“His playing is just so incredibly wide open, like a wave. He’s from that generation, man: the Big Beat.” -- Brad Mehldau on Paul Motian, speaking to Lorraine Gordon
When I’m catching a gig at the Village Vanguard (but not reviewing), I try to catch the first set on Sunday: a venerable tradition, and usually a good hang. Tonight I had plans to hear tenor saxophonist Bill McHenry with a quintet featuring alto saxophonist Andrew D’Angelo and the sagacious drummer Paul Motian. As it turned out, there was added incentive on this particular evening: pianist Brad Mehldau joined the band, along with bassist Larry Grenadier.
Hard to believe, but this was Mehldau’s first-ever encounter with Motian, as he confirmed after the set. After witnessing their profoundly intuitive interaction, I dare say it won’t be his last. The sound of these two musicians together made all kinds of sense. There was some accommodation going on, to be sure, but there was also a good deal of unforced chemistry.
The set opened with “Blues in A,” a McHenry original set at a soulful Miles Quintet tempo. (I’m referring to the quintet with Coltrane and Wynton Kelly.) During Mehldau’s solo I got a distinct testing-the-waters sense: he started softly, with bite-size phrases, and gradually worked up to mezzo forte. A lot of two-handed octave work. His style seemed strategic, a direct response to Motian’s undulation.
Mehldau expanded on these ideas in his solo on another McHenry tune, “Violetta.” Only he sounded far more comfortable already; he’s merciless with a learning curve. At one point his tensile, gradual thematic development had Motian grinning ear to ear. (Me too, come to think of it.) He left big, roomy spaces between phrases, starting a few as if in the middle of a thought.
“The Meaning of the Blues,” which came next, was a predictable delight, and in some ways the most natural realm of overlap: Mehldau is rightly celebrated for his sincere rehabilitation of songbook standards, and so is Motian. But I was more taken by the penultimate song in the set, a free-flowing piece with a snakelike melody. (I didn’t get the title.) Mehldau didn’t solo, per se, but his playing within the ensemble, after a thoughtfully guttural McHenry exposition, was arresting. Once again he was entering Motian’s wheelhouse, and it worked marvelously.
This should go without saying, but the Mehldau-Motian hookup owed an inestimable debt to Grenadier, who works regularly with them both. Grenadier’s intelligent pull can hardly be overstated: he was the pivot point through much of the set, and a fluent liaison between Mehldau’s terse lyricism and Motian’s airy swagger.
Side note: McHenry and D’Angelo are both sporting a mustachioed look right now, which made for a front-line uniform of sorts. But a moustache on D’Angelo conveys a Studio 54 vibe; on McHenry it says “silent-movie villain” (in the nicest possible sense). Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Ethan Iverson’s McHenry appreciation.
Or the fact that NPR has audio of a set from earlier in the run. No Mehldau there, though. Keep fingers crossed for a next time.