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Jazz Review: Ellis Marsalis, McCoy Tyner and Brad Mehldau clear the air at the Greek

November 17, 2008 |  4:25 pm

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It was ambitious to schedule a jazz show as the Greek Theatre's season finale.

But it may have been less the fear of a chilly November night than a sky full of smoke and a weekend of tragedy that kept more music fans from showing up Sunday for the outdoor amphitheater's final night of performances with Brad Mehldau, Ellis Marsalis and McCoy Tyner.

Whatever the reason for the modest turnout, the dedicated, surprisingly multi-generational crowd that did show up was treated to an evening of seriously dynamic piano jazz, each artist taking a different path to a similar destination.

The 69-year-old Tyner, whose latest album, "Guitars," is dotted with collaborators such as Derek Trucks and Bill Frisell, added six-string gadfly Marc Ribot to his touring lineup for this performance. While Ribot often flexes an aggressively atonal side on albums  such as his recent  "Party Intellectuals," here he blended with Tyner's trio beautifully, adding a touch of Eastern raga to Tyner's "Ballad for Aisha," while elsewhere his biting guitar bore a Latin shade that offered an engaging counterpoint to Tyner's rich tone.

It was only when Ribot hung back in the mix that the set's energy occasionally flagged, as  in a lovely if somewhat staid reading of Duke Ellington's "In a Mellow Tone." But  celebrated former Coltrane sideman Tyner snapped the crowd back to life with his turbulent solo at the song's end.

The evening's other elder statesman, Marsalis also benefited from a strong backing band, buoyed by offspring Delfeayo and youngest son Jason, who offered such hyperkinetic yet nimble work on his drum kit that he slowly drove his riser across the stage with every blow to his kick drum. Trombonist Delfeayo, resplendent in a slick gray suit, added a rollicking New Orleans flair to the quintet's lively take on Thelonious Monk's "Teo." When he got his own time in the spotlight at the evening's close, however, the  Marsalis clan's elegant patriarch left no doubt where his sons learned their smooth, lyrical approach.

Opener Mehldau set the evening's tone with a delicately filigreed solo set that at times drew from a more classical-oriented approach. His playing is still equal parts challenging and bewitching, and his haunting, occasionally dissonant cover of Nick Drake's "River Man" was one of the evening's standouts.

As his spotlighted piano rang across the amphitheater, it was impossible not to notice the  reverent hush that had fallen over the Greek, and for a moment the weekend's smoke-choked sky finally seemed to clear as a few stars shined through for one last post-summer night.

-- Chris Barton

Photo of Brad Mehldau at the Greek by Christina House / For The Times

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