Brad Mehldau’s last performance at the Barbican was 2017’s EFG London Jazz Festival in pairing with Chris Thile: a contrapuntal pairing of blues meets bluegrass squirming in restless cat and mouse. Mehldau’s return to the Barbican again had his distinctive counterpoint at its heart and the first half of the evening’s programme drew upon his latest studio output: After Bach. The blurring of jazz and classical genres isn’t new territory (the geography already conquered by Keith Jarrett and Jacques Loussier) but in the company of the Britten Sinfonia the landscape felt squarely classical. Arrangements of Bach preludes and fugues, even when reconstructed by Stravinsky and Webern, lacked the contemporary edge the listing suggested. For Mehldau to improvise in isolation and in response to the Sinfonia seemed to obstruct a conversation that had the potential to flow more naturally.
The primary focus of the night was the UK debut of Mehldau’s Piano Concerto. Here the structural limitations of Bach could be released with scope for both Sinfonia and pianist to flex a wider palette of harmony and rhythm. The contrapuntal bass-lines remained, the forward-motoring harmony and the closely-crafted emergent melodies too, but without the adherence to metre and architecture Bach’s influence demands. The conversation between pianist and orchestra settled into comfortable chatter of easy rapport, each with the space for developed contribution. Cinematic moments of sweeping strings and heroic horn lines (French, not sax) made for a persuasive debut and an unbridled Mehldau dazzled throughout.
A solo piano encore of Radiohead’s Little by Little was the highest point of the night. Within just a few moments, and ruminating on just a few chords, the dots between Bach and Yorke were fused with seamless persuasion.
The ever-rolling feast of the Barbican’s contemporary music listings continue.
Photo credit: Mark Allan