Jazzy SummerStage Evening: A Pair of Virtuoso Pianists

Two of the most innovative, virtuosic young jazz pianists—Jason Moran and Brad Mehldau—are playing back to back at Central Park’s SummerStage on Friday, Aug. 5, and the combination is likely to make for not only a rousing concert but a heady display of the new paths that jazz continues to carve.

Mr. Moran, not quite 30, is one of those musicians (the saxophonist James Carter is another) who can play everything, with complete authority, in any style, yet infuse it with his own touch. On his 2002 CD, Modernistic—probably the most riveting and pleasurable solo-piano jazz album in a decade—he plays standard ballads (one of the very few original takes of “Body and Soul” since Coleman Hawkins), stride (James P. Johnson’s “You’ve Got to Be Modernistic”), rap (a spirited take of Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock”), spirituals (his own composition, “Gentle Shifts South”) and classical (a quite respectable rendition of Schumann’s “Auf Einer Burg”). I have also heard him, in concerts, make music from the tonal cadences of a Chinese newscaster’s stock-market report and a Turkish housewife’s phone conversation.

His eclecticism stems in part from his background. He grew up in Texas, tutored in New York with two harmonically eccentric keyboard masters (Andrew Hill and Jaki Byard) and nurtured a passion for movies, for movie soundtracks, for modern art and for high-end design. He works all these influences into his music, not as some pomo elbow-nudge but as insouciantly natural elements. There’s also a generational impulse involved: With all the world’s sounds a mouse-click away, why not embrace whatever they might have to offer?

His new album, Same Mother, features his Bandwagon trio: Tarus Mateen on bass and Nasheet Waits on drums. I was disappointed with an earlier Bandwagon disc. The group was very good, but I felt that Mr. Moran played better in solo, that the trio—maybe the trio format generally—weighed him down.

Same Mother changed my mind. First, Mr. Mateen and Mr. Waits have grown as musicians. Second, Mr. Moran has devised a concept for trio music. (The group’s first album, called The Bandwagon, consisted mainly of tunes from Modernistic but played less well.) Finally, he’s added a fourth to the mix—Marvin Sewell, best known for playing with Cassandra Wilson, on acoustic and electric guitars—and the ensemble finally cooks as an ensemble, not merely as a leader backed by accompanists.

The augmented band hangs together because Mr. Moran’s new concept is the blues—specifically, the common roots of jazz and blues (hence the title: The two types of music have the “same mother”)—and Mr. Sewell’s twangy guitars tap into those roots. They also provide a second center of gravity to the music—sometimes running parallel to Mr. Moran’s, sometimes tearing against it—and thus an alternative lead that the bass and drums can follow or play off of, moving back and forth from one to the other, or finding some middle turf that links or builds tension with both.

Mr. Moran will be playing in Central Park with the trio version of Bandwagon. But, judging from the one time I’ve seen them since Same Mother was recorded, it’s a richer band even without Mr. Sewell: more cerebral yet also more emotional because it’s grounded in the blues, that most grinding of music.

Brad Mehldau will play his SummerStage set solo, though, ironically, he tends to sound better with a trio. He’s led a working trio for nearly a decade, featuring Larry Grenadier on bass and Jorge Rossy on drums. They’ve released five CD’s, titled—with a nod to Bach—The Art of the Trio, subtitled “Vol. 1,” “Vol. 2” and so forth.

Mr. Mehldau, 35, grew up in Connecticut, a child prodigy gifted at classical music who switched to jazz as a teenager after hearing Keith Jarrett’s Köln Concert album. Mr. Jarrett remains a central influence; you can hear it in Mr. Mehldau’s flair for extended improvisation, his tendency toward rhapsody, and—especially when playing standard ballads—his penchant for turning and twisting the chords and cadences every which way, like a latter-day Bach crafting variations on a fugue (with results that range from brilliantly rapturous to self-consciously clever).

His trio keeps him from bogging down in these excursions. (The same can sometimes be said of Mr. Jarrett’s trio.) The drums propel the rhythm forward, the bass anchors the beat in time; Mr. Mehldau must keep moving with them or, when he does stop to mull a passage or explore its angles and colors, a tension nicely sizzles, and when the tension resolves—when the musicians realign—you heave a satisfying sigh, until the players veer out of sync again and the pattern of tension and resolution repeats itself, over and over.

At his best, Mr. Mehldau weaves some of this suspense and relief into his solo playing. On Live in Tokyo, you can most potently hear—and feel—the effect in his improvisations on Nick Drake’s “River Man” and Gershwin’s “How Long Has This Been Going On.”

Mr. Mehldau has lately expanded his repertoire to include Radiohead—his Tokyo concert included a 19-minute “Paranoid Android”—but he takes a distinct approach to such fare. When Mr. Moran covers “Planet Rock,” you think this is how Afrika Bambaataa would play it if he were a jazz pianist. When Mr. Mehldau covers “Paranoid Android,” you think this is how Radiohead would play it if they were Brahms or Schumann. Then again, for Radiohead, this approach is just fine.

Friday’s SummerStage concert also showcases a third pianist, Eric Lewis, best known as a sideman to Wynton Marsalis. His playing was humdrum on Mr. Marsalis’ last CD, The Magic Hour (the worst album in the trumpeter’s 22-year career as a leader), but full of verve and sparkle on his forthcoming release (due out at the end of this month), Amongst the People. I’ve never heard Mr. Lewis play solo, so whatever happens will be a sound of surprise. Jazzy SummerStage Evening:  A Pair of Virtuoso Pianists