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Pat Metheny and Brad Mehldau: Counterpoint

Brad Mehldau/Pat Metheny
Brad Mehldau/Pat Metheny
Brad Mehldau/Pat Metheny

If you’ve ever hung out backstage at a jazz festival, you know that jazz musicians are always telling one another, “We should get together sometime and play.” It’s a friendly gesture, and it’s usually tied to a vague feeling that, hey, it would be nice to make a record or do some shows with that person. Only rarely, though, does it lead to anything concrete.

Pat Metheny has often heard and said the same thing, but when the guitarist exchanged that wish with Brad Mehldau, he knew it needed to actually happen. It wasn’t just that he admired the young pianist’s playing-Metheny admires many musicians that he’ll never get around to collaborating with. It was more that he sensed that he and Mehldau were wrestling with the same problems and could help each other come up with some solutions.

“For both of us,” Metheny explains, “this balance of compositional substance and improvisational openness is one of the central issues in our work. How do you reconcile the desire to detail the complex possibilities of the music on the page with the desire to discover something in the moment of improvisation? How do you satisfy both desires? Brad and I write a lot of music and we love to improvise, so we’re always trying to accommodate both poles of the jazz experience.”

They finally found their way to the same studio in Dec. 2005, and recorded 24 tracks-a dozen as a duo and a dozen as a quartet with Mehldau’s rhythm section, bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard. Nine of the duo tracks and two of the quartet tracks were released last year by Nonesuch as Metheny Mehldau. Seven of the quartet tracks and four of the duo tracks were released this year as Quartet. Three quartet tracks are still in the vault. This year the foursome tours all over the world from March through October.

The sessions weren’t easy to arrange, because both men were very busy in 2005. Metheny released his ambitious 68-minute composition The Way Up (co-written with his longtime keyboardist Lyle Mays) that year and toured behind it, creating in the process a DVD, The Way Up – Live, that would come out in 2006. Right after that tour ended, Metheny went back out on the road with a trio featuring Christian McBride and Antonio Sanchez.

Meanwhile, Mehldau was finishing up the recording of House on Hill, his last record with Jorge Rossy, his drummer of 12 years. At the same time, the pianist was writing a series of art songs that he would record with classical singer Renée Fleming as Love Sublime. Both of those records would eventually emerge in 2006. In the meantime, Mehldau released 2005’s Day Is Done, his first album with new drummer Jeff Ballard, who was also performing in his first live shows with the trio. Time was at a premium for both musicians, but they were motivated to make the collaboration happen.

“I don’t have too many fantasies,” Mehldau confesses, “but this was one of them. There are any number of living musicians who are heroes of mine that I’d like to play with. But this was different, because Pat wasn’t just someone I admired; he was a formative experience for me. Hearing his albums Travels and …Wichita Falls when I was a kid were life-changing experiences for me. Some things you listen to when you’re young and then you discard and move on, but Pat is someone I never discarded. I go back to those records all the time and listen to them.”

“I first heard Brad on Josh Redman’s album MoodSwing,” Metheny recalls, “and I was more than enthusiastic. I had to pull my car over to the side of the road so I could listen without killing myself. I got that feeling I get sometimes: ‘That’s someone I’d like to play with sometime.’ That’s a primal feeling. You instantly recognize people who are somehow thinking in the same terms you are. So I went out and got all his albums and I was a big fan. Then I read in some interview that he was a fan of mine as well, and I thought, ‘That’s so cool, that I played a role in inspiring someone who was addressing music at that level.'”

When Metheny says he and Mehldau were “thinking in the same terms,” he’s referring to several things. The two men share a commitment to keeping a stable band together for years on end (the 30-year-old Pat Metheny Group and the 12-year-old Brad Mehldau Trio), a willingness to take on unexpected collaborations (for example, Metheny’s work with Ornette Coleman and Derek Bailey or Mehldau’s work with Renée Fleming and Willie Nelson), a connection to popular culture (Metheny through his post-Hendrix guitar tone and Mehldau through his reinterpretations of the Beatles and Radiohead), a taste for unusual forms (Metheny’s album-long composition, Mehldau’s fondness for rhythms in five and seven), and a tendency to suggest a chord with a cluster of single notes rather than stating it every time.

