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Brad Mehldau brings the SFP Jazz Series to a disappointing conclusion

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For the 2013–2014 season the focus of the San Francisco Performances (SFP) Jazz Series has been on pianists, beginning with solo recitals by Vijay Iyer in November and Fred Hersch in March. Last night in the SFJAZZ Center, the Series wrapped up with the return of Brad Mehldau leading a trio whose other members were Larry Grenadier on bass and Jeff Ballard on drums; but the focus was very much on Mehldau’s piano work. The group presented only six pieces (plus an encore); but each of those played out for an extended duration. Unfortunately, this was a case in which size (at least along the time dimension) did not matter very much.

For those who do not follow this site regularly, I should make it clear that I listen to jazz the same way I listen to classical music. If this connotes a certain bias for the past over the present, I am willing to own up to it; but what matters most to me is some degree of substance in performance that deserves focused attention, rather than sitting at a table in a club nursing a drink. I try to follow at least some of the SFP jazz activities each season because I have found that they tend to prepare programs consistent with my personal preferences. Unfortunately, last night’s was not such a program.

Mehldau kept his remarks to the audience to a bare minimum, but his speaking style was engagingly affable. This contrasted with the sour expressions on his face that pervaded his keyboard work. It seemed as if he was trying to convey the focused intensity of an angry hipster, but very little focus emerged from his keyboard. Every now and then he would play with the relationship between a melody and its motivic building blocks; but, for the most part, he would noodle away at spinning out one fragment after another, sometimes with very little variation in rhythm or dynamics. I found it more than a little ironic that the two standards he selected were “I Concentrate on You” and “These Foolish Things.” The latter may have been truth-in-advertising; but the former, at best, had to be taken as irony.

It may just be that Mehldau is seeking out a new approach to virtuosity to which my listening mind has not yet become adjusted. From that point of view, Grenadier’s virtuosity was easier to apprehend, even when things did not quite work out for him. In the opening selection, Mehldau’s own tune “Spiral,” Grenadier seemed determined to show off his fast finger work. Unfortunately, while this made for an impressive display of rapid-fire percussion, very few actual notes could be perceived.

This is simply a matter of physics: Lower frequency pitches require more time before mind identifies them. “Spiral” was a model of physical dexterity in action; but the music was lost in the heat of activity. Fortunately, Grenadier slowed down to a pace more suitable for his instrument for the remainder of the evening, often providing more lyricism in his bass support than could be found in the piano solos he was supporting.

This was my second encounter with Ballard on drums. He performed with the SFJAZZ Collective in the opening concert of the first season at the SFJAZZ Center. At the time the only impression he left was that he played so loud as to drown out everyone else on stage. Last night he played with a much keener sense of balance, perhaps reflecting a greater awareness of his fellow musicians than he had experienced with the Collective.

On the other hand he may just have been the victim of a major problem with Miner Auditorium, which he was better able to tackle as a member of Mehldau’s trio. It is more than a little ironic that, while the dry acoustics of Miner Auditorium seem to be able to serve both chamber music and early music very well without resorting to amplification; and soon as the house audio equipment is brought into play, everything just seems to go to hell in a hand basket. Admittedly, there is a tendency to believe that the bass always needs amplification; but Miner is sufficiently intimate that, in this case, “it ain’t necessarily so.” The problem is that, when you bump up the bass dynamics, you then have to worry about the other instruments; and last night the amplification applied to the piano to match the bass bordered on the grotesque. In that setting Ballard’s more subdued approach to his drums was positively heroic.

Nevertheless, the amplification may have impeded the ability of each member of the trio to really listen to the others. That impediment, of course, defeats the very idea of the trio. Perhaps the weakness in Mehldau’s playing was simply a reaction to his feeling disconnected from the other musicians, due more to the consequences of counterproductive acoustics rather than any personal reasons. If this is the case, then I probably should not judge Mehldau on the basis of last night. The fault may lie entirely with the acoustic mismanagement of Miner Auditorium, demonstrating just how severe the adversities facing serious performers of music can be.