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Interviews

Brad Mehldau's Opening, Middle and Endgame

By Published: October 7, 2003

Romanticism implies nostalgia for damaged goods. —Brad Mehldau

Regardless of how long we've lived, some remain unaffected by self awareness, some with just enough to feel what they wish they couldn't and others find themselves immersed in both a keen awareness of their place and plight as well as a potential, bittersweet, transcendent ecstasy, just out of reach - Sehnsucht. And a very few have all of this and the fearlessness and artistry to express the depth, darkness and density armed with only a lyrical, polyrhythmic/polytonal armor between them and a reality painfully close to heel ' an artistic or musical soul. Alternately releasing it all with a lighter, articulate, fluency yet underscored by sustained dynamic tension, group interplay and effected by unique experience ' personal and metaphorical, physical and metaphysical ' Sehnsucht ('Longing', also a Mehldau original). The challenge of the inevitable, interpersonal pain of life lived, met and expressed. Meaning - without words.

Comparatively speaking, and like many things massively consumptive of time ' the Big Bang, the geologic erosion of the planet, rush hour, lines at the post office ' Mehldau's career thus far may seem a virtual blip on the screen. But now with nine albums as a leader, critical releases with such disparate artists as Wayne Shorter, Joshua Redman, Ornette Coleman, Charles Lloyd, Charlie Haden, Lee Konitz, Chick Corea, John Scofield, Jimmy Cobb, Bono and Willie Nelson plus contributions to the soundtracks to 'Eyes Wide Shut', 'Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil', 'Million Dollar Hotel', 'Space Cowboys', he's eclectically become Jazz' version of Ed Norton. And like his influences - Monk, Brahms, Bach, Shubert, Shumann - the classical prodigy shares an affinity for solitude and reflection as well as their emotional depth.

Like many, the first time I heard his trio live there was the unmistakable feeling of being surprised not just by the music but by witnessing an already remarkable career in the making. That this was a player who was clearly going to be around a very long time and for good reason. One which you could literally hear the evolution of within each phrase, each piece, the continuity of the entire show and vice versa. Like breathing and like life, the searching and expansion of each tune's evolution encapsulates the multi-leveled microcosmic enlightenment of both truth and duality. The sounds and spaces that escaped that piano, themselves ripples of another order, spoke volumes beyond the surface. And continue to. The message? Another major voice and musical force has joined the world of improvisation and that poetry isn't just written.

Though sometimes a relative walk across the street geographically, as in Mehldau's case, the trip for an evolving jazz artist, regardless of origin, to the music's melting pot of Manhattan, is nothing less than a coming of age, self realization, risk of every stripe and dropping the largest stone available into the pond on which all ears/eyes rest. There's no slipping up. Brad Melhdau's trip 15 years ago from his Hartford home was no different - at once under 100 miles and worlds away. But time and distance become relative. Though he was almost immediately playing the clubs that matter alongside the comparable talents of Redman, Brian Blade, Larry Goldings, Christian McBride and John Pattitucci, his primary focus the past eight years has been his own trio with Jorge Rossy and Larry Grenadier. Together they've recorded nine albums of standards and originals and have toured almost incessantly in the pursuit of collectively creating a sound transcendent of expectation. A tenth album is due in next month.

On Largo the latest release, everything changes - and doesn't. Under the influence of edgist producer/multi-instrumentalist/effects aficionado, Jon Brion ('Magnolia', Aimee Mann) Mehldau is finally allowed to both say and make his piece with electronica aided by his own players and pop/contemporary studio musicians in what amounts to a really hip experiment that's long overdue. Containing tunes brought to the public ear by groups as diverse as the Beatles ('Dear Prudence'), AC Jobim ('Wave') and Radiohead ('Paranoid Android') Brion and Mehldau create worlds that effortlessly remove the listener from other references and bridge the gap from what we're familiar with to something beautifully and profoundly lacking a need of labels. Who knows, maybe he'll even lose the sonic and conceptual comparisons to Jarrett. And it's interesting to find some of his closest peers and contemporaries - i.e. former employer Redman - now working similar fields (on 'Elastic Band'). Not a bad thing. (Note: The title derives as much from the Latin musical term indicating: large, slow, heavy as it does from the club Largo on Fairfax in LA where Brion gigs weekends).

Mehldau is currently crisscrossing the European festival circuit this Summer in both trio and solo guise. If you have the chance to hear this group, make a note to listen for the sonic equivalent of evolution. The album is due in October.

AAJ: How's the tour going so far?

BM: I always enjoy all the festivals because it's fun to see all the other musicians - running into old friends, shooting the breeze, meeting other people for the first time.

