Personnel: Brad Mehldau (piano); Jeff Ballard (drums).
Audio Mixer: James Farber.
Recording information: Avatar Studios, New York, NY (05/12/2014); Avatar Studios, New York, NY (12/10/2012).
Photographer: Anthony Hatley.
Brad Mehldau's warm, utterly enveloping effort, 2016's Blues and Ballads, finds the pianist leading his trio through a set of well-curated standards and covers. The album follows up his genre-bending 2014 collaboration with electronic musician Mark Guiliana, Mehliana: Taming the Dragon, and smartly showcases his return to intimate acoustic jazz. Admittedly, the title, Blues and Ballads, is somewhat misleading, as Mehldau only tackles one actual blues with his jaunty, off-kilter take on Charlie Parker's "Cheryl." Otherwise, the blues of the title is implied more in the earthy lyricism of a handful of ballads. An influential figure in the jazz world since the late '90s, Mehldau has subtly transformed not only the way modern jazz is played, but also the repertoire from which musicians draw inspiration. He was one of the first jazz artists to rework modern alt-rock songs by the likes of Radiohead and Nirvana, imbuing them with a delicacy and harmonic nuance that both celebrated the original recordings and recontextualized them within the jazz canon. While the song choices on Blues and Ballads are by no means as adventurously maverick as that, they are well chosen and make for supple listening. Here, Mehldau and his longtime bandmates bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard dig into thoughtfully selected compositions like the Beatles' "And I Love Her," transfiguring the minor/major-key centers into something sweeping and operatic. Similarly, cuts like "I Concentrate on You" and "These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You)" feel both well-considered and off the cuff, as if Mehldau and his trio simply decided to start playing during the afterglow of a jovial dinner party. Surprisingly, it's Jon Brion, who produced Mehldau's 2002 album Largo, who offers the pianist one of the album's most poignant moments with his original ballad, "Little Person." Based around a deftly simple melody, in Mehldau's sympathetic hands the song is the musical equivalent of a child's tears. While Blues and Ballads is by no means Mehldau's most ambitious album, it's nonetheless a work of expansive emotionality and deeply hued beauty. ~ Matt Collar
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