House on Hill presents original Mehldau material from a 2002 session at which the pianist was backed by bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jorge Rossy, his steady partners from 1994 to 2004. Mehldau’s compositions show an analytical intensity reflecting his structured approach, his capacity to listen and react as the trio allows a piece to slowly develop its own dynamic, a solid ability to improvise on a dime as the mood dictates, and the close working relationship between trio members. There is a driving density to the material that casual listening may tend to hear as a certain sameness in conception; however, a deep intention runs through this work, whose sense of swing is always manifest. Take the bluesy, finger-popping flow of “Happy Tune,” with Grenadier’s hopping, hovering bass line and Rossy’s rhythmic intimacy with the melodic flow, or the straightforward thematic statement and unhurried elaboration of “August Ending.”
In a very different kind of outing, Carnegie Hall commissioned Mehldau to compose music to be performed with soprano Renée Fleming at Zankel Hall, where the duo premiered in mid-2005. Mehldau faced the challenge of putting music to lyrics by Dutch jazz vocalist Fleurine (for “Love Sublime,” the title track), and to poems from Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Book of Hours: Love Poems to God and The Blue Estuaries, by American poet Louise Bogan (1897-1970). This title might surprise some Mehldau fans, but in fact, the pianist has taken on a variety of non-jazz projects, standing in on recordings by Willie Nelson and Joe Henry and composing for Wim Wenders’ Million Dollar Hotel, Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut and Yvan Attal’s Ma Femme Est Une Actrice. The spare instrumentation puts Fleming in the artistic spotlight, while Mehldau reveals himself as an understated accompanist to the soprano’s inimitable vocal peregrinations.