Brad Mehldau

Places (Warner Bros.)

For most people, solo piano music has more of a classical connotation than a jazz one; not surprisingly, jazz pianists from Bill Evans on did their earliest training in classical music. Likewise, New York-based impresario Brad Mehldau spent considerable time as a child practicing the disciplined works of Beethoven and Brahms, beginning with formal lessons at age 6. While his transition to jazz seems smooth and natural, his work remains deeply infused with his early training. There's a lovely, timeless feel to his music that's thoughtful and deliberately formal. Often his songs build from a few simple, rhythmic patterns into a distinct, strong melody (though never the thundering crescendos of the most famous classical works), then subside back into variations of the original rhythms.

His latest album, Places, was composed while on tour, with each track named after the city in which it was written. While the tunes are relatively short, their brevity emphasizes Mehldau's characteristic structure -- the slow build, the energetic middle, and the quiet, spare conclusion. Only on the latter part of the album does Mehldau stretch out a bit, and even then he returns to a reprise of the first track and that same structure, writ large. But it's no condemnation to say that Mehldau's work sounds like Mehldau. His predictability never becomes dull, and his delicate touch is controlled rather than stiff.

On about half the album's tracks, Mehldau works with drummer Jorge Rossy and bassist Larry Grenadier. While they make Mehldau sound jazzier, they don't contribute much to the appeal of the album. Rossy in particular can be distracting, his style at odds with the tone (if not the rhythm) of the piano. The instrumentation works best when it's most subtle, when it follows Mehldau's sophisticated -- nay, classical -- lead.

 
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