Brad Mehldau sat sideways on the piano bench, facing the now-almost-dry crowd at Ozawa Hall. He’d just bewitched us with a singular reading of Lennon & McCartney’s “Blackbird,” and was recounting the music that had come previously unannounced. “Before that, we had… umm, we had…”
“‘My Favorite Things,'” some of us offered helpfully.
“‘My Favorite Things,'” he repeated quickly, smiling at his own temporary amnesia. It couldn’t be called a “senior moment”: Although only in his forties, Mehldau is considered one of the greatest keyboardists of his generation. The thing is, his solos tend to turn into one long, winding train of colorful, expressive thought, so since he’s the one “driving” the train, it makes sense that he might not remember all the scenery that had gone past his brainpan’s front window.
“Thanks for braving the weather,” he’d told us earlier in the show. He wasn’t kidding. The rain was coming down in torrents by the time I got to Tanglewood’s tree-lined campus, and the thunder and lightning that flared around the Berkshires was decidedly impressive – and when I say “impressive”, I mean “frightening.” But the chance to see Mehldau do a solo-piano show in Tanglewood’s more modern, acoustically perfect and (most importantly) indoor facility made it worth running through the rain.
Although his unannounced opener was a new piece that was getting its first performance, its foundation chords suggested several known songs, even though you couldn’t name them. Mehldau has successfully adopted so many tunes you wouldn’t expect to hear in a jazz format, you go into any piece thinking anything’s possible. Before the melody to “Favorite” became apparent, I could have sworn Mehldau was setting us up for Nick Drake’s “River Man”; his musical launches into Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and the encore “Bitter Sweet Symphony” had all of us playing “Name That Tune,” and left all of us shaking our heads in wonder – both at Mehldau’s choice of material and his ability to plumb the depths of any composition and come up with gold every single time.
Pink Floyd’s “Hey You” was an early surprise that showcased this talent. Beginning with a hushed, almost embarrassed tone, Mehldau used left-hand variations to channel every gallon of darkness and rage Roger Waters had pumped into his magnum opus “The Wall.” (“An album which was dangerous to my mother,” Mehldau grinned, having told us earlier that his parents were in the audience.) The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” was less a love song than it was a prayer of thanks, while Thelonious Monk’s “Think of One” had all of Monk’s rebelliousness and non-conformity even as Mehldau’s right-handed foundation lifted the piece high into the air and held it there. He handled all of it like he owned it as he played, rocking back and forth, eyes tightly shut, a king of infinite space.
And then there was “Favorite,” which had already been taken to new dimensions many moons ago by no less an icon than John Coltrane. That’s a cliff face many wouldn’t dare attempt, but Mehldau just closed his eyes and jumped. While Coltrane had ridden McCoy Tyner’s rock-solid figure to anyone’s logical conclusion, Mehldau punched a hole in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s original structure and found unknown corridors, rooms within rooms and hidden passageways. His protagonist was holding onto all the things he held dear, even though terrible things were happening all around him. And we heard – and felt – every single one of them. No wonder Mehldau couldn’t remember what happened. It was all too much!
The storms were long gone by the time we all sloshed to our cars. There were meteorological reasons for this, of course, but to my mind, there’s only one explanation: Brad Mehldau blew them all away.
Review by J Hunter
Photograph by Hilary Scott
BRAD MEHLDAU SET LIST
Untitled (new tune, making its world premiere)
Waltz (tentative title for new tune)
Think of One (Thelonious Monk)
Smells Like Teen Spirit (Nirvana)
My Favorite Things
God Only Knows (Beach Boys)
Bitter Sweet Symphony (the Verve)