AAJ: There's a quote attributed to you, that, "Romanticism implies nostalgia for damaged goods". How is that so, musically and/or philosophically? Can you explain the reference and it's meaning to you?

BM: I understand life as marked by certain primary experiences that happen early on that involve pleasure, followed by the pain of being disconnected from that pleasure, and the rest of life spent trying to make sense of that pain. That first moment of disconnection is like a shattering of glass that rings in your consciousness for the rest of your life, informing everything you witness and experience. It's that shattering that leaves the mark, I think - not the experience of pleasure itself. Nostalgia is trying to beautify that moment when everything shattered and broke - trying to make sense of the pain. Music is heightened nostalgia: music is that lost pleasure in a continuous process of being shattered. It's like this beautiful thing being held in front of your face that disintegrates if you try to touch it.

I love the part of the Orpheus myth where he is allowed to take his wife out of Hades on the condition that he doesn't look back at her for the trip on the river Styx. When he can't help him-self, he looks back, and she is pulled back downstream away from him, taken away forever. Music is that moment right when he looks at her: seeing something that you love for an instant being taken away forever. There's an element of folly to the whole thing - you look even though you know you shouldn't. Music kind of yokes together the feeling of attainment and the feeling of loss at the same time. I think a big part of the reason for that is that music moves through time, so it throws back our own transience in our face. We realize we can't hang on to anything, but also realize that we're always holding something just for a moment. The fact something can be held for only a moment, and that it doesn't last, is, I guess, also what gives things their vitality and urgency. Great music - Bach, Coltrane - will allow you to experience something that is usually un-attainable in a vital urgent way, if only for a moment. For me, being a more or less secular type thus far, that's about as heavy as it gets - little glimpses here and there of something, like a tease.

AAJ: Right. That all makes tremendous sense as it provokes other questions. That unattainability also creates a sense of rarity or heightened value. If music embodies instantaneous loss and attainment in real time, it forces us to urgently stay in the moment, with all senses heightened, hanging on, as if (locked) in a conversation or interplay, by choice. What originally drew you to the voice of the piano and improvisation?

BM: The piano was in the house as I grew up; it was just there first, so I began with that. I stuck with it probably because I don't have the patience to learn something new, or I just don't want to. I like to explore one thing and go deeper and deeper into it; I'm not the multi-task type creatively. Improvisation was always there, at an early age, with no thought like 'I'm improvising' vs. reading music. When I heard jazz musicians doing that, I loved it, because they were doing it on such an exalted level.

AAJ: And each in their own vernacular or dialect. What do you tend to listen to when you've got time?

BM: I listen to a lot of stuff people give me on the road. Everybody has a CD now, so there's always a lot of stuff. One out of every ten records is good, one out of 20 is really good, and once a year or so, I hear someone new and I think, "This person will have a life in music that will affect other musicians and touch a lot of people." I've heard several pianists on recordings that I really dig lately, ones who are for now as of yet off the radar. I really dig this pianist Orrin Evans who has a few albums on the Criss Cross label. There's a pianist out of Boston who made a beautiful record for the Fresh Sound label called "Sketch Book"; his name is Vardan Ovespian. I heard an advance copy of a pianist from Finland with whom my trio did a double bill concert in France last year; his name is Alexi Tuomarila and will put out a record on Warner soon. Good sound on the instrument and strong compositions.

I try to keep up on a lot of what's happening new but also don't go nuts trying to because then it becomes like a duty. Besides jazz, a lot of classical. Just discovering Samuel Barber's piano music, in particular his piano sonata, on a recording by a dauntingly good pianist, Leon McCawley, on Virgin Classics. (I) Discovered a beautiful short orchestral piece by the English 20th century composer, Michael Tippett, 'Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli', on a record with his 4th Symphony on the Chandos label, Richard Hickox conducting the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.

AAJ: Jarrett is sited as one of your influences. Who else do you consider formative - pianists or not?

BM: I think what I've said is that Jarrett is a major inspiration, although it may have gotten changed in print or taken out of context, as is often the case. There's a difference between inspiration and influence. I get inspired by greatness - he has it. But I don't think my trio sounds anything like his; I'm actually not really a fan of his trio; it's his solo stuff that moves me.

In terms of influence, one discourse that's curiously non-existent over players of my generation is: how we are influenced by our musical peers - the living breathing people we are actively playing with and listening to now, players of our own generation. Two of my greatest influences? Larry Grenadier and Jorge Rossy, the bassist and drummer I've worked with consistently for the last 8 years. They've not only helped me build an identity; they are part of my identity as a player, inseparable.

