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Interviews

A Fireside Chat with Brad Mehldau

By Published: April 9, 2004

Freedom is there but it's conditional on a deep mutual respect for the people you're playing with.

Jazz is a fickle sonance, often dogmatic and always insistent. One moment, favoring celebrity and the next, consuming the very identity that allowed for such acclaim, jazz is not unlike life. A beacon of musical sincerity among the modern mercenaries, Brad Mehldau (unedited and in his own words) has an incorruptibility that jazz nor Hollywood could exploit. Perhaps that is why Mehldau seems less a celebrity and more an artist.

All About Jazz: Anything Goes is your tenth recording for Warner Bros. Established pop acts don't have that kind of longevity.

Brad Mehldau: Thank you. I've been lucky to be surrounded by a great group of people for a while. Larry Grenadier and Jorge Rossy are very important to me. I think the longevity comes about because we try to approach it as a band. If it's not a band - if it's just me out there in front with two people accompanying me - then those people are sort of expendable creatively; someone else could replace them. If it's a band though, which I think I have with Larry and Jorge, then their musical viewpoints are vital, and they have a personal stake in the music we make, a vital interest that keeps them around for the long haul. Although I'm the leader and it's my name out front, I try to shape the music around them as well, simply because that's always what's made it work; that's what's made it exciting and kept it spontaneous.

AAJ: You empathize with ballads. On Anything Goes , "Nearness of You." How do you approach a ballad?

BM: Often I'll have a version that I love. In the case of "Nearness of You," I've always been nuts over a recording of Bird playing it with the Woody Herman Band on a record I have called Bird With the Herd. More often, I know a version with a singer and listen to how he or she phrases the melody. I get a lot from vocalists that I love - Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Frank Sinatra - the way they phrase the melody. Often the mere attempt to make the piano phrase like a human voice can point you in an expressive direction: the impossibility of acheiving vocal effects on the piano - a long sustain, vibrato, and the like - is a given, but if you have that as an ideal, you can communicate a certain longing in your phrasing.

AAJ: Anything Goes features your trio, which has achieved a lasting collective endurance. Does it ever become old hat?

BM: It's become easier in some ways playing together. There's often less explanation necessary, verbally, when I bring something new in for us to play. It's also become more challenging in a way for all of us because we don't want to tread over old ground. Certain musical approaches have a life and an expiration date - there comes a point when they're not compelling anymore. Then you have to find something new, but you can't force something new to appear. So then you have to listen for the possibility of something and let it take shape, and stay out of the way of the process.

AAJ: The ego could get in the way of such process. Is it a challenge to reign pride in and allow the music to develop?

BM: Yeah, I've got an ego like everyone else unfortunately. The ego operates on fear, in this case fear that the creativity is drying up. That fear doesn't help anything, so having the awareness that it's no use worrying about how things go creatively is about the only temporary salve. And I'm not sure whether being at peace with yourself helps the creative process. Creativity has its own non-rules. Trying to map it, how it works, is always reductive. I mean, it's also reductive to say that you've got to be in flux in your life, maybe messed up emotionally or whatever, to be creative. Why would that follow?

AAJ: What kinds of liberties does the trio afford you?

BM: Just speaking selfishly, Larry and Jorge give me this elastic, churning foundation that I can jump off of. But ideally, they're jumping off as well, from me, from each other. Although it sounds redundant and maybe touchy-feely, there's an intense satisfaction in playing jazz, when you know that you're giving someone else the breadth they want and need creatively in any given moment. It's an altruistic act, but it's satisfying to your own selfworth to know that you have the ability to set someone else free. There's a certain truth factor that's necessary for the whole thing to work with everyone together: if you play selfishly and usurp someone else's buzz, you're just screwing yourself over in the by short term of whatever tune you're playing together right then, and in the long term, in terms of your credibility with those players in the future. You don't get points too much for the future - people are critical by nature, and tend to remember if they're slighted in a creative situation. That's as it should be I think; it keeps everyone in check. Freedom is there but it's conditional on a deep mutual respect for the people you're playing with.

AAJ: You've spawned instrumentalists doing Radiohead covers. Has Radiohead sent you a fruit basket?

BM: "Cover" is an unfortunate word - I guess it works pragmatically to describe an interpretaion of a tune that hasn't been around long enough to be deemed a "standard." But "cover" also means just playing the tune - like you're a wedding band and the bride says, "Can you guys play 'We've Only Just Begun?'" and you cover it for them. You have to do something more with the tune if you want to transcend just doing a "cover" in that narrow definition of the word, and with us it's through the interpretation of the melody and harmony, our rhythmic approach, and most importantly, the collective improvisation that ensues.

