Watchable, entertaining and enlightening, Brad Mehldau is everything a major label could want in a jazz pianist on the rise. He’s a romantic at heart, easy to listen to and able to shape solos as torrents or a calming solace; he always turns an ear toward the melodic with nary a hint of condescension to listeners who are less than versed in jazz history.
Mehldau, dressed casually in green polo shirt and khakis, spoke of his love for the room, one of L.A.’s most artist-focused clubs generally filled with blossoming singer-songwriters and experienced artists trying new material. That he was able to fill the place on the first of a three-night stand suggests his label, Warners, has exposed him to an audience beyond the hardcore jazz lovers. Mehldau’s series of albums for piano trio — “Songs: Vol. III” was released Tuesday — have provided the consumer with a conceptual hook as well as an artisti-cally sound base from which Mehldau works wonders.
The pianist opened with one of his most flamboyant numbers, “Song-Song,” heavily decorated in Rachmaninoff-style runs that cascade against each other. Slowing the tempo, he amplified the introspection and played hunched over the keyboard with his face just inches from the keys and his left hand raised, the palm inches from his forehead, as he explored a subtle movement with his right hand. Images of Bill Evans and Glenn Gould abound, yet this is a stellar talent with a unique and singular voice.
He continued with a waltz and a few soft numbers, each of which he voiced as if he were accompanist and singer both. Melodic statements are his forte — his weeping rendition of Radiohead’s “Exit Music for a Film” is a must-hear for anyone wondering how pop and jazz can co-exist — and all his improvisations bear fruit first on a tuneful level. From there, he takes chances in the outer reaches and in tandem with bassist Larry Grenadier, whose first explosive solo of the night was subtly comped by drummer Jorge Rossy to great effect.
While the kudos have been streaming in for three years now for Mehldau, “Songs” is his most accomplished work, and his current tour should expand the list of those licking their chops for “Vol. IV.” Mehldau and his trio perform Saturday at El Camino College in Torrance; he performs solo at Jazz at the Penthouse at Gotham’s Lincoln Center Sept. 24-25.