Ease comes in his movements, a laid-back feeling of thoughtful progression and decision, the beauty of a jazz improviser aware in his playing and style. This in the sense of freely expressing whilst allowing that split second of thought to fall into something more premeditated, the fingers flow and the re-hashings of old come through into new slates of sound, chordal arrangements that are perhaps heard for the first time by the player and the audience…comforting you into the place that you can just be fully present and allow for what that sound means to register. Register without preconceptions of what that sound actually means, but simply allowing yourself to go where the music will let you.
Two men stood on the stage last Wednesday evening at the Aztec Theater prior to the arrival of the Brad Mehldau Trio, and they could not have looked more contrasting in aura and style. John Toohey, Executive Director for Arts San Antonio and Kory Cook, KRTU 91.7 Music Director. While Toohey’s hair is of the grayer shade and his suit is buttoned up with a power tie, Cook is all loose and ready to jam rocking his KRTU T-shirt under a form-fitting black leather coat.
And while their mannerisms, style, and approach are quite distinct from one another, their shared love for jazz has been pivotal in bringing some of the higher-caliber jazz names to San Antonio in the past year. Vijay Iyer and the Bad Plus have visited the Alamo City either through the hands of KRTU or Arts SA, and soon Christian Scott will be gracing the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts.
Cook took the mic to give gratitude to the audience as they anticipated the McCoy Tyner-influenced Mehldau and his entourage. “KRTU is listener-supported, and we thank you for your support of jazz in San Antonio,” Cook said to applause. “This is Brad Mehldau’s first time in San Antonio, and what a treat it is.”
The fact that musicians of renown such as Mehldau, Iyer, Wynton Marsalis, and now the trend-setting young face of jazz-trumpeteering Christian Scott, are making their way to the 210 is an incredible sign of what the city is now offering to the musicians- state of the art establishments and salt of the earth people. “You can no longer ignore San Antonio,” said Neil Phelps, host of KRTU’s “Sunday Best” airing from 6-8 p.m. every Sunday. “This is the place to be.”
The opening straight ahead turns into a linear progression of something within a time warp, the oscillating keys of Mehldau allowing for movement back and forth but simultaneously nowhere, a dizzying effect for the listener, dizzying in a positive sense of being in an aural vortex, traveling through a sonic scape like in a dream, magically sensing the colors of the people and places that you’re running across, but never quite making out their true faces and definitions. Explorations come when Mehldau moves out of the oscillation and the bass starts to progress more naturally as well, the drums keep a steady chuc chuh chunk a chun chuh, mostly riding on the cymbal keeping the piece more afloat as the wandering Mehldau leans into this chosen idea for the moment, delicately playing with each motif. Not rushing at all, gently allowing his virtuosity to declare itself through the emotions of the ensemble as a whole.
The melancholy turned rhythm-holy as drummer exhales into the golden chords of the piano, the bass tones settle into the surfaces left, and silence only long enough for the audience to let out their own sound.
“Ladies and gentlemen, Jeff Ballard on the drums. Larry Grenadier on the bass,” Mehldau gently speaks into his microphone as he turns from the baby grand on stage. “That last one is an original, not sure what it’s called. If you have some ideas, something to reflect what Jeff was doing.”
The audience laughs and perhaps a suggestion is offered but it is lost in the general sense of decorum that took the room as the mood, an audience of jazz-listeners and engagers, but not in the sense of outward physical expression.
While it was clear that my body was moving and flowing to the groove, a few “Whoops” and “Yeah yeahs” coming out, by and large Mehldau’s music seems to be appreciated for its visceral qualities, the inner-workings of his piano-style call for a more spiritual reflection into the roots of the music. People quietly soaked in the spaces in between the music, the definition most certainly therein felt the greatest.
Mehldau, never raising his voice above his listeners, humbly expressed his gratitude. “Thank you so much for listening, for your warm welcome,” Mehldau said. “We’re playing originals as well as some classics. This next one from guitar great Wes Montgomery, it’s called West Coast Blues.”
Delicious and thick Mehldau takes the riff, letting the worries flow away into the Pacific tide, the cool jazz sound that was proudly brought out West by Wes and Brubeck and Lee Konitz in early to late 50s. Always fascinating to see how pianists approach the tradition of the blues, something that is inherently so integral to their understanding of the music they profess to play. Mehldau allows equal space for the left and the right, removing a hand in salutation almost to the other as it takes a whirl, then the other answers, then they speak together in beautiful accord a chord merging together and digging digging then rising up as the blues do, into your soul pocket, some change for you to share later with someone in need.
A haunting reverie in acoustic resplendence, Mehldau ends the trip down Parisian streets in his dedication to Creole great Sidney Bechet with “Si Tu Vois Ma Mere,” and to a standing ovation from the audience. Stage side with a few zestful onlookers I witnessed the second coming and an equally moving piece, concluding a powerful evening in true jazz appreciation.
Those onlookers couldn’t seem to leave the stage. “I’ve heard his name for years and followed him,” said Drummer Mike (his name is Mike and he’s a drummer). “This is kind of a once in a lifetime opportunity, his first time in our city.”
Connecting with jazz enthusiasts always leads to beautiful realizations. “Andrew and I have been practicing drums for years, studying jazz,” Mike said. “Jazz was built in clubs, meant to be intimate, for us to see it so closely is a great experience. We actually had nose-bleed seats, but showed ‘em our tickets and said ‘We can go stand up there, right?’”
*Top image: Larry Grenadier and Drummer Mike on stage at the Aztec Theatre. Photo by Stephanie Crain.