Brad Mehldau: Dragons & Dreams

Ian Patterson By

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I think that a lot of music expresses the desire to enter back into a dream. But this is deception, because the fodder for the dream comes from waking reality. —Brad Mehldau
For many, pianist Brad Mehldau's recording Day is Done (Nonesuch Records, 2005) with drummer Jeff Ballard and bassist Larry Grenadier came as close to trio perfection as is reasonable to expect in your wildest dreams. Perhaps perfection is a chimera, yet even if attainable it's at best fleeting by nature. But for Mehldau that doesn't stop the hunt for the stuff of his own wildest dreams.

That elusive 'in-the-zone' quality when the music seems to play the musician rather then the other way round comes more freely in dreams than on the stage, and dreams—or rather the magic music that reveals itself in that unselfconscious state—is in part the driving force behind Mehliana: Taming the Dragon (Nonesuch Records, 2014), Mehldau's stunning duo collaboration with drummer Mark Guiliana. The recording is also about harnessing power and on Mehliana: Taming the Dragon Mehldau draws energy from deep-rooted influences that find a voice here as never before.

Mehldau first heard Giuliana on a trio recording by bassist Avishai Cohen—with whom Guiliana has recorded six CDs— and was immediately struck by the drummer's originality: "Mark has his own thing, quite simply—but, I mean, really," Mehldau says. Guiliana has garnered glowing praise on both sides of the Atlantic for his innovative drumming in his own bands along with sideman gigs with singer Gretchen Parlato, guitarist Lionel Loueke, and vocalist/oud player Dhafer Youssef. "Mark's already influencing a lot of other drummers, and influencing the scene more generally," says Mehldau. He is also a very sympathetic player and a close listener. He really improvises. All those things appeal to me, of course."

The two musicians first met on the road in 2007 while touring with their respective projects and within a few years were playing live gigs as a duo, with Mehldau eschewing acoustic piano for synthesizers and electric piano. Their gigs started out as pure improvisation, though in time Mehldau's writing—stems and chord progressions—formed the basis for the compositions on Mehliana: Taming the Dragon. Over the course of four years playing together the music has grown, but for Mehldau the change is mainly textural: "I would say my sonic set up has evolved a bit. I have more of a palette on the synths than I had initially," he explains. "There is something we had, though, right away, that is still there—there was an immediate identity."

Identity or more specifically acknowledging all the elements— the sometimes seemingly contradictory elements—in a person's essence is the subject matter of Mehldau's narration on the track "Taming the Dragon": "This was a dream," says Mehldau of the tale. "It was the kind of dream that you realize was telling you something after you wake up and think about it a bit."

What exactly the dream was telling Mehldau found its physical manifestation in the music on Mehliana: Taming the Dragon. The entire album could be said to be inspired by dreams: "Definitely," admits Mehldau. "I think a lot of the music on the record has a dreamy hue to it—"The Dreamer," "Elegy for Amelia E.," "London Gloaming," and maybe "Swimming" as well, in particular."

Guiliana, however, provided the spark of inspiration to make the recording a reality: "I only started thinking of doing a record like this when I started playing with Mark," says Mehldau. "I consider this a collaboration in the total sense of the word, which is very exciting for me."

Certain experimental aspects of Mehliana: Taming the Dragon, certainly sonically speaking, could be seen as a kind of extension of ideas presented on the album Largo (Warner Bros, 2002), "The engineering and the production are continuing a bit from Largo but also Highway Rider (Nonesuch Records, 2010)," explains Mehldau. "We worked with the brilliant recording engineer, Greg Koller, who also recorded and mixed that one."

Mehldau is full of praise for the sound that Koller produced in the recording and mixing: "Dry, in your face drums—with a drummer like Mark, I say, bring it on! I want to hear him right in the middle of my forehead when I listen to him on phones. That's what Greg went for here. The drum sound was a lot of work for Greg, and he really crafted something special here, I think, from a miking/mixing perspective."

