Brad Mehldau at Largo at the Coronet
“Here’s another one from my KROQ listening on the way from the airport,” Brad Mehldau said with a smirk from the Largo at the Coronet stage on Tuesday night. “Good tune, though,” he added before launching into an almost obscenely grand and beautiful cover of Stone Temple Pilots’ “Interstate Love Song.”
Even though Mehldau’s way with reinventing rock songs has been well documented, such an introduction wasn’t entirely expected at a warm-up show before a tour in support of “Highway Rider,” a lush double-album of intricate compositions that floats between the worlds of jazz, classical and pop for one of the most striking jazz releases of the year.
And though cramming an entire orchestra into Largo’s intimate confines might be far-fetched, it was still a bit disappointing to find Mehldau backed by only a Steinway and the upright house piano Tuesday. There would be no appearances by his trio, with Jeff Ballard and Larry Grenadier, no warped percussion textures from hired gun Matt Chamberlain and, in somewhat of a greater surprise, no cameos from “Highway Rider” producer Jon Brion on the multi-instrumentalist’s home court.
Still, when a musician who sees what Mehldau sees at the piano opts for a solo performance, the night promises to be an adventurous treat.
Beginning with a volley of chords so rich you could almost hear a chorus of cellos circling the piano, Mehldau’s cover of the Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony” eclipsed the dramatic grandeur of the original. Quickly switching to Largo’s rickety upright at the side of the stage, Mehldau offered a rollicking, bluesy original that had him sounding like the world’s most accomplished saloon pianist. But perhaps in a move to blow off some pre-tour steam, the night was all about Mehldau flexing his prodigious gift for reinterpretation. Neil Young’s melancholic “The Needle and the Damage Done” began with a surprisingly jaunty swing before Mehldau melted down the song’s core with a rowdy series of improvisations. A darkly impressionist take on “Smells Like Teen Spirit” later swelled with a flurry of chunky, aggressive chords, and Massive Attack’s “Teardrop” expanded upon the song’s world-weary atmosphere with a triumphant melodic twist that tilted toward gospel.
Although such inside-out rearrangements, which also featured covers of Jeff Buckley and Paul Simon tunes, might not be the riskiest of moves for Largo’s packed and generally rock-oriented crowd, Mehldau also nodded toward jazz tradition in his choices.
Mehldau’s cover of “This Here” by soul-jazz pianist Bobby Timmons bounded along with a lyrical flourish, and a rainy-day take on “My Favorite Things” began with an appropriate air of reverence but quickly wandered far afield as Mehldau broke down the song’s familiar refrain, only to rebuild it on a new foundation.
Though L.A. listeners will regrettably have to wait to find out how “Highway Rider” translates to the stage, it was still impossible to walk away disappointed by what Mehldau shared from his personal jukebox. Now at the peak of his powers, any way he turns sounds like a journey worth taking.