But the quality that links Metheny and Mehldau most tellingly is their lyricism. Whether they’re composing or improvising, playing inside or out, their phrases more often than not suggest a melody that can be remembered and enjoyed. The reason Metheny and Mehldau seem to fare better in readers’ polls than in critics’ polls could be that audience members respond instinctively to lyricism, while critics struggle to find words to get a handle on melody. This isn’t the critics’ fault; it’s damned difficult to describe melody in prose. Moreover, there are good reasons to be suspicious of something so closely tied to the sentimentality and limited technique of pop music.

Nonetheless, melody matters more than we usually admit. For all its cerebral aspects, jazz, like any other art form, succeeds or fails on its emotional connection to the audience. And nothing carries emotional voltage more efficiently than melody.

On Quartet, for example, the sense of ominous threat that underlies Mehldau’s “Fear and Trembling” is suggested by the opening theme with its short, unresolved phrases and vertiginous descents; that mood is deepened by the new, jittery melodies invented during the solos. The next song, Metheny’s ballad “Don’t Wait,” captures romantic contentment in the circling figure played by Mehldau’s left hand and romantic desire in the probing fragments played by his right hand. As those two melodies are restated by Metheny or by Mehldau himself, the balance between contentment and desire keeps shifting, just as it does in real life.

“As much as we want to talk about the elements of music in a way that connects to the reality of music,” Metheny comments, “the one that’s hardest to articulate is melody. We can break down a Roy Haynes drum solo, or have a blast analyzing Duke Ellington’s harmonic skills, but melody is very difficult to quantify. And yet, for me, it’s the thing that I ultimately find most attractive and most rare in playing partners and even in music that I’m a fan of. It’s the X factor for me.”

“You can sit here and say, ‘This melody is great because the way it intersects with the harmony in a certain way at this point,'” Mehldau adds. “Or you can look at the way Monk’s melodies interact with his structures. But you always end up talking about the melody in terms of something else. There’s this mystery about great melodies and why they stick to our ears. A melody might sound good in one context and not so good in another context. With this project, because of the instruments we play and because of who we are, melody and context were always on our minds as we were writing.”

“When I first heard Brad,” Metheny says, “what really attracted me was his melodic skill-those really cool proportions, the long lines and short fragments. He also has that very rare quality of always landing on his feet, which is hard to do, reconciling all the things he’s been working with.”

“It’s nice if someone says they hear the melody in your solo,” Mehldau continues. “Hopefully you play the melody not because you feel obligated to, but because you love the melody so much that in the heat of the moment of improvisation, the melody comes up again.”

Because composition is so important to both men, the biggest chunk of time devoted to the project was the four-to-six weeks each of them spent squirreled away in their writing rooms at their separate homes. They hadn’t played much together at all, so they had to imagine what playing together might sound like. There was Metheny in New York City moving his fingers across the piano and guitar, trying to find melodies and chords that would sound good under Mehldau’s fingers. There was Mehldau in Newburgh, New York, performing a mirror version of the same thing. They’d type the results into the computer, check it one last time and then push send.

“This thing with Brad had been bubbling for several years,” Metheny says. “Finally I was able to attend a solo piano concert that he was doing in France. Afterwards we said, ‘Let’s just set a date and do it.’ We decided not to tell anyone so we wouldn’t create a lot of expectations. Because I was so busy, I didn’t have a chance to really start writing until four weeks before the date. What happened was that when I got off the road, literally the day I got home, I went crazy and started writing every moment I had. Brad had already sent me a couple of things, so I tried to write some things that complemented that and contrasted with it.”

“We didn’t get together until we went into the studio,” Mehldau adds, “but we were sending scores back and forth. We both use the same music-writing software, Sibelius, which is a great way to write music and send it around without faxing it. So we were e-mailing files to each other, and Pat also sent some rough demos with a rhythm track and a bass line, which was really helpful.”

When you have a knack for writing melody and harmony, as Metheny and Mehldau do, there’s a temptation to keep writing until every lead melody, every counter-melody, every chord voicing, every bass line and every rhythm pattern is specified on paper. The advantage of this approach is obvious: If you have a good idea, you want to capture it so it can be heard every time.

The disadvantage is just as obvious: If every portion of the piece is determined, there’s no room for improvisation, for the element of surprise that is the essence of jazz. The results end up being something else-art music or pop music. On the other hand, if the written part of the piece isn’t substantial enough to force the improviser into new reactions, the solo will end up a grab bag of old tricks, scale-running and tired clichés. How do you find the right balance? That “central issue,” as Metheny called it above, was at the heart of the writing for these albums.

