Jazz pianist Brad Mehldau, 41, is held in such high esteem that when his forthcoming gig was announced at a recent SFJazz concert, a sizeable number of audience members began to applaud.
Known for his improvisatory genius — which informs not only original compositions, but also renditions of jazz standards and arrangements of rock hits by the likes of the Beatles, Radiohead and Paul Simon — Mehldau has just released “Ode,” his first CD with his trio in four years.
“‘Ode’ is a collection of originals that I wrote specifically for my trio with bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard,” Mehldau says. “I feel that what they bring to the music in the performance here is inseparable from the tunes themselves.”
Most of the 11 songs on “Ode,” which will figure heavily in the concert, are tributes to other individuals, real or imagined. As Mehldau was composing the pieces, he began to think of them as odes, or poems without words, that might be sung.
Some of the subjects for “Ode” include the late saxophonist Michael Brecker (“M.B.”), with whom he performed on two albums; a character from the film “Easy Rider” (“Eulogy for George Hanson”); his wife, Fleurine (“Twiggy,” a nickname given to her by bassist Christian McBride when she performed with him as a singer); guitarist Kurt Ronsenwinkel (“Kurt Vibe”), who has served as one of his many inspirations; his favorite character from the Saturday morning cartoon “Super Friends” that he watched as a kid (“Aquaman”); an alternate ego for trio member Ballard (“Stan the Man”); and his son (“Days of Dilbert Delaney”).
When not performing with his trio or waxing solo, Mehldau often collaborates with saxophonist Joshua Redman, with whose band he performed for two years. He also has recorded and played with Pat Metheny, Charlie Haden and Lee Konitz, and his music has appeared in movies by Stanley Kubrick and Wim Wenders.
What’s most fascinating about Mehldau’s style is his ability to transition from wildly improvisational jazz licks that have impossibly demanding rhythmic variations to styles far more classical in structure.
Successful collaborations and recordings with internationally renowned vocalists Renée Fleming and Anne Sofie von Otter, both of which grew out of commissions from Carnegie Hall, and other partnerships with singer-songwriters Chris Thile and John Mayer attest to an eclectic approach in which both hardcore jazz and classical junkies can finds points of reference.
IF YOU GO
Brad Mehldau Trio
Presented by SFJazz
Where: Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $40 to $65
Contact: (866) 920-5299, www.sfjazz.org