Mehldau is entering a new prime phase in his career.
Martin Longley 2012
This is a very swift follow-up to Ode, released only six months earlier. Pianist Mehldau must be making up for lost time, as the present trio has not been as prolifically documented as its previous line-up.
Whereas Ode concentrated on originals, Where Do You Start revives the old Mehldau approach of covering songs from across the decades. The tunes here range from Brownie Speaks and Airegin, penned by trumpeter Clifford Brown and saxophonist Sonny Rollins in the 1950s, up to 2003’s Holland, by Sufjan Stevens. Elsewhere, there are numbers penned by Alice in Chains, Elvis Costello and Nick Drake.
Yet Mehldau’s method is so dominant that everything gravitates towards the trio’s signature sound, lending cohesion to a variegated crop. The opening Got Me Wrong, the Alice in Chains track, imposes a funky lope, sassy and swaggering, full of optimistically strutting spirit; later, a military drumbeat leads Holland through its luminous spaces.
Brownie Speaks is a less frequently traversed jazz standard, and it’s not a million miles away from Monk. Larry Grenadier offers a bass solo of elastic dexterity, then there’s a barnstorming drum break from Jeff Ballard. This is one of the tracks where Mehldau might not be identified as its creator, as he sounds rather more retro than usual.
The gentle slowness of Baby Plays Around is a massive contrast but the pace is soon picked up with the Rollins rusher, Airegin. Grenadier is throbbing, Mehldau jabbing staccato phrases, revelling in hyperactive liveliness. The inclusion of the Hendrix-identified Hey Joe might seem like a tiresome selection, but the trio’s interpretation is transcendent, and one of the best cuts on the album.
It sounds as though Ballard’s playing the drumkit with his fingers and palms on the Brazilian veteran Chico Buarque’s languid Samba e Amor, which evolves into the extended Jam. With Toninho Horta’s Aquelas Coisas Todas, the piano is less hurried over the brisk skip of bass and drums; then the closer, Where Do You Start?, shimmers diaphanously, with an old-time moody manner.
It all points to Mehldau entering a new prime phase in his career, both onstage and in the recording studio.