It's not easy to be a musician these days. There may well be more critics than musicians, but looking at any genre's past there's an enormous amount of music created by thousands of musicians. Still, very few of them can be considered groundbreaking artists who have expanded, informed and enlivened the genre they work in. Ironically, some of the things that have made pianist Brad Mehldau popular inside and outside the jazz tradition are his non-jazz instincts and musical tastes.
Drawing equal inspiration from jazz, classical and pop has made him one of jazz's towering pianists, whose broad musical taste has clearly enriched and enlivened the genre. Some of his work has been featured in films such director Stanley Kubrick's swan song Eyes Wide Shut (1999) and the French film Ma femme est une actrice (2001). Mehldau was also part of the Million Dollar Band (also featuring Daniel Lanois, U2, Brian Eno, Jon Hassell and Bill Frisell), which recorded the soundtrack for director Wim Wenders' The Million Dollar Hotel (2000).
2006 was a successful and highly productive year for Mehldau. He released two excellent collaborative projects: Love Sublime (Nonesuch, 2006) with renowned soprano Renee Fleming, and Metheny Mehldau, a duet record with guitar icon Pat Metheny. He also released a trio album, House on Hill (Nonesuch, 2006), culled mostly from a 2002 session featuring his regular bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jorge Rossy, who has since been replaced by Jeff Ballard. House on Hill showcases his talent as a writer rather than as an interpreter. Love Sublime, commissioned by Carnegie Hall, demonstrates his classical leanings. Metheny Mehldau is a duet made in heaven for musicians, fans and record company executives alike. In many ways it's a dream pairing, based not only on mutual admiration, but shared inspiration as well.
All About Jazz: What prompted your collaboration with Metheny?
Brad Mehldau: Well, I think it was mostly a mutual admiration that we have for each other's music. I began listening to his music when I was 12 or 13, when a friend played "Are You Going With Me [from Pat Metheny Group's Offramp (ECM, 1982)], and for me he is one of the formative influences as a musician and we finally got an opportunity to do something.
AAJ: Could you describe the approach you took on this record from a conceptual perspective? Were there any things that you wanted to do or did not want to do?
BM: It challenged me to play a duo with guitar, where there aren't many things that should or shouldn't be done. We just have two instruments together to play harmony. We didn't have a specific concept going in to make a record or a clear idea that we were going to do a record together. When we first began listening to each other playing we were trying not to get in each other's way or to play in the right register, and in general we were trying not to give the listener too much information as these two instruments can generate too much harmony.
AAJ: It seems like two distinct voices enjoying playing with each other. As someone who has played with all kinds of musicians, what do you find most rewarding about collaborative work?
BM: To me it's kind of a spirit in jazz, where you would get a certain person or several personalities together and then you get to see what happens. In jazz it has an added dimension because of the tradition, and because we are improvising. The improvisation implies a certain spontaneous response when the musicians are playing with each other, so it gets really interestingespecially when you know someone's music like with Pat, as I already had a close affinity with his music for years. But still, the effort when you go into the studio and the music starts rolling; there are a lot of surprises there that you don't expect to happen.
AAJ: So you and Metheny surprised each other during the recording. There was a rumor, when Metheny Mehldau was out, that you recorded a quartet album with your regular rhythm section while recording the duet album. Is there another project parallel to this one?
BM: Yes, that's right. There will be another record. The first one was mostly a duo, but we recorded for six days. For three days we recorded the duo and the rest was the quartet with Jeff Ballard and Larry Grenadier, my trio these days. We got a pile of music, so we finally decided to present the recordtwo records in factwhere the duo record has a little taste of the quartet.
AAJ: I assume the quartet record will be released next year when the tour with Metheny starts.
BM: Exactly. That is our plan to release it when we begin touring which will be in March .
AAJ: Prior to the duet album with Metheny, Nonesuch released two records of yoursHouse on Hill and Love Sublime. Most of the compositions that appear on House on Hill were recorded during the Anything Goes (Warner Bros., 2004) sessions, basically a "covers record, while House on Hill is a record featuring your compositions.
BM: I was so glad that I could finally put House on Hill out, because I always wanted to do that. It was recorded a couple of years ago and because there were expenses that were happening with Warner Bros. [which shut down its jazz label in 2004] there was no opportunity to release the music. Finally it got to come out. It's something that I haven't done much: a record with all original material. There was a point that I reached with that trio, with Jorge Rossy on drums, that allowed me to write songs very much in that vein, with Larry and the sound we had. And they are very connected. For me it's a document of that period and the way the trio played back then.