Brad Mehldau: Dragons & Dreams

Ian Patterson By

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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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