Assessing brad mehldau at mid-career
by Ted Gioia
Early in his career, Brad Mehldau was branded as a Bill Evans disciple. Most young pianists would be flattered at the comparison, but Mehldau would have none of it. In what may be the defining moment of his career, Mehldau wrote lengthy liner notes to his Art of the Trio 4: Back at the Vanguard CD, which began not with a description of the music, or thanking his producer, or the typical quasi-philosophical musings we have come to expect in such settings, but rather as follows:
The constant comparison of this trio with the Bill Evans trio by critics has been a thorn in my side. I remember listening to his music only a little, when I was 13 or 14 years old, for several months . . .
Mehldau continues by offering evidence. “The way Larry and I are abstracting harmony has nothing to do with Bill Evans . . .Often what I am doing in my solo is basing its melodic content on the initial melody of the song. You won’t find the model for this approach in Bill Evans . . .” The entire essay runs for some two thousand words, and though it soon leaves behind the subject of Bill Evans to address many issues, eventually ending up with a discussion of Beethoven, the sheer scope and bravado of Mehldau's liner 'notes' are striking. Jazz fans have grown used to aloof artists such as Miles Davis and Keith Jarrett, who usually keep their CD booklets as empty as possible, and many are even uncomfortable with musicians who try to explain rather than perform -- perhaps a sign of the anti-intellectualism of the jazz world, but definitely an attitude that jazz players ignore at their own risk. In this environment, Mehldau's essay was as subtle as a hand grenade.
Doth the pianist protest too much? Certainly there were similarities between Mehldau’s early efforts and the Bill Evans trio – although many of the connecting points sounded (to my ears) filtered through other influences, perhaps via Fred Hersch who served for a time as Mehldau’s teacher. But with each new recording, Mehldau developed and expanded on his own original voice, and by the time he wrote these liner notes, his trio was exploring new terrain that was more likely to exert an influence on others, rather than display its own influences.
So score one for Mehldau. His essay may not have been diplomatic, but the points he made were valid ones. Most musicians rarely dare to criticize the critics, but with so much sloppy writing and (even worse) sloppy thinking passing for reviewing these days, it's a wonder that more players don't lash out on occasion. And anyone who took the time to listen to the CD that came long with these liner notes – or indeed, just the opening track, where Mehldau and company tackle “All the Things You Are” in a fast 7/4 time – would realize that the setting of this recording might be the Village Vanguard, but we have come a long way since “Waltz for Debby.”
There are many fine pianists in the jazz world today, but it would be hard to find one under the age of forty who has already done more outstanding and innovative work than Brad Mehldau. He has released trio records roughly at the pace of one per year for the last decade, and the quality of this music is exceptional. There are many things to admire in this work, but I would call attention to the following four:
(1) The masterful rhythmic phrasing of Mehldau and his colleagues, who have freed themselves completely from the constraints of bar lines and downbeats: This may inspire comparisons to Evans and LaFaro or to Hancock-Carter-Williams, or Wynton Marsalis’s great Roberts-Hurst-Watts rhythm section from the 1980s, or to Bley or Jarrett, or going back even farther, to Tristano and company. But Mehldau's trio has set up its own rules for this game, and is working its rhythmic reconfigurations at a very high level of virtuosity. It is especially exhilarating to hear them floating over the ground rhythm in odd time meters, all the while maintaining a high level of interactivity and variety in their playing.
(2) The redefinition of left and right hands: If I may be forgiven a gross over-simplification, I could characterize the first fifty years of jazz piano as too dominated by the left hand, and the last fifty years as too dominated by the right hand. Okay, here is another generalization: the first fifty years were too vertical in keyboard conception, the last fifty years too horizontal. (I warned you these were gross over-simplifications, but they are not without their value.) Mehldau has tried to integrate these two opposed visions – vertical and horizontal, bass versus treble – into a unified keyboard style. This is much more than a technical issue, or a question of dexterity. Other jazz players have shown off their killing left hands. Peterson, Corea, Shearing, Tatum, Newborn and others could probably play “Donna Lee” with their left hand while working “Confirmation” with their right. The bigger challenge, however, is conceptual. How does one forge a jazz piano style that brings together left-and-right, vertical-and-horizontal in a pleasing and unified whole. This is a much harder task. There have been hints in the jazz piano literature at what this holistic approach might look like – check out Keith Jarrett’s “In Front” from his first solo piano recording Facing You for an example. But the progress Mehldau has made in presenting a coherent and satisfying solution to this riddle, both in trio and solo performances, deserves to be called a breakthrough. In an age in which jazz innovation (although not necessarily jazz excellence) is always in short supply, we should not take this achievement lightly.
(3) Mehldau’s persistence in expanding the piano trio repertoire: This aspect of Mehldau’s work is perhaps more widely recognized, but it deserves notice here. I could dwell on the specific choices (Radiohead, Nick Drake, the Beatles, Paul Simon), but the general principle is perhaps more important. In the last thirty years, jazz has veered dangerously close to becoming a museum piece. Even someone like me, who loves the jazz tradition and all it represents, must find this troubling. Throughout the history of the music, jazz has refreshed itself by entering into dialogue with popular music styles and different genres (such as world music or classical music). Today we need this type of engagement with new sounds more than ever, and Mehldau is one of the most uninhibited musicians of his generation in trying to open new doors.
(4) Freedom from banality and cliché; The jazz vocabulary has become codified and disseminated with such success during the last several decades -- primarily through the expansion of jazz education programs -- that even the local high school sax player has memorized fifty tried-and-true ways of inserting chromatic licks over a ii-V chord change. The towering innovations of Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker and even (or perhaps especially) John Coltrane are now memorized and regurgitated on every college campus. In this environment, improvising over familiar chord changes without relying on these hackneyed phrases is a far greater accomplishment. Few ensembles do this with more grace or consistency than Mehldau's trio.
Has Mehldau completely succeeded in his endeavors? Some carp that he is often too “cerebral” – a term that I think should be seen as a compliment, because smart playing deserves to be praised, but which in the macho world of jazz criticism is usually a put-down. Well, yes, sometimes Mehldau is very cerebral -- and thank you, Brad, for putting such deep intelligence into your work. Then again, Mehldau often plays with great swing and emotional immediacy or with stark simplicity . . . so these generalizations don’t get us very far.
Perhaps the real issue here is the challenge Mehldau faces in pulling everything together. He has made great progress on many fronts, but in different performances and recordings he has preferred to expand the territory he covers rather than consolidate his gains. So he does not yet exhibit that commanding single-minded personality that puts an identifiable fingerprint on every phrase – at least not to the degree that we find with Monk, Tyner, Evans, Tatum, Peterson, Jamal, Jarrett, Garner and a few others grand individualists in the pantheon of jazz keyboard. Perhaps the nature of Mehldau’s accomplishments, the sheer breadth of what he is trying to do, makes such consolidation impossible. But this pianist has already surpassed my expectations at several points in the past, and I have not yet seen anything to suggest that Brad Mehldau has reached a ceiling or plateau in his development. He is merely at mid-career. And if I expect further surprises from this artist, it is only because he as delivered them so consistently in the past.