Joe Henry, Stripped

Joe Henry is best known in service to others, a writer of songs for stars (Madonna “Don’t Tell Me To Stop”) and producer to everyone from Meshell Ndegéocello and Ani DiFranco to Elvis Costello and Mose Allison. His own recordings tend to be noisy affairs with confessional, expressionistic poetry set to pop-savvy melodies framed in cartoonish cacophony. Over the years, he’s included jazz musicians including Brad Mehldau, Don Byron and Ornette Coleman to bring added spark and soulfulness to match his often surreal words. Reverie manages the soulfulness without the static. It’s stripped down Henry with even more obscure lyrics (“I keep wooden boxes like traps strung with wire/In the light of old ties, piled and on fire”). The acoustic quartet of guitar, piano, bass, and drums is occasionally decorated with pump organ, added guitarist Marc Ribot’s ukulele, and backup vocals from Irish singer-songwriter Lisa Hannigan. The effect is even more melancholy than the often down-beat singer has conveyed in the past, and with reason. “Room At Arles,” dedicated to the late, tragic Vic Chesnutt, is particularly somber (“The curtains wave a flag to say/This afternoon is done/And giving in to evening who has/Beat him like a brother”). Despite the mood and minimalism, Reverie is still “raucous and fractured and noisy” as he asserts in the liner notes’ dedication to his parents. And that’s just the way we Henry fans like it.   —Cabbage Rabbit

Motian Detector

Pianist Anat Fort’s work is known for its mood, sense of touch, use of space and a feel for the exotic. Her latest recording And If assumes these qualities in less obvious ways, giving the music a natural and holistic feel. In a sense, she’s brought new subtleties to her subtlety.

That’s not to say that she can’t show some personality when its called for. “Clouds” is a sky-full of gathering electricity. “Nu” snaps with sparks. Both are emphatic and  powerful even as they turn on Fort’s characteristic style. In short, she’s capable of wide-ranging tone and emotion.

Still, it’s the more considered pieces that standout. Fort’s 2007 ECM release A Long Story included drummer Paul Motian whose touch and painterly percussion was the perfect compliment to the pianist’s thoughtful, occasionally colorful ways. Her trio on the new recording has bassist Gary Wang and drummer Roland Schneider. But Motian is still a presence; the disc’s opening/closing number, its most sensitive, bears the drummer’s name.

Fort gets similar sensitivity from Wang and Schneider, the kind of backing that’s at once austere and appropriate. There are tunes that except for a bit of rhythmic juice might be thought lyrically classical. “Minnesota” is an apt tribute to a state known for its waters. The tune shimmers and splashes inside its folk-like theme. “Nu” is pure punctuation with a flow of its own. By the time she revisits “Paul Motian” you expect her to deepen its brief reflection…and she does. This is an exemplary recording full of individuality and crafted sensitivity. Not your usual piano trio.–Cabbage Rabbit

Mehldau Moments

A feature in the March Downbeat on the classical influence in Brad Mehldau’s Highway Rider fails to mention one thing: his previous recording.  Conceived under producer Jon Brion, Largo was a turning point in Mehdau’s style,  showcasing different  instrumentation and styles.  Mehldau even plays vibes on a number of cuts.

Critics were quick to note the rock influence when Largo was released and quick to credit Brion, who’s produced Fiona Applegate and Kayane West among others ( and owns the club that lends its name as the recording’s title).   Put aside the  rock and pop influence–Mehldau’s famous for his variations of  pop and alternative  tunes–and you hear a wider embrace.

You can hear it in the first tune’s instrumentation, the woodwind harmonics adding embellishment and counterpoint. Other tunes area bit more eclectic–French horns, trombones and bass trombone–but to the same purpose.   Radiohead’s, “Paranoid Android” has a Chopinesque interlude.The final cut, complete with Brion and Mehldau’s story of  how their relationship began, his pure 20th century piano music.

We always thought reviewers had missed this boat when celebrating Largo‘s release but that wasn’t entirely true. Now we think they’re missing it again.  Largo is a much more interesting recording than Highway Rider, classical touches aside. Largo has more varied influences and all fit well. The themes in Highway Rider aren’t as interesting and we’re often disappointed to hear them return. And the orchestration isn’t as perfect a blend as it is with the putty-treated piano of Largo.   There’s a certain pinched quality to the tunes, as if too much were squeezed into the recording’s digital binaries.  (Inside sources at the recording studio told me that tracks were piled on tracks as the finished product was realized…but that shouldn’t matter, should it?).

