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Brad Mehldau: Halcyon Days

When the pianist moved to New York in the late 1980s, he entered “jazz heaven,” as he describes in his moving new book

Brad Mehldau 1996
Brad Mehldau at Iridium, New York, January 1996 (photo: Alan Nahigian)

In Brad Mehldau’s memoir Formation, the pianist and composer recounts the events of his early years, ending in the mid-1990s. Deep philosophical musings alternate with discomforting tales of abuse, sexual confusion, and drug addiction. But for jazz fans, the most engaging passages will undoubtedly be those long sections where Mehldau writes in depth about music and musicians. Two such sections appear below. In the first, our author, still a teenager and newly arrived in New York from Connecticut, is finding his way in the club scene of the late ’80s and learning some lessons about accompaniment.

I had been playing piano in [saxophonist] Jesse Davis’ group at Augie’s and it was heaven—I felt like a cog in a wheel, comping behind him. He played so rhythmically strong and swinging, and my comping was improving every week, being up there with him. Comping is an indispensable part of being a jazz pianist, unless you only want to play your own music without any other soloists. Even then you should have a handle on it.

Brad Mehldau Formation
Excerpted from Formation: Building a Personal Canon Part One by Brad Mehldau (Equinox Publishing Ltd.). Copyright © Brad Mehldau 2023.

The experience with Jesse helped to ease an inferiority complex about comping I had brought to New York. It had started during my first gig at the 880 in Hartford, with [drummer/educator] Larry DiNatale. Larry told me two or three times: “You’re really talented, but you’ll never be a good comper.” I wasn’t then, at age 15. [Saxophonist] Joel Frahm was on the gig with us, and at least he didn’t complain too much to me about how I comped behind him. I held onto Larry’s words going forward as I arrived in New York, trying to figure out what he had meant, always trying to be good at comping, never really sure. In retrospect, I think that Larry’s comment was not flippant. He was sensing something about my personality, and got me aware of how that could play out detrimentally in the music.

I had been trying to people-please as a comper, and my model no doubt came from the musico-social interactions I had in high school, where I would try to come over to someone’s side through their music: metalhead? No problem, I’ll talk to him about Judas Priest. Stevie Nicks devotee? We can hang out in her basement, and get dreamy together listening to Fleetwood Mac. It had worked well enough in a high-school social setting. But how did that dictum play out in the abstracted sociality of collective jazz improvisation?

I began to learn that instrumentalists and singers often didn’t want or need a similar validation from the accompanist. Actually, most of the time, they preferred that you supply your steady support by staying clear of their path, not answering their every idea, but rather laying something down more locked into the bass and drums, even grid-like. If you are constantly trying to interact with every idea they present, you are not really accompanying, properly speaking—you are hijacking their ideas in a sense, and putting the focus on what you’re doing instead. It becomes more, “Look at me everyone, I’m so hip and adept at catching the soloist/singer’s ideas!” But what it’s really saying to the soloist/singer (and the audience) is: “Please like me!” It’s overbearing. It feels like one of those people you know who, when in a conversation with you, is constantly affirming what you’re saying—“Yeah . . . totally . . . exactly!”—before you’ve even finished your thought.

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My comping complex was rooted in the bad old cloying social insecurity that had seeded in West Hartford—like in Mr. Mazzie’s class, or at Papa Gino’s [where Mehldau had an early job]. It was that fear of rejection. In the first few years in New York City, I began to excise that quality from my comping. Next, in a familiar self-referential loop, I feared that the act of excising itself was just so much more people-pleasing. Finally, I began to simply let go a bit and learn through repeated experiences in live situations, through trial and error…. A seed gets planted and then it takes some time to sprout. It sprouted to fruition, I would say, when I joined Joshua Redman’s quartet a few years later.

Brad Mehldau at Village Gate
Mehldau at the Village Gate in 1990 with Leon Parker (L) and Ugonna Okegwo (R) (photo: Charles Ruggiero)

I remembered the guy Jeremy at Papa Gino’s who was flipping pies within a few short months while I struggled at the grill. He didn’t give a shit—it was 5:45 evening rush hour, the place was packed and customers were eyeing him impatiently. But he was as cool as a cucumber, getting the pizzas in and out of the big oven. Maybe the thing was to just not give a shit with comping as well—not to throw away your taste and sensibility, mind you, but to bring a little of that cavalier pie-flipping thing into it. I started watching this less sensitive kind of comping going on at jam sessions or on gigs, and I didn’t always dig it. But I also noticed that other people often did—most importantly, the soloists they were comping behind. So what did it matter what I thought? In building a personal aesthetic it’s important to realize it’s just that—personal.

