The Piano Jazz format is well known by now, even by those who savor listening to the show during occasional travels if it isn’t offered in one’s local radio market.
Marian McPartland graciously welcomes and introduces her guest. The guest plays a song. The guest and McPartland discuss the guest’s style. McPartland delves into the guest’s approaches to playing the instrument. Through successive interview segments between songs, McPartland covers the guest’s background. McPartland plays a song of her choice. Guest marvels at McPartland’s long career and the fact that she actually knew some of the jazz musicians that the guest venerates. (Don Byron’s uncharacteristic gushing when McPartland said she knew Duke Ellington comes to mind here.) Guest and McPartland play a duo or two. All personal obstacles such as age, race, nationality or upbringing dissolve when confronted with the shared joys of music. In the midst of post-performance euphoria, the conversations become more relaxed and informative as the two pianists share technical elements and reminiscences and musical delights. McPartland and guest play the final duo. Laughter and mutual admiration ensue. Marian McPartland charms yet another jazz piano player, whether it’s one she has known for a generation or one that she has just met.
In Mehldau’s case, his youthful vigor, his parallel voicings and his contrapuntal lines instantly enchant McPartland, particularly when Meldau plays a ballad, "From This Moment On" from the Introducing album, Mehldau shrewdly aware of her fondness for such a musical form. However, without liner notes as a guide, one would think that Mehldau and McPartland have departed from the normal order of the program. So intense and effective is Mehldau’s self-accompaniment, not to mention so seemingly independent of one another are his hands, that the performance truly does sound like two pianists. As Mehldau builds upon a four-note musical pattern, call and response like, it appears that one pianist is following the other. But such is not the case. Mehldau establishes his credentials with a tour de force from the start.
Mehldau and McPartland converse. Mehldau: from Connecticut. Started "tinkering around" with the piano at the age of four. Classical studies when he was five or six. Turned on to jazz when an Oscar Peterson/Joe Pass record "messed me up." Lots of "yeah’s" from Mehldau. And "yeah’s!" A few "wow’s" and "uh-huh’s." Some "stuff."
Mehldau plays "Ron’s Place," slower and more melodically pronounced, and to be included on his "Art of the Trio, Vol. 1" album. It turns out that as a quiet song, though animated and gradually gaining intensity throughout, this is a more appropriate lead-in to the McPartland/Mehldau duo of "Stella by Starlight," which they at first play tentatively, checking out each other’s changes, before easing into a light swing.
Well, the delight of performing with another piano player moves McPartland into her familiar short laugh as an exclamation point to the performance. As they trade conversational nuggets and solo performances throughout the remainder of the just-about-an-hour-long show, there is opportunity to compare their distinctively different styles. So, when they come together on "Our Love Is Here to Stay" and on the final number, "No Particular Blues," the result is a synthesis a consensus where each listens and plays with true spontaneity based upon the give and take through the progress of the song.
And the progress of Brad Mehldau’s career sheds some perspective upon this session of Piano Jazz as now we know where his talent was headed. Meanwhile, Piano Jazz just keeps rolling along, producing one memorable program after another to create a series of invaluable conversations musical and spoken at the two grand pianos of Manhattan Beach Studios.