“With two of these tunes for this project, ‘Legend’ and ‘Annie’s Bittersweet Cake’ [off Metheny Mehldau] I got pretty specific with the harmony,” Mehldau admits. “For whatever reason, that’s what came out at that moment. Those tunes have their place. Other tunes can just be a canvas that can be filled up. It’s all good. I like to hear more densely written tunes and ones that are more sketched out. If the musicians have been reading a lot for a while, sometimes it’s nice to hear something like a simple blues. But if they’re just blowing over simple forms the whole night, that can get redundant.”

“It all comes back to the storytelling analogy,” Metheny suggests. “What’s the best way to convey this emotion? There are times when the best way to say something is through a minimal amount of material and at other times there’s no other way to say something than to go deep into detail about sound, harmony or melody. One tune of mine that gets played a lot, ‘Song for Bilbao,’ is a very simple tune and sometimes that’s all you need. By contrast, ‘The Way Up’ is a 250-page score. Brad has a similar range.”

“Of course,” Mehldau adds, “the simpler a piece is, the more likely it is to enter the repertoire and be played by lots of people. You’re more likely to hear someone play ‘Song for Bilbao’ than ‘The Way Up.’ You’re not going to go to a jam session and hear someone call out, ‘The Way Up,’ one, two, three…'” Both men laugh.

In addition to sending scores back and forth, Metheny and Mehldau were feeling each other out by e-mail. For all their similarities, they had some differences too. Except for his Largo album, Mehldau has largely eschewed electronics, preferring to work in all-acoustic settings. Moreover, his music has often favored pared-down formats: Of the 13 albums released under his name as sole leader, 10 have been acoustic trio records and two have been acoustic solo records. By contrast, Metheny usually works with amplified instruments and often uses synthesized sounds. Plus, he often uses expanded line-ups with multiple percussionists, multiple lead instruments and multiple chording instruments.

“When we went into this project,” Metheny points out, “we knew each other, but we didn’t really know each other that well. I’m interested in some sonic stuff that might fall outside the mainstream jazz thing, and one of those things is the guitar synth. I wasn’t sure if Brad was interested in going there. But I had written this tune ‘Ring of Life,’ and I thought that sound would work really well on it. So I wrote to him and asked him how he would feel about using the synth.”

“I wrote back and said, ‘Please, by all means,'” Mehldau says. “The first time I heard Pat was when I was real young, and that guitar-synth sound was what drew me in. It sounds like a horn but it’s not a horn. It sounds so unlike any instrument you’ve heard that soon you’re not even thinking about an instrument. I love his whole sonic thing! I love what Lyle Mays brought to the group.

“As a musician, I’ve never had the inclination to study synth, partially because the territory has been so well covered by Lyle, Zawinul, Chick and Herbie. I’m more the musician who sticks with one thing and explores it. Even on Largo, where the piano is treated and I play a little vibes, I’m still dealing with the piano. But I’ve never been a listener who says I can’t listen to something because I don’t like the instrument. There can be a big difference between what you like as a player and what you like as a listener.”

Mehldau may not play electronic keyboards, but he has been a pioneer in interpreting modern pop songs in a jazz context. Already in his career, he has recorded multiple compositions by Radiohead, the Beatles, Nick Drake and Paul Simon, twisting their melodies and harmonies into new shapes and colors in much the same way he has with tunes by George Gershwin or Thelonious Monk. Metheny hasn’t interpreted post-Elvis pop songs in the same way, but he has embraced opportunities to record with such figures as Joni Mitchell, David Bowie and Bruce Hornsby. And the sound of Metheny’s guitar would be impossible to imagine without the example of rock guitarists such as Jimi Hendrix, George Harrison and Duane Allman.

“If you look at the tradition carefully,” Metheny argues, “the best jazz guys have been able to reflect the culture around them through this sophisticated prism. When I feel there’s a break from that jazz tradition, I get a little nervous. When I hear musicians who act as if nothing has happened since 19-whatever, I tend to lose interest quickly. One of the things that attracted me to Brad is he’s continuing that jazz tradition of acknowledging and refracting the active culture around him in a most evolved way.”