The more interactive kind of comping was nevertheless a strong model. The unparalleled master was Herbie Hancock in Miles Davis’ 1960s quintet (and also on many Blue Note records, playing as a sideman). When Miles or Wayne soloed, Herbie, with his incredible ears, would hear something in their line in real time. Often it might be an unexpected harmonic turn. Herbie would fuse with it, answering with a very specifically voiced chord that vindicated their idea. At its most inspired, that chord was three-tiered. It acknowledged the bracing audacity of the soloist’s note choice—in Miles’ case, often a long, held-out note that spanned through several chord changes—by doubling it. Yet it also underpinned that note with other harmony that gave it dimension. Finally, there were a few more lower notes in the chord that welded it to the bottom end of the tonality that Ron Carter supplied. That kind of gambit required a deeply sophisticated understanding of harmony and all its implications, and the ability to call on it in the white heat of someone’s solo. If you look at all of Miles’ piano players, all of them were at the top of the heap of their contemporaries in terms of harmonic sophistication—Red Garland, Wynton Kelly, Bill Evans—and Herbie pushed the bar higher.

Bill Evans was another role model. We think of Evans most often as a trio innovator. On Kind of Blue, though, he inaugurated a coloristic kind of comping, less tethered to the rhythmic pulse, on tunes like “So What” or “Flamenco Sketches.” There were other strong instances as well, notably his comping on Oliver Nelson’s classic The Blues and the Abstract Truth, or his own Loose Blues, comping behind Zoot Sims and Jim Hall.

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“Ed Blackwell was quietly majestic at the drums: unapproachable, really, in his authority; yet welcoming on some elemental level, like fire coals on a bed of earth.”

The other approach for comping, just as appealing in terms of its musical results, but perhaps more difficult for me to assimilate into my own expression, was indeed the normative approach, the one that the majority of exemplary piano stylists used. It was not people-pleasing. The idea was to stay with the bass and drums as a supporting team for the soloist. After all, that’s why you were part of the rhythm section as a pianist—you didn’t have a special title, like “mediator between soloist and rhythm section.” In this view, interactive comping was pretentious and unwelcome. Ironically, trying so hard to acknowledge the soloist or singer was rather self-important. You were stealing the soloists’ thunder. Instead of validating them, you were taking the wind out of their sails by suggesting they needed finishing touches on their ideas. It might actually interrupt the flow of their story, instead of aiding it. Let them acknowledge themselves. Pianists like Red Garland, Sonny Clark, Cedar Walton, and Mal Waldron were quintessential non-pretentious compers, each in their own inimitable way, and they rubbed off on me.

Jesse did something special, though, when I played with him: he listened back to what I was doing, and moved with it. This was, in one light, an altruistic act as a soloist, forgoing his exclusivity as the sole narrator of the story he told. He was feeding me, his accompanist, something, and waiting to see what I would give back. It was a wonderful way to play, and I would find it again a few years later with Joshua Redman in his band, who initiated the same thing with me. As a comper, that back and forth exchange is not something you should bring to the table and present to the soloist or singer. You are having a dialogue, yes—but by their invitation. They are still the host.

It is now 1990, and Mehldau, gradually becoming more comfortable in Manhattan, changes address and finds himself amid an embarrassment of riches.

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My third year in New York City, aged twenty … I moved from St. Mark’s Place into a studio apartment on Jones Street in the West Village, smack in the middle of jazz heaven. Surrounding me within several blocks were blue-chip jazz clubs: the Village Vanguard, Sweet Basil, the 55 Bar, the Blue Note, the Village Gate, and Visiones. Bradley’s, Fat Tuesdays, Condon’s, and the Knitting Factory were only a ten-minute walk away as well.

There was so much great music around me every night. Often, there were tough decisions to make. Pianists Tommy Flanagan, Cedar Walton, Kenny Barron, Barry Harris, and Hank Jones were all titans, at the top of my list. They played regularly at Bradley’s in a trio or duo setting for weeklong engagements. I watched their touch, their poise at the instrument, their complete relaxation. I listened to their individual timbres, feeling the unique collective swing of each trio—the way the beat bounced around the piano, bass, and drums.

At Sweet Basil, there was a wider range of instrumentation and style. It was the place to see hard bop veterans like Art Farmer or Lou Donaldson, Mal Waldron and Steve Lacy’s trance-like duo, and Cecil Taylor’s wild Feel Trio. Gil Evans had a Monday-night slot there with his pared-down big band which included all-round keyboardist and arranger Gil Goldstein, a friendly mentoring presence for us early on, and an important teacher for many at the New School. Just up four blocks at the Vanguard, any number of exalted configurations come to mind, like drummer Paul Motian’s unrepeatable bassless trio with Joe Lovano and Bill Frisell. Or there was that week Ed Blackwell played with Don Pullen and George Adams, whose co-led quartet were at the Vanguard regularly. Blackwell’s drumming changed everything for me. He showed how you could play in a formally unhinged context, yet create your own shifting grid, one with simplicity and integrity which nevertheless moved easily within the free current of the music. And it felt so good. It had been one thing to hear him do that on those hallmark recordings with the Ornette Coleman Quartet, but the live experience was something else.

