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Brad Mehldau's Opening, Middle and Endgame

By Published: October 7, 2003

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.

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