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Brad Mehldau's Opening, Middle and Endgame

By Published: October 7, 2003

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.

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