Brad Mehldau on the road
On the Fender Rhodes at Augie’s, tip basket close at hand (photo: Charles Ruggiero)

The sublime as I experienced it, with its heady duality of recognition and fear, was a live sublime in these memorable performances. Blackwell was quietly majestic at the drums: unapproachable, really, in his authority; yet welcoming on some elemental level, like fire coals on a bed of earth. These kinds of visceral impressions did not come from listening to records. The physical immediacy of the musicians made for a far more sensual intake, one that was not only aural/visual. As strange as it sounds, I often felt that I could even smell the music. It might be brown liquor: Lou Donaldson’s groups, particularly with the joyous addition of Dr. Lonnie Smith on Hammond B-3 organ (and sometimes Peter Bernstein, who had one of his first gigs with an older master playing with Lou), had the bouquet of the Paddy Irish Whiskey I had recently discovered on a tour in Ireland – sweet but not cloying, bracing. Mal Waldron and Steve Lacy were more like Scotch: smokier, and there was also the real smell of smoke that came off Waldron’s black tobacco cigarette which remained inexplicably lit for the duration of the set. In Blackwell’s case, there was indeed an earth smell to his playing: late summer in a forest, the ground still damp from a recent rain.

Brad Mehldau with cig
Mehldau in 1991 (photo: Charles Ruggiero)

Joe Henderson played at Fat Tuesdays, often with the great Al Foster on drums. You could hear trumpeter Harry “Sweets” Edison at Condon’s, still in fine form. And every Wednesday night, unless he was on tour, guitarist Mike Stern’s trio was playing marathon sets at the 55 Bar practically down the street from my place, usually with electric bassist Jeff Andrews and Adam Nussbaum, whom I knew already from the 880 days in Hartford: a powerful drummer who cracked a whip under me in a few sessions I played with him at the New School. There was a $5 cover charge and you could stay as long as you wanted if you bought two drinks. Most of us were under the legal drinking age of 21, but we never got carded at any of those places in those days, even the baby-faces among us. New York City was much more anarchic then. It all began to change when Rudy Giuliani became mayor in 1994.

“If you are constantly trying to interact with every idea soloists present, you are not really accompanying, properly speaking— you are hijacking their ideas.” 

Particular sets, like the one with Ed Blackwell the first night I saw him, were one-off transformations for me. I would come out of the club having experienced a musical sensation I didn’t know existed an hour-and-a-half earlier. Then I would think: “That is the real shit, what just took place. That’s what I need to get in my own playing.” Maybe that’s the reason people become narrow in their taste as they get older—they’re chasing that beautiful, incomparable initial rupture, and they want to get back to the thing that broke them free in the first place. You can’t.

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Those piano players I heard at Bradley’s and elsewhere were distinct from each other, but they were all appealing because they had this absolutely relaxed, dancing feeling in their music. I wanted not only to play like that; I wanted to be like that. I wanted to carry that coolness with me. I suspected that it had something to do not only with the notes they played but the lives they led. I was projecting, or I wasn’t—I think part of what I felt, intuitively, was also their experience outside of the music.

There was this chasm of life between them and me. They were elders but, far from being stuffy or didactic, these elders were hipper than I was, not the other way around. There was always that sophistication in their playing, a subtlety that was regal. It demanded your respect, without any words or history lessons. It was all there in the music. Whether they played or whether they stood at the bar fraternizing, they seemed to be free from earthly burdens even as they were solidly on the earth, tasting its fruit with mirth.

I was taking all that in—not just being influenced by the music but also checking out the attitude: the way the musicians carried themselves. Mal Waldron smoked those brown cigarettes while he played in the minimalist approach I had loved on records, building up just one or two ideas for a large span of time, creating a trance with his chugging swing. Billy Higgins had this particular gesture as he answered Cedar’s ideas, chopping wood with his fat snare drum—like a shock of energy that snapped through his shoulders and released outwards with a nod of his head. He played with a smile like Buddha—one of delighted bliss, above mere excitement.

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They were in the music completely, yet they were observing it, manipulating it exactly how they wanted, together as a unit. There was something almost cruel about the casual way they achieved that. How could they not lose themselves in the grandeur of it all? How could they not become entranced by their own creation? That power seemed almost dangerous—like a sword only they could hold. So it brought me a kind of fear beholding it. The live sublime they embodied could be a quiet insurrection—taking my power away as a listener, leaving me whipped, standing by the bar. They achieved it in the music with cold-blooded insouciance, like sipping whiskey, or waiting at a bus stop.

When Cedar Walton would walk off the stage, I might meet his eye before I turned away quickly, not wanting to stare. I was cowed by all those masters, and never approached them. Somewhere in me, though, the music was seeping in. I was going to have that some day. It would settle into me with time and I would speak it with the grace they had. I may have lacked self-confidence in so many areas of my life, but I always knew: that’s my terrain, that’s within my grasp. Not the way they are doing it—I couldn’t do that—but something my own that would come out of it. I just had to stay with the music I loved, and be strong in it. And, even though I didn’t want to turn square and get boxed in, I also had to stay loyal to that, and not start playing some candy-assed crap that wasn’t real. Looking back, holding to those guidelines was never difficult. It was the rest of my life that was falling apart.