I guess jazz pianists don't really play jazz any more.
HOT AND COOL Palmer, a regular of the Boston scene, comes to Scullers March 15.
That's the thought that occurred to me as I traversed recent recordings by BRAD MEHLDAU and DAN TEPFER. A reckless thought — silly, even. And not a value judgment. I've always embraced the broadest view of jazz. And Mehldau and Tepfer — each widely accomplished in the jazz world — don't need me to defend their bona fides. But after listening to the two audio discs from Mehldau's monumental two-CD/DVD solo-piano gig Live at Marciac (Nonesuch) and about half of Tepfer's very fine trio CD from last year, Five Pedals Deep (Sunnyside), the usual markers of mainstream jazz had begun to disappear: "straight" rhythms or grooves, bebop, blues. Mehldau plays his share of "standards," but in his own dense, rhapsodic way, which has as much to do with Schumann or Brahms as with Rodgers & Hammerstein.
As I say, I'm not complaining. (Well, maybe a little bit about the Mehldau.) It's just another interesting indicator of how the mainstream (essentially tonal, rhythmically well behaved, even tuneful) has shifted. Kenny Barron it ain't. In a duo with Lee Konitz recently at the Regattabar, Tepfer gave the 83-year-old saxophonist a breather by playing two of the Goldberg Variations (Nos. 2 and 5, if you're keeping score at home) and improvising on them. On Live in Marciac, Mehldau covers Radiohead, Nirvana, Nick Drake, and the Beatles along with Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hammerstein, and Bobby Timmons.
This preamble is by way of saying that Mehldau and Tepfer are just two of a bunch of artists with new or recent albums who are playing live over the next couple of weeks — all of whom you should go out and hear if you can.
Since establishing himself in Joshua Redman's early quartet, Mehldau has stretched hither and yon. He's led two extraordinary acoustic trios, created a fetching, electronically induced, pop-flavored CD (2002's Largo) and a genre-blurring jazz-classical ensemble album (last year's Highway Rider), and made recordings of his own art songs alongside classical and pop standards with opera stars Renée Fleming and Anne Sofie von Otter.
INTENSITY! You can hear Schumann and Brahms along with Rodgers & Hammerstein in Mehldau’s music.
He likes odd meters and dense textures, a propensity that is often (but not always) kept in check by the fluid grace of his trio playing. When he's solo, the density often takes over — as it did at Sanders Theatre in February 2010, when he offered a program similar to the one on the Marciac discs (from 2006). The pianism is stunning. Such is his manual independence that, instead of the usual melody-line right hand with rhythm-chord accompaniment left, he'll get two, even three independent lines going at once. So you get the brooding density of his concert-opener original "Storm" with its hammering eighth-note drones, and only a slight respite from Cole Porter's "It's All Right with Me," which accelerates rapidly into starburst explosive runs and thunder chords. But he reins it back just in time with a beautiful statement of the melody and some sterling runs up and down the keyboard with spare rhythm accompaniment. His reading of the American Songbook standard "Secret Love" settles into some gorgeous legato melody lines over softly sighing 4/4 bass chords. And "Martha My Dear" gets a Bach-like contrapuntal treatment. But even this little Beatles English-music-hall ditty soon accelerates with manic intensity.