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.

Related Links

The Dozens: Twelve Essential Brad Mehldau Performances by Ted Gioia


December 31, 2007 · 16 comments

  • 1 caponsacchi // Jan 02, 2008 at 03:10 AM
    "We've come a long way since 'Waltz for Debby'." In which direction, forward or retrograde? Mehldau's liner notes were the height of confusion if not self-delusion--making statements about his connection not with Evans but with some more "black" tradition--the desperate maneuvers of a talented if not prodigious youngster suffering from Oedipal anxiety. But to little purpose. There's little to no Bill in him, unfortunately. And Evans, rather than take on his forbears, addressed his personal past, completely reinventing himself before his death. His playing during the last year of his life takes us into realms of experience previously entered only by Verdi, Mozart, and Ravel. Dark, dangerous, beautiful.
  • 2 Chad Lexington // Jan 08, 2008 at 02:15 PM
    Brad is a great pianist, but the way most critics kiss his rear end is really tiresome. Brad has been doing the the same thing since the 90's, every CD sounds the same. And what I want to know is, how insecure are you if you have to write extensive, over-intellectual ,pretentious liner notes about how some critic compared you to Bill Evans?Boo hoo! With all the genocide, starvation, and poverty in the world, with corporations plotting against the entire human race, and THIS is what your upset about? Brad is the only pianist of his generation to be afford the luxury of touring exclusively with his own trio since the mid 90's. He should be thanking his lucky stars instead of railing against the critics. Maybe if they had said he sounds like a cross between Yanni and John Tesh, then maybe I could see getting upset..... By the way, Wynton Kelly did a Beatles record back in the day, but nobody stood around and said he was expanding the repetoire. How about expanding the repetoire with your own compositions, like McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock,Chick Corea, Mulgrew Miller,Kenny Barron. Other pianists play tunes by these pianists. No one I know plays any Brad Mehldau tunes. I'll leave you with this: I have a friend in Russia who told me that Brad was booked to do a solo concert in Moscow in a huge concert hall. He said is was sparsely attended and people left in droves because it was BORING! I'll take Keith Jarrett any day, even though he's actually MORE pretentious, if that's possible. At least I hear some emotion in his music. CL
  • 3 Cornelis // Jan 09, 2008 at 07:25 PM
    yes, once I wlaked out of a concert of his trio (8 years ago?) and a reviewer wrote (and I know he was adressing me) that soem other pianists walked out, because of frustration because of his "mastery". Wohhw, I was just bored shitless: no sense of melody and harmony and mediocre timing. I mean melody is about the game of notes/pitches, making some important within a time spectrum etc. Well, his playing was just flat flat flat, Nothing loud or soft etc Won't waist any more words on him Cor
  • 4 Alec // Jan 10, 2008 at 12:05 AM
    I was not at the concert that Cornelis attended, but I would highly doubt that Brad was playing with out any sense of melody, harmony, or "timing". I would disagree with the statement that melody "is about the game of notes/pitches..." as well. Brad is a master of constructing beautiful, non-cliche phrases, something I think is essential when constructing a melody. Correct me if I'm wrong, but it sounds to me like that night you heard a piano player who you either weren't ready for, or, at the very least, didn't have a sound that you could relate to. I think its wrong to bash his musicality because of your opinions.
  • 5 Cornelis // Jan 10, 2008 at 12:19 PM
    Well okay, let me say one last thing on this guy. When you're a real virtuosic, virtuosity doesn't become an issue. Writers tend to write about the music then and maybe add technical stuff as a side note. When you're not a virtuosic, you will have to act like one and it becomes an issue and ctitics write about this "great" virtuosity. Sorry, but he is a very mediocre player, period. Cor
  • 6 Clams // Jan 13, 2008 at 07:26 AM
    Cor, you don't know what you are talking about. Brad is a virtuoso, and anything but mediocre. Take a look at this youtube clip from a concert 10 years ago for proof, and he's even better now... If you all are leaving his concerts, it's because you don't get it. Please don't comment on what you don't understand.
  • 7 Cornelis // Jan 15, 2008 at 03:26 PM
    Clams, they reason I commented is because this is about something I know (or used to know) quite well. Otherwise I wouldn't have bothered, The youtube link proves me exacly right. An aplause after he does some simple trills in his right hand and moves the mediocre playing from his right to his left hand?? Common. I'm not really talking virtuosity in the usual sence. Maybe that's the misunderstanding. I think e.g. Monk, Ellington, Mengelberg where/are fantastic viruosic players because they had/have: personality, sound, timing of events, very different volumes they used within a frase and therefore tension. Your guy just doesn't have this. And if you really want to credit him for being viruosic in the more common (but incorrect IMO) way, then that youtube link shows it doesn't go far beyond the Czerny or Cramer/Bülow etudes. Anyway, enough from me. You fans, carry on.......
  • 8 Chad Lexington // Jan 30, 2008 at 12:33 PM
    It's all about the hype. Not just in Jazz, in every aspect of our lives these days. Broccoli is really one of the best things you can eat, but McDonald's has the hype machine. McDonald's has how many catchy tunes throughout the years to make you remember to eat there? Where's a ad campaing for Broccoli? Brad's career gained tremendously from the hype machine of Warner Jazz. Matt Pierson as VP of Warner Jazz thought that Brad and Josh Redman were the "saviors" of Jazz. Then Pierson started romancing some floozy with the use of the Warner expense account. SO this ended Warner Jazz. Not to mention the CD sales weren't what the "suits" were expecting. Is Brad Pitt the best actor ever? Hell no. He's part of the machine. I'm sure there are unbelievable actors out there whom we will never hear about because they don't have the right look or didn't sleep with the right director. Most jazz critics just follow the hype, their ears are unable to differentiate Bill Evans from Linda Evans. So they all anointed Brad because they don't want to actually figure it out for themselves. I think Brad can play , for sure. But take any one of his CDS and put it on next to something like Now He Sings Now He SObs, or any of Herbie's early stuff, or any of the Keith Jarrett standards albums, or McCoy Tyner Supertrios or Passion Dance or Kenny Kirkland's only CD as a leader. Not even close!in my view...... Not to mention Brad is not much of a composer, which is no crime, but again, look at the history of jazz greats. Jazz musicians play Herbie Tunes, they play Monk tunes, they play Chick tunes, they play Wayne tunes, they play Cedar Walton tunes. I don't know anybody playing any of Brad's tunes. Again , no crime, but BEST JAZZ MUSICIAN OF HIS GENERATION AND MODERN TIMES? give me a break! CL
