World Café Live isn't an inherently quiet space. Even when conversations at the bar are at a minimum, the clinking of glasses and silverware and the ordering of drinks tend to create a background din for lower-volume performances.
But the packed crowd seemed to hold its collective breath from the moment the Brad Mehldau Trio took the stage Friday night, maintaining a near-complete silence for the entire 100-minute performance. The pianist and his triomates - bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard - have inspired just that sort of hushed reverence for the decade they've been together (twice that, if you include the equally lauded tenure of former drummer Jorge Rossy). As usual for one of the most intelligent groups in modern jazz, the audience was rewarded with a set of stunning lyricism and profound communication.
Mehldau didn't speak for nearly an hour into the show, despite dashing backstage immediately after entering to retrieve a forgotten microphone. Instead, he merely gave a brief nod to acknowledge the crowd and immediately eased into the hypnotic melody of the aptly-named "Spiral." Like several of the pieces that night, the tune unfurled gradually. Mehldau began his solo by toying with tiny fragments of melodic ideas, which he slowly untangled and elaborated into longer, more florid inventions.
If Mehldau's own default mode is the cerebral and introspective, his bandmates balance those tendencies by drawing him out into more expansive emotional colors. Ballard, also one-third of the trio FLY with Grenadier and saxophonist Mark Turner, is masterful at building momentum through subtly evolving rhythms, finding inspired ways to tether the music to time without hobbling its freedom to wander.
With his robust sound and keen melodic instinct, Grenadier could be accused of stealing the show - but his every gesture was perfectly attuned to the collective sound. His interaction with Mehldau on the Beatles' "And I Love Her," a Mehldau favorite, was evidence of their long experience together. At times they seemed to finish each other's ideas, or weave divergent lines through the other's work with incredible precision.
The set was divided between Mehldau's originals (including the meandering waltz of "Seymour Reads the Constitution," inspired by a dream in which Philip Seymour Hoffman reads it to Mehldau), an elegant rendition of saxophonist Sam Rivers' "Beatrice," and the reworkings of popular songs for which Mehldau is renowned.
In addition to the Beatles song and an encore of Nick Drake's "River Man," there was a lovely take on Paul McCartney's recent Songbook throwback "My Valentine," which concluded with Mehldau unspooling a virtuoso set of unaccompanied variations.