Mehldau has never hidden his influences, but his synthesizer playing on Mehliana: Taming the Dragon reveals more clearly than ever before the influence of the progressive rock era, particularly Rush, Pink Floyd and Yes. Mehliana embraces the subject of Rush's influence and the relation it bears to Mehliana: Taming the Dragon with enthusiasm: "A Farewell to Kings [Anthem, 1977], "Cygnus X"1!, he exclaims with enthusiasm. "Also Hemispheres [Anthem, 1978] and Permanent Waves were huge, huge records for me and still are; also Moving Pictures [Anthem, 1980], 2112 [Anthem, 1976] and Signals [Anthem, 1982]. Rush influenced me in so many ways," acknowledges Mehldau, "not just sonically, but also the way they used odd meters, and you hear some of that on this record, like on "Swimming" or "Just Call Me Nige."

The influence of Pink Floyd and especially keyboardist Rick Wright is also discernible on Mehliana: Taming the Dragon: "Pink Floyd—which record of theirs is not great, right up through The Final Cut (Harvest, 1983)? says Mehldau. "Big ones for me that might have rubbed off on this record are of course Dark Side of the Moon [Harvest, 1973] and The Wall [Harvest, 1979] but also Meddle [Harvest, 1971], an underrated classic, Animals [Harvest, 1977], and Wish You Were Here [Harvest, 1975]. It's the darker side of Richard Wright's keyboards that might be a more obvious influence on some of the stuff on Mehliana..., particularly "Elegy for Amelia E."—if you think of something like "Is There Anybody Out There?" from The Wall or "On The Run" from Dark Side... Floyd really made some of the scariest music."

Mehldau also points to more jazz-related influences on the record: "I would add a big debt to Herbie Hancock, and maybe less obvious, Lyle Mays. Those guys were really in my listening a lot early on, and I still love to listen to what they both did with synths. The Herbie influence you can hear on a track like "Sleeping Giant.""

Mehldau's earliest formative influences as far as bands go clearly touches upon Mehliana: Taming The Dragon, but music encountered even earlier, at a very impressionable age is that from childhood TV, an influence that Mehldau recognizes as sitting deep within his psyche: "For sure. For me, "Theme from Mash," but also "Eight is Enough," I can still remember, I think the lyric was, 'There's a plate of homemade wishes, on the kitchen windowsill, and eight is enough, to fill our lives with joy.' There's a certain comfort mixed with melancholy to a lot of those themes—it's not a cut and dry nostalgia for me.

On "The Dreamer" Mehldau, as narrator, talks about being a vessel through which the music pours out; it's a theme musicians often refer to when describing a state of musical transcendence, but is it possible to obtain, this dream-like state where the music comes through the musician? Mehldau is fairly sure that it is but also recognizes the difficulty of maintaining such a state: "Yes, I think that a lot of music expresses the desire to enter back into a dream. But this is deception, because the fodder for the dream comes from waking reality. To escape this deception is to be fully aware in the present moment, but this is very hard for many of us."

Though impossible to quantify, Mehldau hazards a guess as to the percentage of time the music, to paraphrase the narrator on "The Dreamer," makes him escape his body and sets him free to fly: "It's there maybe twenty per cent of the time," Mehldau estimates.

The writing process on Mehliana: Taming the Dragon was a reasonably uncomplicated process befitting two musicians renowned for their improvising skills, as Mehldau relates: "It evolved out of what I would call stems, to borrow a term I heard first from [mandolinist] Chris Thile. There was some written music on several of these tunes, but it was a beginning—a riff, a bass line, or a chord progression. Maybe a bit more, like on "Gainsbourg," where I wrote out a second idea. And then we developed these ideas on the road the first tour we went on. The ones that were strongest made it to the top."

Mehldau hints that there's more to come from this duo: "There were also some really strong tunes we tracked that we didn't put on because we simply ran out of time on the CD. We made the choice for order and track selection on this CD based on creating a particular mood with lots of variety, and I hope we can release some of the other tracks down the road."

One of the most striking tracks on the Mehldau/Guiliana CD is "Elegy for Amelia E," inspired by pilot and adventurer Amelia Earhart, which contains a recorded excerpt from Earhart's lecture "A Woman's Place in Science." Mehldau explains the genesis of the song: "Mark had that audio file and in live gigs started launching it during a less rhythmic interlude in the set where he didn't play drums and focused on the sonic/samples stuff from his laptop while I improvised. When we tracked this in the studio, a narrative developed for me; I imagined her on her last flight, alone in the dark sky, above the ocean, far away from everyone. Then, the explosion you here is her plane hitting the waves, and it ends with the plane descending to the bottom of the sea.