  • 9 Tengdahl // Feb 14, 2008 at 11:27 PM
    I have come across few recorded players who hold such a high sense of logic in so many areas of their playing...his conception of music and the piano is very impressive and at times scary. However, if you put one of his albums next to, say, the 'Footprints' Shorter band, I will go for Shorter. I think that is because I enjoy the more 'free jazz' style ensemble interactions, and the use of timbre as an important musical aspect, as opposed to the highly considered playing of the Mehldau bands (exluding 'Largo'). I much prefer him solo, but that is my personal preference. Make sure the criticisms of him arn't out of fear of his music... because as a pianist, I stayed away for a while because I was intimidated by how deeply considered the music was/is.
  • 10 michael // Feb 19, 2008 at 11:13 PM
    I'm not sure whether it's sort of funny or just sad that many of the above comments support Gioia's unfortunately all-too-real assertion that jazz has "veered dangerously close to becoming a museum piece." This is, of course, not a new practice...for a good example of how this works take a look at what has gone on in the world of "classical" music. When Pierre Boulez got a little too ambitious in his programming in NY, patrons and musicians alike became disgruntled..."where's the Beethoven, Haydn, etc.?" Now the jazz cognoscenti have perpetuated what is really a somewhat natural part of the human condition when it comes to matters of familiarity and historical "correctness". Fortunately for Mehldau, he is aware of these realities and does his best not to play these games (he is obviously tuned into the past in his own way!) The "people walked out therefore said artist must not be good" argument is, of course, extremely weak tending to support herd mentality vs. actual critical observation and independent analysis (see E. Fromm for more insight here).
  • 11 Bob // Apr 08, 2008 at 04:29 PM
    Memo to myself: Listen to the music, maybe read a good critic once in a while (like Gioia above), but don't read the tags. How depressing. I saw Mehldau and the trio last night and for 90+ minutes was mesmerized and inspired. Nothing else matters, really.
  • 12 Gus // Apr 15, 2008 at 06:33 PM
    Wow, what idiotic comments. Mehldau is one of the greatest pianists of he past twenty or thirty years, and a bunch of dim witted comments on a blog won't change that. As for the Evans comparison, I never could hear it myself. I've been listening to him play live since the early '90s. Back then I went to see him all the time (often more than once a week). His most recognizable influence, at least back then, was Wynton Kelly. Go back and check out his oldest recordings and you'll hear it. You can still hear it very occasionally...
  • 13 The Lady Eve // May 04, 2008 at 06:18 PM
    Hey Chad, If you don't get Brad, that's cool. Your loss. I think it's hard to make any reasonable argument against the claim that he's the most important jazz player of his generation, on any instrument. By the way, I think you are quite mistaken about Pierson's tenure at WB. In addition to creating an environment where musicians like Mehldau, Garrett, Redman, and Metheny were able to realize their vision, the perception that there was some kind of financial impropriety is ludicrous. The music business began to die, WMG was getting prepared to sell to Edgar Bronfman, and they decided to get out of the jazz business. Pierson was well paid, having made a great deal of money for the company in previous years, thanks to building a tremendous roster on the commercial/smooth jazz side of things. I was there, and these are the facts. At a time when everyone was battling over who would sign Jacky Terrasson, WB signed Mehldau and cut ten terrific records in eight years without any creative restraints.
  • 14 Jason // Apr 10, 2009 at 04:13 PM
    If you don't get Brad Mehldau maybe it would help to listen to his early work as sideman. He recorded with Joshua Redman, Chris Potter etc and his playing in those albums are more 'traditional' so to speak. He was already a great player back then and you can hear the roots of the kind of ideas he plays now. I can't even begin to imagine what kind of influence he has on younger pianists. People like Taylor Eigsti and Aaron Parks admit that Brad was a huge influence, and if you go to school, it seems like everyone is trying to play like Brad Mehldau, and not so much Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner, or Chick Corea. I think a lot of it has to do with people not understanding what he is doing. I've heard people make similar comments/criticisms about how Ari Hoenig, or Maria Schneider... some people just don't like the new stuff because they don't sound like Parker, Coltrane, Evans, or Ellington, and they want to believe that the golden age of jazz died with them.
  • 15 Jason // Apr 10, 2009 at 05:15 PM
    This reminds me of what I read about Clare Fischer, and how he was compared to Bill Evans early on even though Clare didn't really listen to Bill's music. People always want to compare other pianists to 'the greats' as if they invented everything and they are the standard that everyone should be judge by. It's ridiculous and naive... and it really gets in the way of appreciating something for what it is.
  • 16 craig // Jun 16, 2009 at 12:23 PM
    The rendetion of "Paranoid Android" and particular the improvised middle section is a landmark performance and enough for me to place Brad as the most important pianist of our generation. The improvisation is innovative, technical a harmonic achievement!