Acclaimed jazz pianist Brad Mehldau, on his penultimate U.S. tour date before heading to Europe, treated Sanders Theater to a solo performance last Friday. The venue’s Steinway filled the space, highlighting notes in the upper registers and allowing lower notes to reverberate appropriately. Mehldau entered minutes after 8 p.m. wearing a brown suit, and promptly began after switching the piano bench onstage with one he’d found backstage. “There was another gig before me,” he informed the audience, eliciting laughs and foreshadowing what would be an intimate night.
The show opened with a percussive interpretation of The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony,” a classic anthem from 1997 that stirred up controversy over its liberal use of an Andrew Oldham Orchestra sample. The portion of “borrowed” music happens to be the most memorable part of the song, specifically the string melody. Mehldau played the piece beautifully, playing the vocal lines lower on the keyboard, mixing them in with the supporting chords. Wisely saving the main theme for the momentous ending, Mehldau brought the song to a familiar close and immediately began the next piece.
While mixing in jazz standards (“My Favorite Things” deserved much applause, in its bouncy and mature retelling) and a couple of his own pieces, Mehldau focused on more popular selections. Mehldau, who also performs in the trio format, is no stranger to covering pop songs. He’s recorded numerous versions of Radiohead songs (and avoided these in particular during the concert), as well as a stunning version of “She’s Leaving Home” by The Beatles, found on his 2006 album Day Is Done. In the solo setting, Mehldau took care of all the responsibilities, which at times led to a more formulaic approach to the pieces. The cover songs all began with a minimal setting of the chords progression, followed by the main melodies, an exploratory solo (often modulated up), winding back down with the melody. While the formula provided for moments of tension and release, it didn’t allow for a variety in structure.
Two notable performances of the evening included Mehldau’s take on Massive Attack’s “Teardrop” and his honest version of the Pet Sounds staple “God Only Knows.” The former began lightly, quietly asserting its beat. The vocal melody danced on top, and echoed brightly through the theater. Mehldau closed his eyes (as he did during almost the whole show) and took the solo into a completely different region. The solo showcased his ability to reinforce the subtleties of the melody, and expand upon them using thoughtful ornamentations. “God Only Knows” was more contemplative than the original, and provided a solid ending to the evening’s first and only official set.
While Mehldau announced that “God Only Knows” would close the evening, he returned for five encore performances. This decision created a disjointed and somewhat uncomfortable second half of the evening. Audience members, unsure of how many more encores would occur exited the theater early, perhaps not realizing that there was still some music to be heard. As the encores went on, fewer and fewer audience members stood up, indicating an anxiety with this particular performance tradition. The first of the five encores was definitely the most successful. Mehldau came from backstage to deliver a louder, darker reading of “Interstate Love Song,” by alternative rock band Stone Temple Pilots. The familiar bass lines had heads bobbing back and forth in the first few rows.
What was most revealing of the evening was the predictable nature of pop music. The melodies were clearly derivative and memorable for a reason; Mehldau’s left hand, no matter how much it traveled in and out of the harmonic limitations of each cover song, was condemned to the standard progressions of pop. Maybe it was for this reason that the show left just a little more to be desired of this critically acclaimed pianist. The evening might have transpired much differently had Mehldau included more of his compositions or a few more jazz standards.
Despite Mehldau’s departure from his own catalog, he still conveyed a dynamic range of personal emotions with the evening’s selections. It’s this quality that will allow him to successfully include the cover songs into his repertoire while keeping his performances fresh. Mehldau will take a break until March, when he will resume his tour with a concert in Marseille, France.