Mehldau and Redman at the Symphony Center | Review

It’s no small feat to keep jazz fresh in a symphony hall. Pianist Brad Mehldau and saxophonist Joshua Redman pulled it off Friday at the Symphony Center with a dignified energy befitting two of the most acclaimed jazz musicians to come out of the 1990s. “This is the best 2,500-seat jazz club,” cracked Redman. The two played with a sensibility drawn from both the blues-soaked bop greats of yore and the romantic composers for whom the concert hall was designed.

The absence of a rhythm section—save for Mehldau’s autonomous left hand—gave the duo room to explore that fertile ground. On “Monk’s Dream,” Mehldau played with an unhurried lyricism and organic sense of meter that recalled Thelonious Monk’s own sense of humor and oddball rhythm.

At times the crystal clear tones of the Steinway grand piano were dangerously close to sounding too clean, even stately. Not that either musician shies from grittiness—Redman grinned and shouted with Mehldau’s left-hand rumbles. And how often does the Sinfonietta come back for an encore of Jimi Hendrix’s “Hey Joe”?

Mehldau, wearing a Grateful Dead T-shirt, sat cross-legged like a yogi on his piano bench in between tunes. It was impossible to resist the creative energy the pianist whipped up in musical conversation with Redman, with raw emotion on his face.

Whether on tenor or soprano sax, Redman catapulted off each tune, from Mehldau’s dreamy “The Falcon Will Fly Again,” to “Ornithology” by Charlie Parker—Mehldau introduced that set-closing standard as “something fast and spritely.” Redman’s playing is physical: He undulated like a snake charmer, wrestling runaway melodies to the ground, skipping up classical arpeggios with jazzy flexibility.

Mehldau played in Redman’s quartet during the ’90s. Both have risen to great heights since, garnering a few Grammy nominations. Redman performed on Mehldau’s 2010 album Highway Rider. Already adventurous musicians in their own right, the two appeared liberated in the duo setting. Apparently intended as a one-off, the act now has a few years under its belt. One hopes an album culled from concert recordings is on the horizon. This show offered a peek into the musical universes of two virtuosos, whose collision produced something else even more wonderful.

The Falcon Will Fly Again (Mehldau)
Note to Self (Redman)
Monk’s Dream (Monk)
Sanctus (Mehldau)
Let Me Down Easy (Redman)
Old West (Mehldau)
Ornithology (Parker)
Encore: Hey Joe (Hendrix)

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)