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Live review: Brad Mehldau at Largo at the Coronet

March 31, 2010 | 11:25 am

“Here’s another one from my KROQ listening on the way from the airport,” Brad Mehldau said with a smirk from the stage Tuesday night at Largo at the Coronet. “Good tune, though,” he added before launching into an almost obscenely grand and beautiful cover of Stone Temple Pilots’ “Interstate Love Song.”

While Mehldau’s way with reinventing rock songs has been well documented, such an introduction wasn’t entirely expected at a warm-up show prior to a tour in support of “Highway Rider,” a lush double album of intricate compositions that floats among the worlds of jazz, classical and pop for one of the most striking jazz releases of the year.

And while cramming an entire orchestra into Largo’s intimate confines might be a far-fetched notion, it was still a bit disappointing to find Mehldau backed by only a Steinway and the upright house piano Tuesday. There would be no appearances by his trio mates Jeff Ballard and Larry Grenadier, no warped percussion textures from hired gun Matt Chamberlain and, in somewhat of a greater surprise, no cameos from “Highway Rider” producer Jon Brion on the multi-instrumentalist’s home court.

Still, when a musician who sees what Mehldau sees at the piano opts for a solo performance, the night promises to be an adventurous treat.

Beginning with a volley of chords so rich you could almost hear a chorus of cellos circling the piano, Mehldau’s cover of the Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony” eclipsed the dramatic grandeur of the original. Quickly switching to Largo’s rickety upright at the side of the stage, Mehldau offered a rollicking, bluesy original that had him sounding like the world’s most accomplished saloon pianist. Introducing the song later as a piece inspired by Brion, Mehldau sheepishly joked that his choice of instruments clearly revealed just how much of Brion’s style he had borrowed.

But perhaps in a move to blow off some pre-tour steam, Tuesday night was all about Mehldau flexing his prodigious gift for reinterpretation. Neil Young’s melancholic “The Needle and the Damage Done” began with a surprisingly jaunty swing before Mehldau melted down the song’s core with a rowdy series of improvisations. A darkly impressionist take on “Smells Like Teen Spirit” later swelled with a flurry of chunky, aggressive chords, and Massive Attack’s “Teardrop” expanded upon the song’s world-weary atmosphere with a triumphant melodic twist that tilted toward gospel.

While such inside-out rearrangements, which also featured covers of Jeff Buckley and Paul Simon songs, might not be the riskiest of moves for Largo’s packed and generally rock-oriented crowd, Mehldau also nodded toward jazz tradition in his choices.

His cover of “This Here” by soul-jazz pianist Bobby Timmons bounded along with a lyrical flourish, and a rainy-day take on “My Favorite Things” began with an appropriate air of reverence but quickly wandered far afield as Mehldau broke down the song’s familiar refrain, only to rebuild it on a new foundation.

Though L.A. listeners will regrettably have to wait to find out how “Highway Rider” translates to the stage, it was impossible to walk away disappointed by what Mehldau had shared from his personal jukebox. Mehldau  is now at the peak of his powers, and any way he turns sounds like a journey worth taking.

-- Chris Barton

Photo: Brad Mehldau performing at the Greek Theatre in 2008. Credit: Christina House / For The Times.