I was left reeling for days after attending the Brad Mehldau Trio show at the Teatro Gran Rex in Buenos Aires. It was the kind of experience that leaves you with a new understanding of music– not just the theory of it, but what it means, on a fundamental level, to be moved and changed by what is essentially just a reconfiguration of the air around you. It picked me up from a slump, shook me awake and left me vibrant and re-energized in a way that a great night out with friends can. Which is funny, because I ended up going all by my lonesome.
I don’t usually go to shows by myself. Not as some sort of rule, but because I don’t often have to. It’s usually easy to find someone among my social pool to join me for a gig, but Brad Mehldau was a tough sell. I was unable to get anyone to commit to a show by some jazz pianist they’d never heard of, especially considering how I was looking to buy the most expensive tickets in the house, to be seated as close as possible to where the action is. These musicians are a wonder to observe– not just how they interact with their instruments, but how they interact with each other with subtle looks and the kind of musical shorthand that happens when you have three people locked so tightly to each other’s playing style. So while I was okay with seeing a microscopic version of Tony Bennett ham it up from the nosebleeds, I decided to shell out the big bucks to watch this live display of genius.
It’s simultaneously humbling and inspiring to see such a rich, vibrant performance; three masters maneuvering effortlessly through rhythm and melody, building upon patterns and expanding outward and weaving narratives throughout the length of a song, pinning ideas down just long enough to explore their emotional core before releasing; passion, playfulness and care. They played four encores, bending the songs upwards and downwards and taking everybody in the house through a series of emotional somersaults. Pouring themselves into the performance, continually rediscovering, transforming every moment and in turn being transformed by it.
The only other show in recent memory to have a similar effect on me was seeing Mingus Big Band play Mingus Mondays at the Jazz Standard in New York City, just a few months ago. I left that show feeling similarly giddy, excited, drunk with gratitude. This got me thinking about the transformative nature of jazz music, and how it’s the natural consequence of letting human beings (absurdly talented human beings) play around with a few instruments and a melodic base, the skeleton of a song. This is the kind of joyful vibrancy that I keep going back to when people try to tell me that jazz is dull, cerebral, uninspired. To me, it’s as moving and exciting and celebratory as music can get.
When I walked out of the Jazz Standard that night, I felt like I saw the world with a different set of eyes– everything just seemed better. I wandered the streets of Manhattan with a huge dorky smile on my face, the music still playing clearly inside my head. A similar thing happened when Brad Mehldau Trio took their final bow. I was elated. I walked outside into the drizzly city streets and met a friend for dinner. I tried to explain what had happened, but the words seemed awkward, ill-fitting and crass. It’s a hard thing to try to communicate to someone who wasn’t there. It certainly sounds like a melodramatic way to describe a very mundane event– three guys playing their instruments. But it was more than that. Everything was the same, and yet it wasn’t. Neither was I.