“When I think about harmony and melodic inspiration,” Mehldau reveals, “it definitely comes from jazz, but it also comes from interesting pop music and classical music. There’s stuff I love in all three streams, whether it’s Mahler, Monk or Paul Simon. In classical music there’s a compositional elaboration you rarely find in jazz. With the rock I like, there’s a compositional minimalism you don’t often find in jazz. As a composer and improviser, you draw from what you’ve heard and what you’ve loved. How can you do anything else?”

“In most of the music I have been involved in,” Metheny says, “there’s a basic sound reference. A hundred years from now, no one will have any problem placing the music that I have played historically. No one will say it’s from the 1950s or from the 1930s; they’ll be able to say that’s from 1975 or that’s from 1985, because it’s a sound that couldn’t have come from any other time. Jazz is pretty unforgiving in that way. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard anyone play effectively or interestingly in an older style with genuine authenticity. The form ultimately rejects the gesture. Jazz demands that it be played in its own time. The more it’s rooted in a particular point in time, the more it evokes timelessness, in the same way that the most personal writing can be the most universal.”

For guitarists such as Metheny, John Scofield and Bill Frisell-all baby boomers of roughly the same age-the inescapable fact of life is that the role of the guitar changed irrevocably in the ’60s. After years of being a supporting instrument that occasionally stepped forward to take a solo, the guitar suddenly became the dominant instrument in Western popular music, thanks to advances in technology that gave it new options in volume, dynamics, sonics and response.

“For John, Bill and I,” Metheny acknowledges, “it’s really been quite an adventure to reconcile the jazz and pop worlds. But it’s also been a challenge that has required a lot of research and new approaches to what the instrument can offer. Rather than fight the culture and pretend that the changes aren’t happening, we try to find what the culture is saying so we can mine it for the diamonds buried in the mud. While we were kids, amplification became a major part of music after the 200 preceding years of acoustic music and presented a whole series of opportunities and temptations. I don’t see any benefit in pretending that’s not there.”

Metheny and Mehldau had meant to write a few originals for their project and then fill out the album with some standards plus some older compositions by each man. But they showed up at Right Track Recording in Manhattan, in Dec. 2005, with more originals than could fit on one album. Of the 21 tracks that were eventually released on Metheny Mehldau and Quartet, there were no standards, five older compositions (Mehldau’s “Fear and Trembling” and “Unrequited” and Metheny’s “Marta’s Theme,” “Ahmid-6” and “Say the Brother’s Name”) and 16 brand-new pieces.

Once they were in the studio, they had to negotiate the often unwieldy logistics of a guitar and a piano playing together. While there have been some notable guitar/piano collaborations in jazz history-Charlie Christian with Teddy Wilson, Jim Hall with Bill Evans, Wes Montgomery with Wynton Kelly, Al Di Meola with Chick Corea, Metheny with Mays-the combination is still a relative rarity. It’s easy for the two chording instruments to clash or to clutter up an arrangement. It remained to be seen if Metheny and Mehldau could finesse this problem.

“They’re both instruments that generate harmony by using more than one note at a time,” Mehldau notes. “You have to find a way to do that so the music doesn’t become too dense with too much information. The other thing you have to consider is what are you going to do when you see a chord symbol on the page? Are you going to play it simply as it is or are you going to stretch it? When you’re the only chordal instrument in the band, you don’t have to worry about those choices so much.”

Once they started playing, however, such worries seemed to evaporate. The decisions they were making instinctively as the music flew by complemented each other far more often than they clashed, and the two musicians’ natural inclination toward lyricism and minimalism helped things mesh. Even in their improvisations, Metheny and Mehldau were thinking like composers and arrangers.

“From early on,” Metheny recalls, “we were thinking more in terms of music than of instruments. We both think orchestrally, and that’s part of what made the project such a thrill for me. If I’d start playing in this area or that area, Brad would immediately adjust to it. When I’m playing with somebody else, I’m thinking in terms of register and density. I might ask myself, ‘If this were a saxophone section behind what Brad is playing, would it be better if it were a tenor on top or an alto?’ I often think like that, like I’m a saxophone section or a string section behind the soloist. I ask myself, ‘What register should I be in? Should I be loud or soft? Smooth or rough? High or low?'”

