At the end of Playing Changes is a list: The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). I organized these by year, and then alphabetically by artist name. I'll be running them down here, in that order. (No one appears more than once as a leader, though there’s ample overlap in personnel.)
Brad Mehldau occupies an important place in the ecosystem ofPlaying Changes— not just as one of the most influential and accomplished pianists of his generation, but also as a bridge from one jazz era to the next. In the book I write about Mehldau’s emergence as part of an articulate young cohort that also included Joshua Redman, in whose band he made his first major impression.
“Me and Josh and a lot of players of our specific little generation were lucky,” Mehldau told me in 2005, “because we just caught the tail end of the Young Lions thing. And we had a lot of opportunities that somebody who’s 22 today just doesn’t have.” That notion of inhabiting a place in time — and making sense of the specific matrix of opportunities and challenges that come with it — forms a big part of that chapter in which Mehldau appears.
Mehldau was at an interesting crossroads when we first spoke in 2005, for a cover story in JazzTimes. His highly praised trio, with Larry Grenadier on bass and Jorge Rossy on drums, was a known entity, no longer an upstart. When talking about the evolution of the band, Mehldau employed a metaphor that more or less called Auguste Rodin to mind:
There were some developmental changes in my piano playing style with the trio that happened pretty fast. And then it slowed down a little. The last few years in general have been smaller changes. It’s like making a statue: At first, you’re chipping away big chunks. And then you’re starting to get the shape of a body or whatever you’re making. And then it becomes about chiseling something to shape an identity that’s already there-sort of doing the fine-tuning work-which in a way is harder.
In the JazzTimes piece, I noted that Anything Goes, the trio’s seventh or eighth album for Warner Bros. (depending on your math), “is proof that the chiseling has been effective; it may be the group’s finest work yet.” What distinguishes the album is a feeling of full bloom, a maturity of expression across the board. “The music is not so in-your-face anymore,” Grenadier said at the time. “It doesn’t have to prove its point or whatever. It’s kind of mellowed, in the best sense of that word. We can interpret any song in its own way, and it’s what it is, and it’s unique to us. It’s not trying to get to a place; it just is.”
“Get Happy,” which opens the album, walks an almost proprietary line between effervescence and sublimated sadness. Mehldau voices the chords in the melody with a trace of melancholy, even as the 7/8-meter vamp in his arrangement insists on a sunny clime. This is all characteristic of the first Mehldau trio; so too is the drumming on this track, which floats in one moment and almost rumbles the next. There’s also something distinctive that Mehldau does just before the three-minute mark, taking a set of elaborative solo piano choruses that expand on the theme without in any way abandoning its form.
During my reporting for that JazzTimes story, I saw a fascinating one-off gig with Mehldau, Grenadier, drummer Jeff Ballard and tenor saxophonist Mark Turner. Appearing for a week at the Village Vanguard, this ensemble had the feeling of a focused experiment, which turned out to be the case. Turner, Ballard and Grenadier had their own fully formed identity as the collective trio Fly. And Mehldau had become a fan. Not long after this, he decided to change up his own trio, rotating Ballard in for Rossy. So Anything Goes was, in effect, the last album released by the first Brad Mehldau Trio during its time. (A pair of fine “posthumous” studio albums, House on Hill and Day is Done, appeared in 2005.)
Mehldau has only continued refining, and reframing, over the last dozen years. I could easily have selected a later album of his for the 129 Essential Albums list; the trio effort he released this year, Seymour Reads the Constitution, is a pretty serious contender. But I wanted to acknowledge the significance of Mehldau’s first trio, with which he made so many personal advances, and left so undeniable an influence. The album’s title, Anything Goes, also carries some meaning, as one of a few lessons that Mehldau worked out in public, with many of us watching and listening closely.