Wednesday 17 November 2010

London Jazz festival: Brad Mehldau & Martial Solal

Two contrasting gigs this week - Brad premiering Highway Rider with the Britten Symphonia at The Barbican and Martial Solal solo at The Wigmore Hall.

I'be been enjoying the Highway Rider record a great deal recently. It describes a metaphorical journey from, and eventually back to, home. Each piece along the way opens up and explores a world of sound and emotion - strong melodies, interesting tones, great interaction. It's an intimate chamber piece with the small orchestra used to add texture or describe a dimension of the music that wouldn't be apparent through a regular jazz group.

On stage it took on a different character. Broadly the same music but in a huge concert hall. Some great playing and interaction from Brad on piano, Larry Grenadier on bass, Jeff Ballard & Matt Chamberlain on percussion, and Joshua Redman on saxes. But the Britten Sinfonia stood out as being under utilised, spending much of the performance waiting patiently for the next orchestral contribution. I really liked the textures from the orchestra when it did contribute, particularly the bassoon, and along with some fairly standard American film score writing, there was some really interesting stuff, particularly one piece of rising & swirling atonality that must have had our poor traveller very confused and disoriented.

Highway Rider an ambitious piece of music and one that is typical of Brad Mehldau. He loves making jazz modern and relevant (with his covers of Radionhead, Nirvana, Nick Drake etc.)  and he also likes to dive into the romantic tradition (the Highway Rider concept is similar to Schubert's Winterreise).  His music is often personal and intimate but then he brings it to a large stage with an orchestra. Perhaps on some levels he was less successful but I would happily sit through the set several times over in order to appreciate the richness of what I was hearing. Themes are still popping into my head and I will continue to enjoy the recording for some time yet.

Frenchman Martial Solal was occupying the solo piano spot of the stage of The Wigmore Hall where I had seen Brad in early summer. Very sprightly and virtuosic for his 82 years, Martial treated us to a set of, largely standards such as There's a Small Hotel, Softly As In A Morning Sunrise, Cherokee, Have You Met Miss Jones, Body & Soul and Tea for Two ("One that I wrote on the train over from Paris this morning," he quipped). This was no ordinary set of standards. Much of the music was very free time-wise and, after playing a fragment of melody, he would dive into the cracks between the chords, do some exploring, and then continue where he left off. He clearly loves ideas and has a great sense of humour. Introducing All The Things You Are ("Here is a tune you all know - how many of you know the words?") he then played that first very familiar note of the melody, held it for 15 seconds before playing the second note, holding it for 10 seconds, going off on an excursion a and then coming back for the third note. When he has enough of improvising he would play the head and suddenly break off, often before the end, standing up from the piano as if to say "Baah, I've had enough of this!".

Once I has stopped playing spot the tune I was very happy to let myself be overwhelmed by the music of the piano in that beautiful hall, much as you might be overwhelmed by a landscape, a film, pleasant aromas and powerful emotions.

Portrait of Martial Solal in The Daily Telegraph

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