Something has happened to Brad Mehldau since his last album, and it isn’t good. Once a vibrant jazz pianist with personality flowing through the keys at the strength of Thelonious Monk, Mehldau is now offering a new image and a new sound — none of which do him justice. Unlike the elegantly artsy décor of his past albums, Places is littered with ridiculous glamour shots of Mehldau, Larry Grenadier and Jorge Rossy — his bassist and drummer, respectively — that make the trio look more like a hip rock band than a jazz outfit. The ultimate low point comes when the CD is removed from its case, only to reveal a large picture of the trio standing at bathroom stalls with Mehldau curiously looking over at one of his compatriots. For someone who includes insightful essays about the nature of art as his liner notes, it’s outright confusing why Mehldau wouldn’t consider the whole thing insulting.
But it gets worse. The thirteen tracks on Places contain little to none of the complex and relaxing flavor that Mehldau can normally create, but instead establishes itself as mediocre background music. There are few strong heads to these compositions, the rhythm duo is utilized poorly, and it sounds like Mehldau is simply soloing quietly for over an hour. Granted, as his solo albums have proven, he can be commanding by himself and doesn’t always require bass and drums. However, his work on this album lacks any kind of energy, and as sad as it is to say, the whole thing presents itself as the kind of music befittingly played at an upscale hotel lobby. Mehldau has proven himself to be better than this, and therefore Places isn’t just uninteresting — it’s a shame.