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Brad Mehldau: Anything Goes

Brad Mehldau
Brad Mehldau

My first real conversation with Brad Mehldau took place on an autumn evening at a coffeehouse in New York’s Greenwich Village. Caffe Vivaldi exudes an old-world European languor-a small irony, since it was opened in the ’80s by an industrious emigre from Pakistan. A weathered bench runs along one wall; the wall opposite, cluttered with somber black-and-white portraits of classical composers, is recognizable from films by Al Pacino and Woody Allen. For the past decade or so, the cafe has featured live music nightly: jazz, classical or folk, depending on the night. Walking in, Mehldau could have passed for one of the up-and-comers on the calendar, although he paid no heed to the piano in the corner or the hard bop piped into the room.

If Mehldau had ever actually played Caffe Vivaldi, he didn’t mention it. But it’s certainly possible, given that he came of age, professionally speaking, in the neighborhood. New School University, his undergraduate alma mater, is fewer than 10 blocks north. Smalls, the grottolike club that served as an incubator for the pianist and his peers, used to be a three-minute walk away. The Village Vanguard, more closely associated with Mehldau’s career than any other spot in the world, is a straight shot up Seventh Avenue.

I had assumed that Mehldau chose the cafe for its proximity to the Vanguard, where he was halfway through a weeklong run with a new quartet. But as he pocketed his black-rimmed glasses and poured steamed milk into his coffee, it occurred to me that the setting was more than merely convenient. Blending propriety with comfort and high culture with egalitarian accessibility, Caffe Vivaldi echoes Mehldau’s aesthetic ideals. I doubt that he’d given this a thought before our meeting. But it was clear that the cafe, like the Vanguard, was a place where he felt at home.

Brad Mehldau is the most highly acclaimed jazz artist to have emerged in the last decade. It was exactly 10 years ago that he flew onto the mainstream radar as a member of the Joshua Redman Quartet. The following year saw Mehldau’s major-label debut, and the formation of his trio with drummer Jorge Rossy and bassist Larry Grenadier. This group, which released its eighth album in 2004, brought a subtle but perceptible new wrinkle to the fabric of piano trio tradition-a personal alchemy of floating rhythmic sensibilities, capricious virtuosity and courtly lyricism. Partly because Mehldau has only rarely worked in other settings, the band is nearly synonymous with his artistic self. “The trio created my identity,” he said at one point in our conversation, in a manner less dramatic than matter-of-fact.

In the past year, Mehldau has challenged this identity with a number of non-trio projects. In July he reconnected with an old Smalls compatriot, guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, for a three-week European tour. (Redman and Grenadier were also in the group, which subsequently recorded Rosenwinkel’s next album, Deep Song, due on March 1 from Verve.) Mehldau’s fall schedule included concerts in support of Live in Tokyo, the recent solo piano CD that inaugurated his relationship with the highly eclectic Nonesuch label. During those same months, he labored on a Carnegie Hall commission for voice and piano that he’ll debut with soprano Renee Fleming in the spring. Even the Vanguard gig was a departure, an ancillary venture with saxophonist Mark Turner, drummer Jeff Ballard and Grenadier. Known collectively as Fly, these three players have a web of musical connections to Mehldau that predates their respective careers. What was most interesting about their backing of the pianist was the suggestion of an alternate trajectory-one of many possible outcomes had Mehldau followed a different path.

I made this suggestion at Caffe Vivaldi. “It’s a little bit of a return,” the pianist allowed. “What’s happened with me is, I’ve gotten so involved with my trio over the last 10 years that that’s become the focus-and for a good reason, because it’s evolved and taken on its own space in my psyche. But at the same time I had all these other things that sort of got shelved. Things that I wanted to do, like playing with Mark and playing with Kurt. I’ve felt, at times, a little frustration that I wasn’t able to hook up with them more. So that’s what this is about.”

In no time, “this”-the early set at the Vanguard-was upon us. Mehldau’s wife, Fleurine, appeared in the window, and together they hurried off to the club ahead of me.