When I came to New York, I was hugely influenced by players who were a little ahead of me by a few years in age and experience, and I checked out what they were doing, what their core musical values were, and I grabbed on to some of those values, mimicking them at first: Larry Goldings, more known for his great organ playing these days, but a seriously amazing jazz pianist, was one I heard right away in New York when I came there in 1998, and I copped some of his stuff - his strength and consistency playing in a rhythm section, his full approach to the instrument. Kevin Hayes is another pianist who I heard a lot when I came to New York, and I probably copped some of his harmonic stuff from all those nights hearing him at the Village Gate: a way of stepping out of the prescribed harmony by superimposing different chords on top of that harmony, where the bassist acts more as a pedal point to what you're doing - that's a lot of what I've explored with my trio over the years, and Kevin was the first one I heard and watched doing that live in his own way, back in 1990 or whatever. Seeing someone doing something live has a more immediate effect than hearing it on a record. The guitarist Peter Bernstein is someone I've had the pleasure of working with over the years, and he's been a strong influence: importance of laying melodic phrases and not just running licks, leaving space, pacing a set, picking standards, approaching a standard in your own way - I watched how he did that. Mark Turner, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Jesse Davis, David Sanchez- all these people I've gotten to work with, they've influenced my playing and writing immensely.

AAJ: How was it working with Shorter on Alegria ?

BM: Great. Wayne is one of my heroes. That was a dream come true. I love his band now with John Patittuci, Danilo Perez, and Brian Blade.

AAJ: And being in Josh Redman's group?

BM: The most rewarding 'band' band that I've ever been in. Josh has his own musical vision, and is a good leader - strong, but not dictatorial. Everyone grew together in that band.

AAJ: And the experience of leading a trio?

BM: I bring the material in, material that I think Jorge and Larry will find something to do with that's different and new. Sometimes it doesn't work. When it does work, the tune becomes something else that I never could have predicted.



AAJ: Largo is your first recording as a leader to use electronic elements and pop aesthetics (for lack of a better term). The music comes across as expansive and timeless, seemingly able to go anywhere at any time, dynamically, rhythmically, harmonically...and from both arranging and timbral standpoints, it takes chances on all fronts. Was this your conception or were you just open about it?

BM: Thanks for the compliment. My conception was to be open about it. I had 6 days in the studio, I had a certain amount of stuff written out, but it was more like a guide. I also had certain things that I wanted to try - things that Jon and I had discussed, a lot of his ideas really- that were not written out at all. So at the end of 6 days, we had a pile of music recorded. Instead of trying to assemble a record that focused on one genre within all that - the rock based stuff, the jammy stuff, the jazz stuff - Jon and I decided, I think as he put it - to 'make eclecticism the thing'. The unifying factor was that there wasn't one specific unifying factor sonically or genre-wise; rather, there were several strains interconnecting throughout the record, referring to each other indirectly.

AAJ: Jon Brion (producer/musician of Aimee Mann/'Magnolia'/Fiona Apple fame) produced. How did you come to work together and what did he bring to the project?

BM: I was a fan of Jon's for a year before I met him, hearing him at the club, Largo. Then we met and for a good three years had a bunch of wonderful conversations about music - some of the best conversations I've ever had about anything. They were always full of, 'Yes exactly!' 'That's right!' He was in a different milieu than I musically but I just loved what he was doing musically in his performances. It grabbed me; I got it. He was and is one of those musicians who put me in awe. He has it all - beautiful songwriter and lyricist, natural strong sense of arranging and orchestration, an enviable encyclopedic knowledge of the recording studio and unorthodox recording techniques as a means to a creative end. Last but not least, he is the ideal producer, because he has the ability to grasp what makes a musician do what they do best, and how to isolate that, then put it in a whole other context that will surprise and delight that musician. That's what he did with me.

AAJ: Coming from an acoustic format for so long, how did you come to accept working with electronic elements so readily?

BM: It's not a particularly electronic record. With the exception of vibes on a few tracks, I'm playing a grand piano. So I was never really out of my comfort zone in terms of what it felt like when I was playing, and it was to Jon's credit that he created it that way. It was what he did to alter the sound of the piano that I was playing that put everything in a different light - behind the mixing board, putty on the strings of the piano, putting it through a leslie speaker with distortion, etc...

AAJ: Right, prepared piano. How were the players chosen and why?

