Jazz pianist Brad Mehldau travels with giants. In the introspective and eloquent liner notes to his new album, Places (Warner Bros.), he writes of the chronic, insatiable longing he suffers for distant lands and offers a melancholy quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: "The sad self, unrelenting... that I fled from... My giant goes with me wherever I go."
There are other giants who walk alongside Mehldau, whose work is informed by both jazz and classical composers. Like piano great Bill Evans, Mehldau, 30, is a jazz polymath, filtering disparate philosophical ideas into his art ("Mignon's Song," a Mehldau composition on a previous CD, is named after a Goethe poem; another one of his tunes is titled "Elegy for William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg"). And, evoking Chopin, Mehldau's best work has a kind of pristine, romantic beauty.
"Places" is the opposite of a travel guide. It offers no impressionistic details of far-off venues, and the songs are not flavored with the spices of indigenous world-music forms. Instead, each of the pieces "Paris," "Madrid," "West Hartford" and so on is named after the location where Mehldau was when he began to compose it. He was out to capture not the region in question but the feelings of nostalgia he invariably had upon his departure. Writes Mehldau: "It seems like the grandeur of a place only reveals itself after I've left."
The album comprises both solo piano tracks and performances by the Mehldau trio, with bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jorge Rossy. Both of Mehldau's sidemen provide solid supporting work, enriching his ideas without distracting from them, grounding his virtuosic playing without slowing him up too much. Mehldau has startling command of both hands, offering up melody and countermelody simultaneously, forcefully and thoughtfully. When he's playing, you can be sure he has a firm grasp of the song. On this album themes introduce themselves, wash away and then return, like waves against a beach. "Los Angeles" arrives first as a warm, flowing trio piece; later, on "Los Angeles (Reprise)," the musical ideas introduced in the first rendition are re-explored by the trio before Mehldau closes the track with a solo run as precise and cutting as heart surgery.
Mehldau, who was born in Jacksonville, Fla., and raised in Hartford, Conn., has on past albums shown a felicity for finding jazzy new complexities in the music of left-of-center rock bands like Radiohead; his rendition of the group's "Exit Music (for a Film)" is one of his best performances. "Places" reveals Mehldau's growing strength as a composer. He can be emotional (as on "Airport Sadness"), but he is never weepy. He can be jaunty ("West Hartford"), but he never descends into trifling silliness. And while his work tends to be courageously complex (the dizzyingly cerebral "Amsterdam"), he never gets lost in the labyrinth of his intellect. "Memory can make a location more 'real' than it ever was in reality," he notes. This album takes us to places we could never visit, except while riding on the shoulders of Mehldau's gigantic talent.