Even by the standards of a prodigy, Mehldau developed his voice early-so much so that, to some observers, he seemed to drop out of the sky fully formed. But Mehldau’s most formative experiences were communal rather than solitary, and fairly typical of a precocious jazz talent. At age 15 he landed a weekly engagement at the 880 Club, not far from his West Hartford, Conn., home. The gig, which he kept through high school, brought him into regular contact with elders (like drummer Larry DiNatale) as well as peers (like trombonist Steve Davis). At the same time, he played his fair share of weddings and cocktail parties in the Hartford area, and spent countless hours hanging with tenor saxophonist Joel Frahm, a classmate at William Hall High School. (Frahm and Mehldau reunited in 2001 for Don’t Explain, an album of duets that was released on Palmetto last year.)

The jazz world of the early-’90s was still largely defined by the “Young Lions” boom, which saw rewards heaped on promising players who fit the neoclassicist mold. One such wunderkind, alto saxophonist Christopher Hollyday, was a Connecticut native just seven months Mehldau’s senior; he was responsible for the pianist’s first recording session, in 1990, and his first European tour, in ’91. A bigger and more enduring phenom was Redman, who in ’94 assembled a quartet with Mehldau, bassist Christian McBride and drummer Brian Blade. By that time, Mehldau had been a New Yorker for six years, commingling with the likes of guitarist Peter Bernstein, alto saxophonist Jesse Davis and legendary drummer Jimmy Cobb. But it was on Redman’s MoodSwing (Warner Bros.) that the pianist went public in a major way.

“Me and Josh and a lot of players of our specific little generation were lucky,” Mehldau reflects, “because we just caught the tail end of the Young Lions thing. And we had a lot of opportunities that somebody who’s 22 today just doesn’t have.” In his case, that meant a major-label record deal; Introducing Brad Mehldau was released on Warner Bros. in 1995. Mehldau and producer Matt Pierson split that album into two “sides”-one with the Redman rhythm section, the other with Rossy and Grenadier. Appropriately, Mehldau calls that album a “time capsule.” To hear it now is to catch a glimpse of the pianist at a transitional moment, winding down one journey and embarking on another.

Mehldau’s subsequent few albums on Warner Bros. came under a portentous banner: The Art of the Trio. This was the work of Pierson, who understood the value of a brand. Mehldau maintains that he never set out to tackle the trio tradition in any concerted fashion. “When Larry, Jorge and I started playing together,” he explains, “we didn’t consider ourselves a trio right away. The three of us were also playing with Mark Turner and Kurt Rosenwinkel and this great alto player, Perico Sambeat. There were all these different combinations, and the trio was one of them. We were all feeding off each other. And I think what’s great about playing in someone else’s band-you get to be influenced by their personality, the way they write and solo, and their harmonic vocabulary. All of that rubs off on you, and then adds to your identity when you go back to your own thing.”

Mehldau’s career includes a handful of sideman turns, and on each his sound emerges intact. MoodSwing bears unmistakable traces of his nascent musical identity, as does Turner’s early effort Yam Yam (Criss Cross). Already the pianist possessed the fluid ambidexterity, elastic rhythmic assuredness and clarity of melodic purpose that would become his trademarks. These qualities shine clearly on Alone Together and Another Shade of Blue (Blue Note), recorded with Lee Konitz and Charlie Haden in 1996 and ’97. They’re even more evident on saxophonist Charles Lloyd’s The Water Is Wide and Hyperion With Higgins (ECM), two outings that firmly establish Mehldau’s supportive graces.

But of course, it was with Rossy and Grenadier that the pianist truly hit his stride. “I have the small distinction of being there the very first time he played with Jorge and Larry, at the Village Gate,” remembers pianist Ethan Iverson. “Of course, I was very impressed.” Iverson, best recognized as one-third of the Bad Plus, cites Mehldau as the single biggest influence among his peers. “When they first started playing the Vanguard, I would automatically go a couple times during the week. In fact, hearing those guys play, say, ‘The Way You Look Tonight’ in ’97-that was really a thrilling moment for jazz.”

