One of the brainiest guys in jazz, Brad Mehldau is likened to classical composers as often as he is boppin’ piano men; he is famous for his heady liner notes, and nearly everything he does comes with a conceptual thrust. So if Brad Mehldau is going to make a box set, it’s not going to be a straight-ahead greatest-hits or rarities roundup, something made perfectly plain by 10 Years Solo Live—an expansive four discs of on-stage keyboard meditations in which each is given its own thematic framework. This is, to state the obvious, an awful lot of solo piano stuff, which is why Mehldau’s intellectual slant is an asset and not a burden: They provide the listener with structures and reference points. The songs themselves are laden with ideas and the conceptual thrust of each disc provides plenty of themes and theories to mull over: You’ll often get lost in the flash of Mehldau’s fingers but the pleasures of this set aren’t in the pianist’s athleticism so much as in his amazingly free-associative brain—how the story of this music is told through contrasts and sequencing and the intersection of themes and ideas. The second (and admittedly best) disc, “The Concert,” simulates an evening’s Mehldau performance and is compelling for its variety and forward momentum; the other discs are thinkier but never oppressively so. Thankfully, Mehldau’s thoughtfulness extends beyond theory and into listenability. You don’t have to understand how he’s inverting “My Favorite Things” to find it beautiful, and you don’t need any technical language to grasp the emotional payoff of “Dream Brother” opening up to “Blackbird.”
An expansive four discs of on-stage keyboard meditations in which each is given its own thematic framework.
Alone on stage, Meldau tears into classical music, original material, pop songs, and a few jazz standards. It’s probably telling that this last category represents a small percentage of the set’s total runtime, and sure, the most familiar knock against Mehdlau is that he’s so busy thinkin’ that he forgets to swing. But he can swing plenty, when he chooses to, and if you don’t believe me listen to this collection’s blazing take on the familiar “Get Happy.” It’s probably more accurate to say that “swing” is one of the many intellectual qualities that flits in and out of Mehldau’s frantic mind, and he abides it only when the mood suits him. By contrast, he turns to Monk a couple of times here and his interpretations are comparatively non-swinging, instead hauling out the wistful, romantic qualities that were always present with Monk but aren’t always seized upon by his interpreters. Two different versions of Radiohead’s “Knives Out” are here, proof of how Mehldau’s instincts change and evolve over time but also of how many different directions he can pull a song in. Even better than those is a 12-minute romp through another Radiohead song, “Jigsaw Falling Into Place,” which is pretty indicative of Mehldau’s considerable gifts as a performer: It starts off ponderous and insinuating, and just when you think he’s lost his direction it takes off into an expressive tour of melody, rhythm, and dynamics, Mehldau’s mind seeming to dart from one idea to the next as quickly as his fingers can descend onto the keys. It’s a brainy piece that ultimately moves more than just the mind. Not everything here is quite as successful in transcending intellect, yet none of it’s boring or gratuitous, either. What sometimes leaves solo piano recitals wanting in kinetic energy is that there’s nobody to play with—nobody to improvise against. Here, Mehaldau finds spontaneous combustion and on-the-spot chemistry with the accompaniment of his ideas, pushing hard against our conceptions of what this sort of thing ought to be. The results are dizzying, and the best kind of dense.