"The themes for me, or what the music might communicate to the listener, are loneliness and alienation, sadness—those kinds of emotions I mentioned earlier that I got from Pink Floyd." The Floyd connection rears its head again on Mehldau's faint, wordless vocals: "My wordless vocals, however scant, were influenced by the masterful "The Great Gig in The Sky," with Clare Torry's incredible singing performance—another huge track for me always."

Seventy seven years after her disappearance over the Pacific Ocean, during an attempt to fly around the world, Earhart's deeds and words continue to fascinate and inspire. Her actions and words—to paraphrase the Joe character on "Taming the Dragon"—continue to have consequences. One wonders whether music—like words and actions—has consequences, or is it essentially ephemeral? "I guess it's both," says Mehldau. "Music makes the ephemeral important, or the negative way of saying it is that maybe everything we perceive as important is ultimately ephemeral, seen in another light."

The track "Sleeping Giant," which segues from "Elegy for Amelia E." evokes a gently soaring feeling and the slower tempos are ones that Mehldau relishes: "This one for me, like I said, was very informed by Herbie [Hancock], and also, I enjoy sitting in these slower grooves with Mark—he can really put it there and stay there. In a more swing-oriented context I like to explore that slow, swimming-through-molasses tempo with Jeff Ballard at the drums. I love slow. It's like, what's the rush? Let it unfold."

One of the catchiest tracks on Mehliana: Taming the Dragon is the retro-pop tune "Gainsbourg," inspired by French singer Serge Gainsbourg. For Mehldau, the French icon's artistry outweighs all other considerations: "Usually people talk about how he was a gadfly and a transgressive force in society through his lyrics and demeanor—absolutely true. But I love his sense of production, sonics and his songwriting. This track owes a lot to the sample we use at the beginning, Gainsbourg's "Ford Mustang." It's a certain 1960s, early 1970's thing; Greg [Koller] in the studio referred to it as "spy music." Coolness, mystery, understated sexuality—or sometimes more overt—these were all things Gainsbourg brought to pop music."

The multi-faceted Gainsbourg was musically highly diverse during his thirty or so productive years, a trend which has increasingly come to define Mehldau's own creative output. For Mehldau, however all his music is part of natural cycle: "I don't set out ahead of time to be diverse but I don't try to stay in one mode either," says Mehldau.

"I can only look at that question retrospectively and observe that what I've been fortunate enough to document on recordings over the years has been a bit of both/and; I've kept certain contexts constant and developed them steadily over the years, like my output with the trio and solo work, and also delved into other projects, like this one with Mark or the earlier Largo, the more large scale orchestral things like Highway Rider, or things that are more composed and more classical in design, like projects with the singers Renée Fleming [Love Sublime (Nonesuch records, 2006)] and Anne Sofie Von Otter [Love Songs (Naïve, 2010]."

The live shows with Guiliana are the engine room for development, taking the music to new places: "In the touring Mark and I have done recently we've been developing different textures, sonics, and grooves," says Mehldau. With material that didn't make Mehliana: Taming the Dragon and more ideas being generated with each gig, the duo seems to have generated a natural momentum that with a bit of luck will lead to further recordings: "I hope so," says Mehldau. "We have a lot of ideas already for new material."

Mehldau's playing throughout much of Mehliana: Taming the Dragon has a deliciously minimalist feel to it. Even in his solo piano concerts these days there appear to be fewer notes than in years gone by, with greater emphasis on emotive impact: "I think that's been the case," admits Mehldau. "Aging I guess. Sometimes I can still go all maximal, though. It's nice to find a balance, for example, within one set at a performance."

In performance, Mehldau rarely has much to say, sometimes nothing at all, which some may find odd, but for the pianist the music says more than enough: "I just never feel like I have too much to say that's interesting a lot of the time, and if I do, I do say it, but I won't force it. I always get uncomfortable when I see someone trying to work up a banter on the stage. I'm aware though, that other folks might be equally uncomfortable when I play, for instance, forty five minutes without saying anything at all. But I can only be myself."

Whether playing in a duo with a mandolinist or in conjunction with an orchestra, whether writing piano commissions for classical players like Jeremy Denk and Kirill Gerstein, or playing in solo or trio contexts, there are many parts to Mehldau's self. Who knows how many more parts there are to harness, how many more dragons there are to tame? The dream goes on.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Brad Mehldau Website

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