Wynton Marsalis has said that the defining characteristic of jazz is “relaxed intensity.” The pianist and composer Brad Mehldau somewhat fits that description, although with Mehldau it’s more like “relaxed obsessive.” Both sides of the equation were on display in a World Music concert at Berklee Performance Center on Saturday night, where Mehldau’s celebrated trio played a 100-minute set, with bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard.
Mehldau, 44, has worked in a variety of formats, including genre-spanning projects with the operatic soprano Renée Fleming and singer-bluegrass mandolinist Chris Thile. But the jazz-piano trio has been Mehldau’s base of operations, where his undaunting technique and flowing lyricism earned him early comparisons to Bill Evans.
There was plenty of that lyric flow in the Berklee show — especially in the trio’s slow-tango take on Lennon and McCartney’s “And I Love Her,” and on the blues-jazz standard “Since I Fell for You.” In each of these, Mehldau eased the melodic lines with generous rests, like breaths, but those lines never went slack — they hung in the air, waiting for resolution, often provided with a richly voiced chord.
But the obsessive side showed itself early. The odd-metered, set-opening original, “Spiral,” with its attractive left-hand figure, took on a relentless figure, as it pedaled the same two chords, modulating, returning, ceaseless. The second piece, an original waltz, likewise both free and obsessive, worked the same simple melody as the band dug in, building intensity with a thickening texture.
It wasn’t until the third tune, “Beatrice,” by the late saxophonist and Boston native Sam Rivers, that the band unfolded a narrative through chord changes and an assuring song form. The song let some air into the set. Then came the Beatles tune, with Mehldau relishing the move from verse to bridge. A Brazilian choro was likewise gratifying, with Mehldau bringing special elegance to its folk-like tunefulness. Another waltz, “Seymour Reads the Constitution,” based on a dream Mehldau had about the actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, was equally tuneful.
The band, which has been together since 2005, remained beautifully balanced throughout, each player shifting between foreground and background with ease, blurring the distinction between accompaniment and solo. This was ensemble playing at its height. And Mehldau’s relaxation is as deep as his obsessive intensity — during one extended Ballard solo, he folded his legs under himself in lotus position on the piano bench, and stretched.