“[In ballet], smooth execution depends on a combination of timing, strength-on both sides-and the ability to sense the ballerina’s center of balance and the pull of gravity, particularly when the ballerina is on point. Her partner lifts her and puts her where she needs to be, keeps her balance secure, supports her in complex maneuvers. Endless practice helps-muscle memory is a good friend, but awareness in the moment is also vital. “As soon as I put my hands on her waist,” Mr. Stearns (a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre) said, “she reacts. It’s almost a spiritual thing- you feel each other. That’s what creates charisma onstage.”
Marina Harss (writing for the New York Times, 12/28/14) (www.nytimes.com/pages/arts/)
The way Marina Harss describes the physical demands and chemistry that goes into the intensity of experience for partners in a “pas de deux” in a ballet performance is not dissimilar to the exhilaration and spiritual connection that exists in a great jazz piano trio performance. This “awareness in the moment” and trust in give-and take-partnership was on beautiful display when pianist Brad Mehldau and his “pas de trois” partners, (Larry Grenadier on bass and Jeff Ballard on drums), performed at the Berklee Performance Center (“BPC”) on December 13, 2014, presented by World Music/CRASHarts (www.worldmusic.org).
The BPC was a great acoustic venue to hear this radiant jazz performance unfold. The BPC is a treasure of a hall where sound leaps from its relatively small stage outwards to its expansive orchestra and balcony with a projection of great energy and spaciousness.
In the BPC, low-level details of music can be heard distinctly and with crystalline definition and tones so that music takes on a very natural and vital quality. (For great examples of the BPC’s energetic sound, take a listen to the elegiac and locomotive live recording of Sonny Rollins’ concert held at the BPC shortly after September 11th, 2001, entitled Without A Song [Milestone Records] or the recent live recording at the BPC of John McLaughlin and the 4th Dimension captured on their bone-rattling recording, The Boston Record [Abstract Records]).
The BPC provided a great foil for this concert by Brad Mehldau and his compatriots. Every delicate spray of piano notes; every prankish hit of cymbal and every acoustic bass meander was heard clear and plucky.
The dance began with a tune entitled “Spiral” where a circular taut melody started on piano was rotated in the hands of each of the players, glinting here and there with sunshine on Mehldau’s curvaceous light touches and Ballard’s pounces on his soft cymbal and snare. This swirling momentum carried into Mehldau’s next piece, “Sete,” (a waltz composed for a small fishing village in France where Mehldau once stayed) in which Mehldau and his alert partners flowed from a bluesy walk to a little Gershwin theme with bright, bouncy touches (augmented by Ballard’s agile and creative brushwork). The next tune came from a Boston connection: the beautiful ballad “Beatrice” composed by the eminent musician and composer Sam Rivers who spent many years in Boston studying at the Boston Conservatory. (One of River’s mentors at the Conservatory was the great classical composer, Alan Hovhaness. Hovhaness’ stunningly moving piece, Mysterious Mountain, is one of those audiophile gems not to be missed as performed by Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony on RCA Living Stereo, particularly on vinyl!).
“Beatrice” let bassist Grenadier fly in a solo that crafted off-kilter plucks with rapid plunges and deep, long holds. His burnished resonance and creative stops and starts were supported by Mehldau and Ballard’s gauzy, light background notes and hits-like they were holding onto Grenadier’s torso to hold him in balance as he spun and pirouetted. (For another example, take a listen to this group’s 2012 recording, entitled Ode [Nonesuch Records; www.nonesuch.com] and listen to Grenadier’s solo on “Bee Blues” for another taste of beautiful elasticity in trio chemistry).
The waltzing continued (with Mehldau asking the audience whether two waltzes in one set was too much?) on Mehldau’s original composition, “Seymour Reads The Constitution” (dedicated to a dream that Mehldau had regarding the late actor, Philip Seymour Hoffman, shortly before the actor’s death). Here, the slow brewing twists and turns of melody were highlighted by Mehldau’s introspective solo with an unfolding feel (as he combined pizzicatos up high with languid lines of dark chords below), as the attack and relax of Ballard’ simmering drums and Grenadier’s churning bass shouldering the load behind. The beautiful way in which each partner’s sound (and textures) dissolved naturally into the others’ was also heard gloriously on a sweet lilting version of John Lennon’s “And I Love Her,” and Mehldau’s composition based on a Brazilian choro. This choro lurched and scampered with comedy and lightness, with each partner adjusting and maneuvering on the fly. Mehldau’s solo took inspiration from a little Tin Pan Alley feel, all spritely and dazzling. He leapt up high on the choro’s cheerful breeze and his leaps flowed naturally in and out of Ballard’s big, incandescent cymbal hits and Grenadier’s slippery surges behind. Here was one partner jumping into the fray and others taking his subtle clues to support the melodic line and also work their own magic into the evolving dance.
Inspired by this Brad Mehldau Trio performance at BPC, it was a joy to take a listen to a recent recording by another stellar “pas de trois” piano trio: pianist Fred Hersch and his partners, John Hebert on bass and Eric McPherson on drums, dancing together on their 2014 release, Floating [Palmetto Records; www.palmetto-records.com]. Floating is a beautiful creation, (nominated for two 2014 Grammy Awards), that is filled with sparkling, challenging musical ideas that epitomize author Harss’ comment that, (in ballet partnership), “awareness in the moment is vital.”
In Floating, every moment counts. From the beautiful ballads of “A Speech To The Sea” and “Far Away” to the undulating sway of “You & The Night & The Music” and “Arcata,” Hersch and his partners braid and weave melodies, rhythms and phrases into layers of spiraling sounds that invite the ear and tickle the fancy. Hersch, (a frequent visitor to Boston as a teacher of master classes and performer at The New England Conservatory), builds his pianist approach from a light, swinging facility that is always open to new explorations and territory.
On the title cut, he evolves a soft melodic line within Hebert and McPherson’s accompanying slow brewing rhythm (surging on McPherson’s incandescent cymbal work) that curves and dances upwards, always reaching for some unknown apex. Hersch is a master of juxtaposing colorful blocks of chords and single notes into a stream of whirling ideas. This can be kinetically light, as on the bluesy romp, “Home Fries” or spinning with soft, airy glow, as on “If Ever I Would Leave You” with Hebert and McPherson leaving trails of deep bass and circular brush on snare in Hersch’s wake. Monk’s “Let’s Cool One” is another highlight: all dapper chatter between three partners on a zesty roll. The recording captures all of this telepathic communication with excellent image focus and an intimate soundstage and close-up perspective. Hersch’s piano is ensnared beautifully in image and tone. There is no stopping the flow of shapes and ideas in this delectable (dance) partnership.
For an upcoming concert showcasing another superb “pas de trois” piano partnership, World Music/CRASHarts presents a concert by The Bad Plus, also at the BPC, on January 24, 2015. See www.worldmusic.org for details.