“The Way You Look Tonight” is one of many trio performances frozen in time; it appears on The Art of the Trio, Vol. 2: Live at the Village Vanguard (Warner Bros.). By that time, the trio had developed both a vocabulary and a sound. Mehldau’s often-stunning solo flights found complement in Grenadier’s supple bass lines and Rossy’s suggestive propulsion. They played through odd meters, like 7/8 and 5/4, with fluid liberation. And they never seemed to break a sweat, no matter how intricate the interplay or breakneck the tempo. At the other end of the spectrum, their ballad interpretation heeded a deep and sonorous melancholy; Mehldau had applied his love of the Romantic composers, Schumann and Brahms in particular, to a more flexible chamber setting.

Ask Mehldau to talk about the trio’s evolution and he’ll describe a process of refinement. “There were some developmental changes in my piano playing style with the trio that happened pretty fast,” he explains. “And then it slowed down a little. The last few years in general have been smaller changes. It’s like making a statue: At first, you’re chipping away big chunks. And then you’re starting to get the shape of a body or whatever you’re making. And then it becomes about chiseling something to shape an identity that’s already there-sort of doing the fine-tuning work-which in a way is harder.”

Anything Goes (Warner Bros.) is proof that the chiseling has been effective; it may be the group’s finest work yet. But despite many strong particulars, the album is ultimately most remarkable for its overall touch of wisdom and restraint. “The music is not so in your face anymore,” suggests Grenadier. “It doesn’t have to prove its point or whatever. It’s kind of mellowed, in the best sense of that word. We can interpret any song in its own way, and it’s what it is, and it’s unique to us. It’s not trying to get to a place; it just is.”

Such Zen-like serenity may actually be part of the reason for Mehldau’s branching out. “One thing I’m always watching out for,” he says, “is getting caught in a gimmick of something that’s worked before and so could work again, but without the same spontaneity. And that’s a really delicate thing, because it has a half-life: You get this moment of discovery, but if you keep on doing it the same way, it becomes less exciting.”

Mehldau isn’t implying that the trio has reached its half-life; in fact, he emphasizes that it’s still his core catalyst and favorite setting. “But we’ve slowed down a little over the last year,” he admits. “There was a spell where I was really writing a lot of stuff for the trio, and finding ideas at a rate that could justify touring six, seven, eight months out of the year. Lately, ideas haven’t presented themselves to me for that band with the same speed. The reason I thought the Vanguard would be a nice place to try a different band is because I feel a certain responsibility there. We play there about once a year, and I always have tried to come back with new material. And this is the first time where, between doing a lot of solo stuff and working on other projects, I didn’t write much new stuff for the trio. So I thought ‘Well, I’ll try something else, for that audience specifically.'”

At the Vanguard, I claimed one of the last available seats, on a rear bench near the bar. By coincidence, Fleurine ended up at my table. “The music has been different every night,” she said enthusiastically. It was Friday, the fourth night of the quartet engagement. The New York Times had already published an opening-night review, which began by saying that the project had a ways to go.

The set began sharply. All four musicians hit the first downbeat, which barreled into a bright-swinging tune with a twisting, convoluted head. Ballard’s earthy propulsion brought out Mehldau’s aggressions; comping behind Turner, he stabbed at his chords with unrepentant force. Later, on a modal piece in 6/4 time, he took a solo that was at once logical, exploratory and suspenseful-a virtuoso turn. This was followed by a rendition of James Alan Shelton’s “Lilac Wine,” popularized by Nina Simone, on which Mehldau’s ceremonial chords chimed softly while Turner played a prayerful litany, each strange arpeggio rolling into the right note. It was a moment of astonishing emotional immediacy. And it was the only part of the night that reminded me, even obliquely, of the trio.

“That quartet sort of baffled some people a little bit,” mused Mehldau good-naturedly a week after the gig. “Because they’re so used to hearing me in a particular context, with an emphasis on [music that’s] lyrical and pared-down. And this thing with the quartet, it became more sort of intense and hard-driving. Which I loved, and it’s kind of just what I wanted. What was cool was that everyone was on the same page.”

Grenadier attributed this to a common language. “This group of musicians, we’re able to play our whole history, because it’s shared, and we have similar musical interests. So it was like a retrospective in a way. And that’s the idea Brad had-not going back in time, but being able to pick all these disparate elements of what makes up the music that we play, and go through them at any moment.”