BM: Jon recommended Matt Chamberlian and Jim Keltner and I readily agreed. I've loved their playing for years. Jim Keltner is like the Billy Higgins of rock drumming and Matt is like the Brian Blade of rock drumming. I love the feeling of rock'n'roll - the groove. I wanted that feeling from the source, I didn't want some jazz guy playing rock ironically with a wink and a nudge. Victor Indrizzo is also another creative all around musician and terrific drummer I've known for years, and he brought Justin Meldal-Jensen who added a different element that put us in a different sonic world for some of the tracks. Darek Oles is a bassist that I've worked with over the years and always wanted to record with - great sound, great time and feel, finds the sweet notes. Finally, I came to look at Larry and Jorge as my more familiar companions on the journey - two guys I took with me from my musical home to another location. Although Jon's world on that record is also the world that became home for me for the 5 years I lived in L.A., so I kind of look at that record as the summation of a lot of musical experiences I gathered in L.A.

AAJ: How was the material chosen and arranging done?

BM: The covers were tunes that I had actually played solo for a long time, and had envisioned them in a different light - more orchestral, but wasn't exactly sure how. The originals were more simple formally than other things I wrote, because I was going more for an emotional thing, and knew that Jon was going to bring a whole other aspect to them, so I let them be and didn't flesh them out too much. I kept the writing for the woodwind and brass simple because I don't have too much experience with that; I wanted to write what I knew would sound sweet and act as a pad for the improvisations.

AAJ: I makes sense to be authentic, organic and go for what you know and grow from there. How do you go about writing and arranging new music?

BM: I write at the piano mostly. It really varies. Some tunes start out as a challenge: how to introduce something into my trio rhythmically or formally, for example, that we haven't done. Other ones are much more natural - a melody or motif occurs while I'm improvising, and it becomes the basis of a tune. If it's the latter, I've noticed that the level of difficulty in the different stages of writing a song is analogous to a chess game: opening, middle game, and endgame. The opening is always easy for me, the middle gets more difficult, more of an intellectual process, more trial and error at work, and the end is always difficult for me. I choke in the end a lot when I play pool for example, and it's like that sometimes writing a tune. How do you wrap the whole thing up, and not make it sound trite? The idea is to end it but leave an opening in there, kind of an escape duct of possibility. All the songs I love have that open-ended feeling, like they never end.

AAJ: I know the feeling well. It can be a like personality trait: best at beginnings due to most of us having the most experience with them and gradually less with the middle and ending of something. That or a conscious or subconscious reluctance to end something. Do you have a philosophy of music?

BM: Not specifically. I like 'doing philosophy' related to music - musing on what it might mean in a certain social or political context, for example. But I wouldn't say I 'have' a philosophy of music because it's too transient. It takes on different meanings at different points in your life.

AAJ: Right. More the analysis of its poetics, mechanics and metaphor. How do you adapt to different rhythm sections - Blade vs. Terri Lynne or Grenadier vs. Pattitucci, for example? What changes for you?

BM: The most immediate difference is the feel rhythmically, especially from the drummer: Does he or she sit on top of the beat, like Jimmy Cobb, Tony Williams, or Louis Hayes, behind the beat, like Elvin Jones or Billy Higgins, or squarely on the beat like Philly Joe Jones or Art Taylor? That will affect how I phrase, how I feel the rhythm with them. In terms of improvising, it's actually that good rhythmic feeling that grounds everything - everything comes out of that, everything you play will be informed by that. It's the first thing that starts the engine, and it's totally not mental; it's physical.

AAJ: Absolutely. Intuitive, visceral, since the rhythm sets the stage or tone (no pun) for everything that's layered above it. So, what happened at the One World Theatre gig in Austin? The piano wasn't tuned or something. How was that gig relative to most?

BM: Was it the tuning or another problem, like a broken hammer? I forget exactly. I remember being very upset, with myself mostly, because I allowed my anger at the problem to get the best of me and it affected my performance. That was made worse by the fact that the audience was great - supportive and enthusiastic - and the venue is great. I hope we can come back and play there again; it's a special place.

AAJ: I know. That's why I asked. And its' strange that you said it bothered you so much. It didn't come across in the performance, and to be honest, though it was the first time I'd heard you live, I thought the trio smoked (in a very original, organic way). And the way you seemed to create space and timelessness, to stretch and suspend time, it felt like the most relaxed, yet focused, high energy performance I can recall in a long time. Metheny and Dave Holland are right there, too. What are your current and future projects and goals?

BM: I've got another trio record in the can that I'm real excited about with Larry and Jorge; it should come out hopefully in October. Thanks so much for your interest, Mike, and all the best.

AAJ: Thanks Brad, and all the same to you.



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