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Beauty and Joy in Mehldau's Seymour Reads the Constitution

To say pianist Brad Mehldau is prolific would be an understatement. In his 27 years recording, he has amassed a catalogue of over 90 recordings with his name in the credits. His newest release on Nonesuch Records, Seymour Reads the Constitution, is his 35th as a leader, and ninth with the current iteration of his trio, and is one that best exemplifies the improvisational mastery of Mehldau, bassist Larry Grenadier, and drummer Jeff Ballard. 

In true Mehldau fashion, Seymour Reads the Constitution is a wonderful mix of original compositions and reinterpretations of pop and jazz recordings. In the past, Mehldau’s choices of pop tunes have been the stand-out; however, it is the three original compositions on Seymour… that really emphasize the mastery of Mehldau’s writing, as well as the cohesion of the trio with which he has played for the last 13 years.

The recording opens with the two original pieces: “Spiral” and the title track, “Seymour Reads the Constitution.” The first is an elegant number, built upon a sequential arpeggio motif working its way down the scale with the left hand, while the right improvises over the top, all while Grenadier mimics the arpeggios with his own, and Ballard improvises on the drum kit, creating a ballast for the ship caught in the eddy. The whole number is truly evocative of the title and is simply exquisite in its execution. “Seymour Reads the Constitution” proceeds almost as if Mehldau and company are telling a story. In the mind’s eye, listeners -- or this listener, anyway -- can almost see a man, sitting in a reading room, pouring over the hallowed words of the American Founders and Framers. Grenadier’s bass work on the tune is just splendid, and each choice made by the members is as careful and deliberate as the words in the Constitution.

After a middle section of three reinterpretations -- a great-American-songbook standard, a piece by jazz pianist and composer Elmo Hope, and a number by music icon Brian Wilson -- Mehldau follows up with yet another elegant original composition, “Ten Tune.” This long, winding path -- clocking in at just over ten minutes -- is full of wonderful improvisation, and a masterful solo-piano section through the middle, stretching for about 4 minutes. One would think the era of the 10-plus-minute tune has long since passed, but the manner in which Mehldau and crew have crafted this number leaves no room for listener boredom. 

The album rounds out with two more arrangements: a Paul McCartney number and a piece written by free-jazz saxophonist Sam Rivers. “Great Day” is a masterful reimagining of McCartney’s 1997 piece, utilizing some of the spiraling motifs from earlier in the album, while leaving the familiar melody intact. Mehldau’s piano is light and delicate, and Grenadier’s bass work on this number is playful and lilting. The arrangement of the Sam Rivers piece “Beatrice” is straight-ahead; the trio takes a ballad Rivers wrote for his wife, increases the tempo and lengthened the duration, but keeps true to Rivers’s delicacy.

Overall, Seymour Reads the Constitution is one of the trio’s best to date. Almost all of the numbers on the album are light and airy, with moments of sublimity and levels of improvisational beauty throughout the entire record that add to the playfulness. Seymour Reads the Constitution is a remarkable record full of joy and beauty, and proves this trio is one of the best in jazz, and whets the listener’s appetite for 13 more years of great recordings.

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