Mehldau has lately been exploring this stream-of-consciousness approach in a solo setting, where the only formal responsibilities are those he creates for himself. “I’ve really been honing into solo piano,” he says, “and I finally feel, after years of working specifically on it, that I’m starting to find a voice. It was something that I wanted to sort of go public with, so I started to do more solo performance.” Live in Tokyo captures one such performance, from last year. Stark and gleaming one moment, dense and percussive the next, the album does indeed showcase a distinctive solo voice.

It also provides a handy snapshot of Mehldau’s current fascinations. Live in Tokyo includes two songs by Gershwin, two by the late British folksinger Nick Drake and one apiece by Cole Porter, Radiohead and Thelonious Monk. An expanded edition available online also includes two untitled originals, Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” Joni Mitchell’s “Roses Blue” and Burt Bacharach’s theme from Alfie.

Ever since 1998’s Songs: The Art of the Trio, Vol. 3 (Warner Bros.), Mehldau has been known, and ultimately celebrated, for exalting the occasional rock confection. On his aberrant Largo (Warner Bros.), a studio album crafted with Los Angeles pop mastermind Jon Brion, he even appropriated the layers and timbres of the alien genre. But Mehldau’s pop-to-jazz ratio has never been higher than on Live in Tokyo, and the pianist has never sounded more at home with his mainstream muse. In the middle of “Monk’s Dream,” he goes so far as to interpolate “Linus and Lucy,” Vince Guaraldi’s puckish Peanuts theme.

Such proclivities are, Mehldau explains, a personal by-product of the solo piano setting. “When I started getting interested in solo playing as a possibility, it was after I already had a band. What appealed to me about it was that it was actually a way that I could find a continuity with something that was much earlier for me in music, something that had to do more with pop and classical music. Some of the first stuff I ever heard that knocked me out, whether it was Supertramp or prog-rock or Brahms or whatever-that was my first connection with the piano. And for whatever reason, those were the sorts of things that started coming out. So the challenge since then has basically been to find a way to wheedle that into something compelling for somebody else to listen to, and not just an exercise in navel-gazing.”

This last comment could be construed as a self-critique. Mehldau’s first solo piano record, 1999’s Elegiac Cycle (Warner Bros.), was an intensely personal effort that tackled thematic issues of irony, mortality and bereavement. Mehldau composed the album-length suite during a two-month retreat with Fleurine in Berlin. And while his official complaints are technical (“I feel like I could do that record over again now and it would be stronger”), Mehldau has also referred to Elegiac Cycle as a “purging.” On his official bio, he describes the album as “an attempt to shake off some of the youthful aspects of my character.” And he’s not talking about Peanuts.

Mehldau lives in Newburgh, N.Y., an ethnically diverse Hudson River town some 60 miles north of the Village Vanguard. He and Fleurine have a three-year-old daughter, Eden, whose ebullience and golden ringlets make the term “cherubic” seem like something other than a cliche.

At 34, Mehldau is a substantially different person than the prodigy who tore onto the scene. In those years, his search for selfhood dragged him through drug addiction, high-minded philosophical angst and a public bout with despair. His liner essay to The Art of the Trio, Vol. 2 took the form of a lengthy, lofty Socratic dialogue. The notes for a later album began with a now-infamous complaint: “The constant comparison of this trio with the Bill Evans trio by critics has been a thorn in my side.” Statements like these did little to endear him to said critics, or to certain musicians already inclined to envy his success. And the impressions have been slow to subside, leaving Mehldau with a lingering reputation for pretentiousness and self-indulgence. As recently as November, Francis Davis opined in the Village Voice that Mehldau, like Keith Jarrett, “makes it difficult for a critic to be on his side.”

