Earlier this year the trio of pianist Brad Mehldau, double bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard, put out Ode, an album of Mehdau original compositions. This is a companion piece, with the band forming its particular kind of alchemy on other people’s songs.
It used to be that “other people’s songs” meant melodies from the Great American Songbook. In some ways they still do, though the songbook has stretched into the more recent past, and Mehldau in particular has a penchant for English rock and folk tunes.
Here we get Got Me Wrong from Alice In Chains’ Jerry Cantrell, Holland from Sufjan Stevens, Baby Plays Around from Elvis Costello/Cait O’Riordan and Time Has Told Me from Nick Drake, alongside, from Brazil, Aquelas Coisas Todas from Toninho Horta and Samba E Amor from Chico Buarque, plus Johnny Mandel and the Bergman’s title track, a Clifford Brown, a Sonny Rollins, one Mehldau, and Billy Roberts’ Hey Joe.
While the band leans into the straight-beat groove and bass ostinato often on the more rock-based tunes there is obviously a lot more rhythmic movement on the Brazilian and jazzier tunes. So the Cantrell has Mehldau’s by-now familiar country drawl to it, while on the Stevens the pianist is content to roll the pretty melody round and round with the accent more on embellishment than full-on improvisation. For a rich, slow builder, try Hey Joe, which even apes the Jimi Hendrix/Noel Redding chord and bass link-up in its riff chord climax finale.
For contrast, Brownie Speaks has a Monkish feel to it and a lot more elasticity in the three-way interplay, as do the gentler samba swirls and eddies of the Horta and Buarque (the latter a highlight for me), while Where Do You Start rounds the whole album off in classic piano trio romantic ballad mode.
I’m not sure that Mehldau has anywhere further to go with Nick Drake’s delicate tunes – he is drawn to them like a moth to the flame but ends up buzzing and bumping around on them without adding much to what, it seems to me, were already complete and, sadly, enclosed originals.
Overall, though, another terrific addition to the discography of an exceptional musician and a band I hope will endure for many years to come.