AAJ: How formidable is it to try to give a standard or an indie rock song its own identity?

BM: The song has an identity already. The nature of its identity is what determines whether it's a good vehicle to interpret and improvise on. What sort of form does it have? Simple is usually better. What sort of harmonic movement? Is the harmony quirky - too quirky or idiosyncratic to the original version maybe? What is the melody like on a piano for me? It may be beautiful, but almost unplayable on piano. That happens with a lot of rock tunes.

AAJ: "Romanticism implies nostalgia for damaged goods."

BM: It has to do with my understanding of life and the redemptive power of something like music, which is probably a mix of Freud, Harold Bloom, and a little Gnosticism thrown in. You have these early experiences in life that are intensely pleasurable, followed by this disconnection from that pleasure. What leaves a mark on you, what seeps into your memory forever, is the pain that comes from the disconnection from that pleasure, I think, more than the actual pleasure itself. Pleasure depends on its temporal, fleeting quality for its existence; it can only be defined in opposition to the inevitability of its lack, which is felt as pain. So you try to make sense of that pain because you're always confronting it. You develop a love for the pain out of necessity. Romantic works are informed by that troubled love, but you can probably see why I've moved away from using "romantic" to describe that pheonomenon because this description could work for anything from Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit", Shakespeare's Hamlet, or even something like the blues. In any case, those kinds of works don't give us a representation of the prelapsarian, untroubled pleasure before the first disconnection. They show us the moment when the "glass shattered." There's a nostalgia implied there, because they're perpetually trying to capture the first time the glass shattered in our early memories, and that early experience takes on an emblematic, legendary quality, seen through rose colored glasses. There is a folly in that, because we are willfully engaging in a misperception of something painful. So there's a quality of irony if all that gets played out in an artwork, where one can be aware of that self-deception and simultaneously engage in self-deceit anyways.

AAJ: What helps you sleep well at night?

BM: I have my own bullshit meter which is always on and operates independently of outside successes. If I have a good gig, I sleep well at night. If I have a less good gig, I sleep less well. I'm a little better at rolling with the peaks and valleys than I was a few years ago, but I definitely don't have some Olympian calm about my status as a musician. I want to continue to grow, and I am driven by a fear that I will stop growing; it's that simple. Freud was right - it's the fear of death that keeps us running around the hamster wheel. I'm okay with that actually in a creative sense. It doesn't strike me as morbid; it's just the way it works, for me at least.

AAJ: Fear of standing on success. That yearning to push your own envelope can get cumbersome.

BM: The yearning does get cumbersome; that's an astute question, because you're pointing out a by-product of the process of growth. You're pushing yourself so as to ward of a creeping banality - the banality of the expected, the safe, the tried and tested, the pedestrian. And then the process of pushing, indeed, can suddenly become banal. What do you do? Keep pushing; push through that. Or, change your musical surroundings radically. I've done that a few times over the years.

AAJ: Having left the bright lights, big city, do you miss Hollywood?

BM: I have nostalgia for Hollywood, my old neighborhood around Franklin Avenue, and miss the scene there, miss the regular Friday nights at Largo to see Jon Brion, miss some friends. But I get back there a few times a year, fortunately. Los Angeles is, quite simply, one of the weirdest places on earth and will always be so for me. I wouldn't change it one bit. I love the freaks, the wannabees, the creative misfits, the car-culture, the rock 'n' roll, the slight feeling of danger at all times.

AAJ: Has family life changed you?

BM: As an artist it's hard to say how being married and having a child has changed me - too early to tell. As a man, I've definitely matured from the experience, and I'm grateful for that.

AAJ: When we last spoke, I remarked on how elitist the jazz guard had become and you referred to jazz's need to inbred and keep away from everything else. Since, you've torn down some of those preconceived borders. There is a satisfaction that comes with knowing you are bringing a new audience.

BM: Yes, that's satisfying.

AAJ: What is it about you or your music that makes sense to Gen X?

BM: It's hard to say. I think any vital music should be able to reach people of all ages. It's very gratifying, though, to see people my age and younger at our shows.

AAJ: Have writers finally quit comparing you and your music to Bill Evans or Lennie Tristano?

BM: No, but it's all good. Harold Bloom, a great critic and commentator, has written, "Critics love continuities." They love to connect the dots, he meant. I take that to mean that they construct their own narratives by connecting the dots through history, which can be interesting and illuminating in the right hands. But if someone lacks scholarship and imagination, they will inevitably construct narratives that are independent of reality, which can be entertaining I suppose, but are usually reductive and simplistic. It's part of the soundbyte culture we live in: say something really fast and simple that grabs attention.

Visit Brad Mehldau on the web at www.bradmehldau.com .



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