It’s true that Mehldau has been plagued with knee-jerk Bill Evans comparisons; the “sensitive white pianist” label is actually a set of monogrammed baggage. For the record, Mehldau cites as influences a handful of great rhythm section players like Red Garland, Wynton Kelly and McCoy Tyner. And he professes puzzlement at the critical emphasis on patrilineage. “You almost never read: ‘Brad Mehldau is influenced by Ethan Iverson, or Danilo Perez, or Bill Charlap,'” he observes, “which in fact, I would say I am. I go to hear those guys live, and I get to play with a lot of my peers. And actually I think that’s the strongest form of influence.” Mehldau’s recent reconnection with the likes of Rosenwinkel and Turner stands as an affirmation of this belief. So does his private two-piano sit-down with Iverson, around the time of the Vanguard gig. (They sight-read a reduction of Brahms’ Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34a, each claiming humiliation at the other’s prowess.)

Whatever his thoughts on the critics, there’ll probably be no more diatribes from Mehldau. “I was taking myself very seriously,” he says, looking back. “I went a little overboard. You can take yourself very seriously as an artist, and I think that’s really important and necessary. But you have to have that little switchgear in the back of your mind somewhere that realizes that not everybody takes you as seriously as you do. When I read back on the early liner notes, the main criticism I would have is a little feeling of self-importance-more than a little-that comes out. I had all these ideas I was wrestling with about my own musical identity-and also the bigger picture, and all the histrionics involved, and history and how that weighs on you, and the idea of influence. All these big ideas. But I think there’s a slick way to present them where you take yourself out of the picture; that can be a little more inviting to people. So I think what I’ve learned, as a musician in the world, is to try to be a little more nuanced, and not maybe push the ideas on people as much as I did.”

Humility comes with security, and in that regard Mehldau has never been in a better position. “I’ve got a nice niche of people who dig what I do,” he says with some understatement, “and it’s pretty much based on the music. The validation of having people wanting to come and hear you, digging your music, giving positive feedback-that quiets down your head a little, and makes you worry less about stuff.”

He can worry less about the business, too, now that he’s affiliated with Nonesuch, a powerhouse Warner Bros. imprint headed by the redoubtable Bob Hurwitz. Confronted earlier this year with the sinking ship of Warner Bros. Jazz, Hurwitz offered lifelines to Mehldau, Redman and Pat Metheny. They now represent the jazz wing of Nonesuch, along with guitarist Bill Frisell. In a small twist, Mehldau has stepped into a position on the label once held by his former teacher Fred Hersch-the musician he credits as his biggest influence on solo piano. (For an antecedent to Live in Tokyo, look to Let Yourself Go: Fred Hersch at Jordan Hall.)

Mehldau is frankly elated to be sharing a label with the likes of country tunesmith Emmylou Harris, Brazilian pop icon Caetano Veloso and the visionary Kronos Quartet. And of course, the complete faith of Hurwitz doesn’t hurt. “Brad is one of the first [new artists] to reinvent the role of the instrument along the lines of the great players who exploded on the scene in the ’60s,” the label president proclaims. “I hope he will lead us into another golden age.”

It’s not an idea Mehldau would seem inclined to endorse. “I have a built-in wariness,” he once wrote, “towards the term ‘renaissance’ applied to jazz music being played and recorded in recent years.” His position hasn’t changed, even if he’s less likely to foist it upon us. He may or may not have reinvented the role of his instrument, but he’s definitely not someone who’d savor the image of leading a charge into the bright beyond.

Nevertheless, Mehldau would certainly agree that the jazz landscape of our time, whatever its pitfalls and polarizations, holds enough thoughtful talent to nourish a vibrant scene. He’s led his entire career as if guided by this premise, and his recent activity shows that he’s kept faith. In the end, Hurwitz’s charge makes sense, at least from a literal standpoint. Merriam-Webster’s 10th Dictionary lists “golden age” simply as “a period of great happiness, prosperity and achievement.” By that measure, Mehldau is already there. Originally Published

Nate Chinen

Nate Chinen

Nate Chinen is the director of editorial content for WBGO and a longtime contributor to JazzTimes, which published 125 installments of his column “The Gig” between 2004 and 2017. For 12 years, he was a critic for The New York Times; prior to that, he wrote about jazz for the Village Voice, the Philadelphia City Paper, and several other publications. He is the author of Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century (2018) and the co-author of George Wein’s autobiography Myself Among Others: A Life in Music (2003).