Jazz in the 21st century has been dominated by pianists, and it’s easy to hear why. The virtuosos on this instrument can move effortlessly from supporting to lead roles, and—in an era where rhythmic diversity is vital—the piano can be a percussion instrument. In her 1977 book “As Serious as Your Life: The Story of the New Jazz,” Valerie Wilmer said the great jazz pianist Cecil Taylor was playing 88 finely tuned drums, and that description now also applies to Vijay Iyer, Jason Moran, Robert Glasper and Brad Mehldau, four of today’s leading pianists.
Mr. Mehldau is releasing one of the most ambitious recordings of the season, “10 Years Solo Live” (Nonesuch), an eight-LP collection gleaned from the pianist’s solo recordings in Europe from 2004 to 2014; a compact disc and a digital release will follow next month. The five hours of compelling music allow a deep dive into the pianist’s philosophy and are emblematic of a lot of the vitality in the current jazz scene.
The 45-year-old pianist listened to 40 of his solo concerts before choosing the material from 19 of them and dividing the music on the new recording into four sections, each taking two records. Dark/Light highlights his tendency to balance pieces of contrasting emotional energy in concert, while The Concert—though drawn from several different shows—mimics the order of one of his performances. The third and fourth parts—Intermezzo/Rückblick and E Major/E Minor—invite the listener to reappraise some of his music. For instance, in this section there are two covers of Radiohead’s “Knives Out,” recorded seven years apart. You can hear how the improvisations have grown more complex over time.
Mr. Mehldau’s solo style has become both more percussive and more elegant. He tends to isolate a fragment from a song. For instance, his take on Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” builds from a rumination on the “hello hello hello how low” passage into a dazzling pile of clusters before he returns to the familiar song. In the ’90s, Mr. Mehldau was criticized for his enthusiastic investigation of that decade’s rock repertoire, but it has since become fertile ground for many jazz musicians. On this recording, songs like Massive Attack’s “Teardrop,” the Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony” and Stone Temple Pilots’ “Interstate Love Song” sound natural among such jazz classics as John Coltrane’s “Countdown” and Thelonious Monk’s “Monk’s Mood.” In addition, there are stellar renditions of American songbook evergreens, Lennon and McCartney gems, two works by Brahms, and pop songs by Brian Wilson, Sufjan Stevens and Roger Waters.
In his insightful liner notes, Mr. Mehldau writes about the attractions of such diverse material; the rock tunes appeal to him largely for their combination of vulnerability and resilience. His “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” for instance, is a cover of Tori Amos’s rendition of the song. It’s a wonder that he didn’t cover Portishead.
The music is engrossing. On my first listen, I planned to take notes on the first two sections and then take a break. Instead, I listened intently to all five hours in one fell swoop, rearranging my day to listen to sections three and four. When it was done, I was a little disappointed that there wasn’t more.
Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.