Ted Panken’s thoughtful Mehldau piece outlines the pianist’s long interest in classical music–he even notes Mehldau’s Germanic-inspired liner notes from years past–and charts its influence on his previous recordings….except one. Meanwhile, Mehldau continues to pursue the direction. And, let’s hope, others as well. —Cabbage Rabbit

The Flowering of Charles Lloyd

Charles Lloyd’s latest release, recorded live in 2007 at the Theater Basel in Switzerland, recalls his early live recording, Forest Flower: Charles Lloyd at Monterey. That LP introduced those of a certain generation to the saxophonist-flutist and jazz in general. The similarities between the two recordings, though separated by some 40 years, are remarkable. Both feature its astute leader backed by strong, youthful sidemen destined for great things. Both feature Lloyd’s wise, inquiring sound, painting him as a something of a musical monk and seeker of truth whose explorations come from a background in the blues. Both are satisfying in their wordly wisdom and cosmic insight. All this isn’t to suggest that Lloyd’s sound hasn’t evolved (see “seeker” above) but does point out that Lloyd has consistently pushed ahead from a base of experience, a base that has deepened and been enriched as the years pass. When Lloyd appeared at Monterey in 1966 he was a relative unknown in the larger musical world with a waiting audience. Today he’s a major presence, a musician whose next statement is anticipated, someone who stands aside from the mainstream even as he respects certain traditions. In this sense, Rabo de Nube doesn’t disappoint. Indeed, it’s as solid as any of Lloyd’s work of the last several years while proving that age—he turns 70 this year–has nothing on him. As Lloyd makes more musical revelation, his pursuit of truth and beauty accelerates (reviewer notes an intense desire to use “aging fine wine” image). There are some familiar Lloyd themes here that seem to travel under new names, vehicles in which he travels to territory just beyond places he has gone before. His work on flute and tarogato is especially ambitious, often carrying rhythmic overtones that make something of the times. His sense of spirit and reverence remain, as well as the blues roots he developed back in Memphis with Phineas Newborn and others. It remains to be seen if pianist Jason Moran, bassist Ruben Rogers and drummer Eric Harland ascend to the heights of Forest Flower’s Keith Jarrett, Cecil McBee and Jack DeJohnette. As did that earlier rhythm section, Moran, Rogers and Harland, as distinguished and unique as they are, work in Lloyd’s shadow. I occasionally found myself wishing for past Lloyd associates Bobo Stenson or Brad Mehldau to provide a more lush and languid contribution that would mesh with Lloyd’s spirituality. But this is a small quibble and Moran’s contrasting style has its advantages, mostly rhythmic. Rabo de Nube marks Lloyd as a consistently satisfying seeker of higher callings, one who himself seems seldom satisfied. Released March, 2008. Highly Recommended.—Cabbage Rabbit

He’s No Keith Jarrett

I once had a minor tiff with Brad Mehldau, an exchange of words in the pages of the L.A. Weekly that, I hope, ended up serving us both well. It started when I wrote up a plug for a rare Keith Jarrett appearance, saying that Jarrett had influenced a generation of young musicians. For proof one needed to look no further than Mehldau’s recorded rendition of “Blame It on My Youth”

BRAD MEHLDAU TRIO LIVE, Nonesuch Records

I once had a minor tiff with Brad Mehldau, an exchange of words in the pages of the L.A. Weekly that, I hope, ended up serving us both well. It started when I wrote up a plug for a rare Keith Jarrett appearance, saying that Jarrett had influenced a generation of young musicians. For proof one needed to look no further than Mehldau’s recorded rendition of “Blame It on My Youth” and compare it to Jarrett’s. Mehldau, of course, didn’t like the insinuation that he had mined Jarrett’s work—he claimed to have never heard Keith play “Blame It On My Youth”—and wrote a pointed letter to the editor saying as much, taking the time to belittle some of the other things I’d said in the Jarrett piece, including the fact that for me listening to the pianist and his trio over the years had become a near-religious experience.

Mehldau was playing the following week at LA’s Café Largo and the appearance gave me the opportunity to respond while making him the subject of my jazz pick column. I stuck to my contention that there were a lot of similarities even if they were accidental in Jarrett and Meldau’s takes on “Blame It on My Youth” (maybe the pointed melancholy of Oscar Levant’s lament made for a collusion of mood and approach). And, I argued, it wasn’t such a bad or unusual thing, especially for us godless sorts, to find inspiration, meaning and yes, reason to live in music as wonderful as Jarrett and Mehldau’s.

