Smith covering Radiohead, Beck, Nirvana. So Jason Moran’s decision to “do the deed” with Brahms and Björk should surprise no one. Still, Moran’s material is immaterial to his mosaic: He’s so gifted at knifing through melodies and uprooting them that his steely textures transcend songsterisms. Not to say it’s not fascinating that he interprets Godfather: Part II‘s soundtrack, but he achieves something juicier than reference-for-its-own-sake: ambiguity-for-its-own-sake.

For Moran, clarity counts only in contrast with moments of profound confusion—he buries themes under layers of sustain-pedal blur before, moments along, a.r.t.i.c.u.l.a.t.i.n.g. them. Bandwagon begins with pre-taped vocals inviting you to hop aboard. Then Moran steps out, with hungry shivering trills, labyrinthine lines, abrupt mood changes, quirkily displaced blue notes, glassy indifference. From the fury of an up-tempo waltz and lyricism of hypnotic balladry to the bump of Afrika Bambaataa and cloudiness of post-impressionism piano-plunks, Moran achieves a variety of damaged hip-hop beats and drunken funk flavors. Kinda like Cex, only sexier.