I’ve never seen pianist Brad Mehldau when he wasn’t the best musician onstage. When he first showed up in Chicago, an unheralded newcomer anchoring the rhythm section for altoist Chris Hollyday in 1991, his solos rang with the authoritative clarity of Steuben glass. And upon his return in 1993, with Joshua Redman’s quartet, he dwarfed the leader’s much-ballyhooed playing, digging deeper into the songs and flying further from them, with rapturous swirls of color that clashed with Mehldau’s pallid complexion and heroin-chic sartorial taste. Mehldau’s strengths as a sideman translate easily to leadership: his technique extends from speedy fingerings to fresh and sometimes difficult chord voicings; he can effortlessly evoke any jazz piano style of the last half century, and in his novelistic solos he traces dramatic arcs without sacrificing detail. The shape of those solos, their weighted accents and soaring melodies and classical overtones, all recall the playing of Keith Jarrett. In fact–though Mehldau has stated that he hasn’t listened to Jarrett any more than he has other pianists–Jarrett’s imprint is so strong it sometimes threatens his artistic individuality. On Mehldau’s soon-to-be-released Songs (the third volume in his “Art of the Trio” series), Jarrett echoes loudly; only a few tracks suggest that Mehldau may have begun the process of absorbing and moving beyond this influence. Of course, a young pianist could do plenty worse than to play like one of the signal improvisers of the last 30 years. But Mehldau’s tenure as one of the top two or three young jazz pianists will likely depend on his ability to step out of Jarrett’s long stylistic shadow. Mehldau will lead his trio, with bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jorge Rossy, in this rare and free Chicago performance. Friday, noon, Preston Bradley Hall, Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington; 312-744-6630. NEIL TESSER

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Tim Hole.