Blue Notes: Strong new sets from Brad Mehldau Trio and Metheny's Unity Band

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 September, 2012, 3:03pm

Where Do You Start? is the Brad Mehldau Trio's second album release this year, and an extension of the first.

Ode, which came out in March, consisted entirely of original compositions by pianist Mehldau, written specifically with the unique capabilities of his most regular collaborators in mind.

At present the trio comprise bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard, and the line-up has been stable since 2005. In addition to the trio's recordings, all three players have also collaborated successfully on two albums with guitarist Pat Metheny.

These tracks were recorded at the same sessions as the Ode tunes, and with the exception of one Mehldau original, Jam, are numbers popularised by other artists.

Mehldau was among the first jazz musicians to single out Radiohead and Nick Drake as non-jazz performers whose compositions might have something of value to offer jazz improvisers, and Drake is represented here by a soulful reading of Time Has Told Me.

Other sources of songs for this collection are as diverse as Alice In Chains, who originally recorded the opener, Jerry Cantrell's Got Me Wrong, and Barbra Streisand, who is the artist most associated with the closer and title track, which was composed by Johnny Mandel.

There are several outstanding performances between those two bookends, although also a certain amount of aimless noodling, particularly on a Sufjan Stevens dirge called Holland.

Altogether more sprightly are the trio's versions of trumpeter Clifford Brown's Brownie Speaks, and a brisk canter through saxophonist Sonny Rollins' Airegin.

Elvis Costello is a songwriter with considerable knowledge and understanding of jazz, but beyond his own collaborations with jazz musicians - including guitarist Bill Frisell and his wife, pianist Diana Krall - few attempts have been made to rework his remarkably strong ballad repertoire in a jazz setting.

The trio stretch Baby Plays Around, co-written by Costello and his ex-wife, bassist Cait O'Riordan, for 1989's Spike album, to more than 10 minutes on their album, and find plenty of melodic inspiration in the melancholy chord changes.

Hey Joe seems an eccentric choice for the unit but while staying surprisingly close to the Jimi Hendrix arrangement of the Billy Roberts song, they manage to find something fresh in it. Grenadier excels on bass.

There are also a couple of excursions into Latin territory. Chico Buarque's Brazilian standard Samba E Amor gets a surprisingly angular treatment. Guitarist Toninho Horta belongs at the jazz end of Brazilian music, and the trio dive into Aquelas Coisas Todas with relish.

Metheny, who is also a fan of Horta, has a new album out too, with his new Unity Band comprising Chris Potter on tenor saxophone, Ben Williams on acoustic bass, and Antonio Sanchez on drums.

The compositions for this collection, called simply Unity Band, are all Metheny's own, and the album has generated comparisons with 80/81, a double-LP set released in 1980 featuring Michael Brecker and Dewey Redman on tenor saxophones, Charlie Haden on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums. The music is often cited as a high point of Metheny's career as a straight-ahead jazz guitarist.

This is an album of many moods and sonic textures, with Metheny deploying his full arsenal of acoustic, electric and synthesised guitars.

Unity Band has something for those who enjoy both the pastoral and the anthemic sides of Metheny, and the two soloists are pushed hard by a combustible rhythm section. Take Three Three albums featuring the combined talents of Mehldau and Metheny.

  • Metheny/Mehldau (Nonesuch, 2006): the first collaboration between the musicians. The pianist cites the guitarist as one of his earliest inspirations to play jazz, and Metheny says he has admired Mehldau's playing since hearing him on Joshua Redman's 1994 Moodswing album. A set of intimate duets, with Grenadier and Ballard joining in on two tunes.

  • Metheny/Mehldau Quartet
  • (Nonesuch, 2007): a continuation of the earlier collaboration, but with the emphasis reversed. Four of the tracks are duets, with the rest fully fledged quartet performances.

  • Pilgrimage
  • (Heads Up, 2007): saxophonist Brecker's last album, recorded during his final illness, and a creative triumph, posthumously released. It is Brecker's show all the way, but Metheny and Mehldau make strong supportive contributions. Metheny plays guitar, but Mehldau alternates on piano with Herbie Hancock. John Patitucci on bass and DeJohnette on drums also participate.