Field Notes: Brad Mehldau Solo
Pop covers abound at this sold-out solo set at D.C.’s Sixth & I Historic Synagogue
The pianist and composer Brad Mehldau is 41, and starting to traverse an odd and difficult plateau for a jazz musician. Middle age can in jazz be a sort of gray area, even a purgatory. You’re too old to reap the rewards of precociousness—Mehldau did that in his 20s and early 30s, as a torch-carrier for the harmonic invention, deep lyricism and empathetic bandleading associated with Bill Evans—but you can’t yet receive the awards and genuflection reserved for old lions. So you keep touring and recording and doing what you do to diminished fanfare.
Today’s twentysomething piano hopefuls should be so lucky to achieve what Mehldau has at his age; his piano trio has been one of jazz’s very best, not to mention his work with comrades like Jon Brion, Kevin Hays and Renée Fleming. But as a recent sold-out performance in D.C. attested, Mehldau is working another angle that has little to do with jazz from a cultural standpoint (and that’s probably why it’s doing so well for him). He’s an update of that endangered 20th-century species that packed concert halls and appeared on late-night television and sold vinyl by the pound: He’s a popular, accessible concert pianist.
In a 95-minute performance Saturday night, Mehldau tackled songs by Nick Drake (“Things Behind the Sun”), Neil Young (“The Needle and the Damage Done”), Massive Attack (“Teardrop”), the Beach Boys (“God Only Knows”) and more. It was a hit parade of other people’s legendary songs, and it allowed Mehldau to utilize—some might say exploit—an intelligent crossover audience’s cultural memory. How do I know this was happening? I could see it: Couples whispered to each other, playing a guessing game as bits of familiar melody arose; when someone mentally named that tune from the get-go, his or her face widened with a satisfied smile.
Mehldau has used pop repertory to draw the uninitiated into his improvisational methods for many years now, before the Bad Plus and Vijay Iyer. It’s an obvious point, but jazz’s process is best understood when the composition being transformed has personal meaning to the listener—when it’s been lived with and internalized. On this night, his approach was one of specificity; he often latched on to memorable crannies of songs rather than their vocal melodies or main hooks. A fragment like the turnaround of Jimi Hendrix’s take on “Hey Joe” was repeated until it became an entrancing tumble of cinematic blues.
“God Only Knows” began with the line being laid atop a straight pulse of chords, eventually winding through reharmonized detours and ending as a hazy rumble with the sustain pedal on the floor. The Neil Young number began as Americana and broke into rubato single-note lines, which stood against the midtempo lull that marked most of the set. Mehldau has always touted great, classical-sharp facility, and his prevalent soloing felt baroque: sweeping and chromatic and constantly in motion.
And as Bach taught us, busyness and consonance can coexist. And therein lies Mehldau’s gift, and the reason he is the jazz piano player releasing solo recitals on Nonesuch, selling out venues mid-level rock acts can’t fill, and joining up with the Brions and the Flemings: He’s a fount of tunefulness and resolution. Drake’s “Things Behind the Sun,” the opener, began with a dramatic bass part that brought nondescript score to mind, until the jazz harmony reared its head and invoked another set of melodically delightful associations—Keith Jarrett, Pat Metheny, ECM in the ’70s. That’s fine company, and Mehldau is in a good place.