“Pat didn’t always play a three- or four-note chord,” Mehldau adds. “Often he played a figuration that sketched out the harmony. You can play six or seven notes in a row that take the place of a chord, so you don’t have to play chords all the time. What I’m trying to do not just on this record, but in all my projects, is to get away from always looking at music vertically. I want to play more horizontally, where you spread out the chord, and sometimes those notes can take the form of melody. That’s the way Duke Ellington did it-each instrument playing a melodic line. That happened a lot on this project.”

“What was interesting for me was how free it was,” Metheny picks up. “That word freedom is thrown around a lot and a whole branch of jazz takes that as its name. But the freedom I felt with Brad was the sense that you could do anything because the other person is so inside that moment that the response happens in almost real time, almost immediately. To me, that’s the rarest freedom.”

“One of the realizations I had during this project,” Mehldau continues, “was that if you start with almost nothing and add things piece by piece, you give yourself this myriad of choices at all times because the space isn’t all used up. It can give you more freedom rather than less. I felt like I was playing differently after a couple of days with Pat. In the beginning I was playing a lot, but then I found myself leaving things out more and more.”

Both Metheny and Mehldau give a lot of credit to their rhythm section. Bassist Larry Grenadier has been part of the Brad Mehldau Trio since 1995, but he was also part of the Pat Metheny Trio for the studio album, Trio 99>00, and the subsequent live album, Trio>Live. So he provided a valuable link between the two leaders. Drummer Jeff Ballard, by contrast, was making only his second album with Mehldau and his first with Metheny.

For all their beauty and intricacy, the duo tracks can sometimes get a bit airy. The quartet tracks, by contrast, have an earthiness that makes Quartet a more rewarding album than Metheny Mehldau.

The opening cut on Quartet, for example, is “A Night Away,” the only co-written number among the 21 released tracks. It begins with the kind of prominent, throbbing bass figure that Reggie Workman used to play behind Pharoah Sanders, and Ballard plays a rattling, equally insistent drum pattern. Grenadier and Ballard continually vary these motifs but they never lose what Metheny calls “an almost tribal feel,” and that weight is important when the guitarist or pianist take off in flight. Throughout the album, the physicality of the rhythm section provides a necessary counterbalance to the romanticism of the leaders.

It’s easy, in talking about jazz, to get so distracted by technical issues that you neglect the main business, which is the emotional impact on the listener. Both Metheny and Mehldau maintain that this project reminded them of their first experiences with music, when their reactions were still visceral rather than intellectual. For Mehldau, it was remembering the first time he heard Metheny’s Travels album; for Metheny it was the memory of a Miles Davis album.

“When I was about 11, my brother brought home ‘Four’ & More,” the guitarist recalls, “and when I put that record on, it was like somebody hit me over the head with a two-by-four. From that moment to now, I’ve been on this trip to understand what happened in that moment. I’ve listened to that record over and over again, and I still get it out once in a while. At 11, I didn’t understand that when they played ‘There Is No Greater Love,’ they were playing on the form. To me it was just sound and it totally worked for me.

“A couple years later, when I was 13 and playing some songs, my skills developed to the point where I could put it all together and say, ‘Wait a minute, those guys are playing this song structure underneath,’ and it was cool on that level too. As the years went by and my skills improved, it became more and more interesting. The experience didn’t change as I got more knowledge; it was enriched. But I still try to remember that initial impact it had on me.

“Sometimes-and I’m sure it happens to you, Brad-you’re playing a concert and you look out in the audience and wonder what they’re hearing. Somehow, as an improviser, you have to trust that they’re feeling the emotion and spirit of the music even if they don’t recognize the structure. You have to trust that they’re feeling it the way I did when I heard that Miles record when I was 11.” Originally Published

Geoffrey Himes

Geoffrey Himes has written about jazz and other genres of music on a regular basis for the Washington Post since 1977 and has also written for JazzTimes, Paste, Rolling Stone, New York Times, Smithsonian Magazine, National Public Radio, and others. His book on Bruce Springsteen, Born in the U.S.A., was published by Continuum Books in 2005 and he’s currently working on a major book for the Country Music Hall of Fame. He has been honored for Music Feature Writing by the Deems Taylor/ASCAP Awards (2003, 2005, 2014 and 2015), the New Orleans Press Awards, the Abell Foundation Awards and the Music Journalism Awards.