All (apparently) was forgiven—the keyboardist certainly had larger considerations in his life than what some alternative rag journalist had said about him—and we had a nice chat between sets one Sunday afternoon at a downtown concert sponsored by the Da Camera Society. Mehldau even granted me an interview a year or so later in which he espoused intelligently on his direction. The pianist is known to pontificate about art and his music. Some of his liner notes go to great academic lengths while dropping the names like Goethe, Foucault and Thomas Mann. While they may seem a little overblown at times, these insights are revealing. His notes to House on the Hill are one of the best explanations of the jazz form’s theme-and-variation concept we’ve read (you can find it here [http://www.bradmehldau.com/writing/index.html#]) and Mehldau continues to practice what he preaches. That he has a good intellectual understanding of what he does is a refreshing and educational change from what passes as exposition and criticism of art of any sort (this screed included).

I bring up the Jarrett story to make a similar, hopefully less foolish, Keith-and-Brad comparison. It strikes us that Mehldau is his generation’s Jarrett. The comparison is not so much musical–despite “Blame It on My Youth”–as situational. Both have a long-standing trio (drummer Jeff Ballard replaced Jorge Rossy in 2005) making the evolution of interplay between the three men as interesting as any other component. Both have impeccable musical tastes and an ability to do almost anything they like on the keyboard (which may be truer in Mehldau’s case, Jarrett’s forays into classical music aside). Both attracted young audiences, Jarrett in the ‘70s with his extended solo excursions, Mehldau with his renditions of alt-rock music and a certain rumpled hipster cachet which comes to him without him really trying. This is just the kind of fan recruitment that the so-called jazz world needs to maintain its audience, especially now. That Mehldau seems to do this without compromise—and what he makes of “pop” tunes isn’t a compromise—is all the more to his credit.

Brad Mehldau Trio Live makes Mehldau’s familiar case for opening up the jazz canon to worthy contemporary music even as it establishes a new level of greatness for the trio. (No, those cover photos aren’t of The Village Vanguard where the discs were recorded in October of 2006.) Who else could follow a Soundgarden tune with one by 1930s-era swing band leader Ray Noble and get away with it? Mehldau’s trio is able to pull this kind of thing off by finding a rhythmic core to the music and relating it directly to its mood. They get straight to the heart of a melody and then mess mightily with it (unlike the bits-and-pieces technique Jarrett uses). That they develop all this during the variation part of their theme-and-variation approach makes listening to the trio something akin to reading a good novel. This is one of improvisational music’s great pleasures: it’s as if you can follow what’s going on in their minds as you listen to what’s coming from their hands.

Trio Live gets right into this modus with Oasis’s “Wonderwall,” a rhythmically accessible way to enter the recording. Mehldau’s harmonically kinky assertions stretched across Larry Grenadier’s pin-point bass groove. Mehldau compiles lines on a descending left-hand line and his improv strengthens as it goes along, winding tighter and tighter on Ballard’s irresistible groove. Mehldau’s a master of resolution, able to find his way out of a tight spot as coolly as some action character in a spy thriller. Here it happens so seamlessly that you don’t see the bridge coming until he’s crossing it.

The rest of this two-disc set mixes jazz standards—“More Than You Know”, the John Coltrane vehicle “Countdown”—with Mehldau originals. Unlike Jarrett’s often droning originals, Mehldau pushes his own compositions all over the room, taking them to unexpected corners, stirring up dust and diamonds. Moods vary. There’s the quick and insistent “Ruby’s Rub,” the swing and grace of “B-Flat Waltz,” the romance and intimacy of “Secret Beach.” Mehldau’s sharp reading of Jimmy Heath’s “C.T.A.” cuts new meat from its bop-bones. If Mehldau’s solos seem to go on too long (see liner notes above), one must remember that the same thing was said of John Coltrane, especially in live performance. Like Coltrane, Mehldau has things to get off his chest.

The other comparison Mehldau has garnered, especially early in his career, was to Bill Evans. This came from his audible sensitivity, a quality lacking in the work of many emerging pianists, rather than any stylistic comparisons to Evans. That Mehldau is sensitive, thoughtful and melodically inventive is old news. Here, he finds beauty in a soft touch, melodic sense in even the roughest handling. His approach to “The Very Thought Of You” convinces one, true or not, that this guy knows the depths of love. No you wouldn’t and shouldn’t confuse Brad Meldau’s work with Jarrett’s (guilty) or anyone else’s. We wouldn’t be the first to say there’s no one like him. Highly recommended. –Cabbage Rabbit