Pianist Brad Mehldau is an interesting critter: a rather uncommercial-sounding jazz player who alternates between solo piano and work with his trio of bass, drums, and piano. He is not quite 30 years old, has a multirecord deal with Warner Bros., writes brainy and ponderous liner notes to accompany his recordings, and even struggles with a little heroin habit he picked up a few years back. Not your average scuffling jazz musician, Mehldau is a young artist struggling to find his musical and artistic voice in an almost faltering manner at times. That he maintains an enviable major-label recording contract while doing this is remarkable; someone at Warner Bros. must really like this guy. At times he sounds like Bill Evans (an influence he disputes) or Keith Jarrett (one he acknowledges -- no Tourette's-style grunts and groans à la Jarrett though, and gratefully so) or even like a less ponderous European art-music type. The kid is all over the place, musically and stylistically, but somehow he makes it work on his newest recording, Places, a collection of pieces with locales as titles.
Mehldau has been playing with bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jorge Rossy for a number of years now, and these two musicians are sympathetic and sensitive to pianist's Mehldau's twists and turns. On this recording their playing is very airy, leaving lots of space for their leader's meanderings. All the compositions are by Mehldau, six of them performed with the trio and seven done as solo piano works. What's interesting here is that there is not a lot of difference compositionally and sonically between the trio and solo recordings. The band stuff alternates between reflection and swing, as does the solo piano material. Mehldau's playing is precise but never overbearing or bombastic, bearing a light touch reminiscent of nothing so much as an Erik Satie piece played by Vince Guaraldi (if there ever could be such an odd mixture as that). His piano style is a nice blend of concert hall and small jazz club. His originals are thoughtful, but it is his playing that charms and interests.
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Mehldau's liner notes, with their musing on places and longing, show a strong background as an undergraduate philosophy major. He pulls off what easily could have been a pseudointellectual self-indulgence with a sincere tone and a pretty sharp mind. Again, something or someone at Warner Bros. gives this artist a lot of freedom in realizing his vision; there are pages and pages of notes here, not just a paragraph or two. And the disc graphics, layout, and photos are slick and very funny. This is what they used to call an intriguing package, one that the artist and the record label spent some time, money, and thought in getting just right.