In conversation with brad mehldau (part 2)
Below is part two of Ted Panken’s extensive interview with Brad Mehldau. For part one, click here. Also check out jazz.com's Dozens feature on twelve essential Brad Mehldu tracks, and the essay "Assessing Brad Mehldau at Mid-Career."
by Ted Panken
Another influence that filtered into the sound of your early trio was classical music, which seems as much a part of your tonal personality as the jazz influences. Were you playing classical music before jazz?
Yes. I started playing classical music as a kid, but I wasn’t getting the profundity of a lot of what I was playing. I didn’t like Bach, and I liked flashy Chopin stuff. I did already have an affinity for Brahms, though; he became sort of a mainstay. Then jazz took over.
Fast forward. I was around 22, maybe four years in New York, and for whatever reason, I started rediscovering classical music with deep pleasure. What I did, what I’m still doing now, as I did with jazz for a long time—I absorbed-absorbed-absorbed. I went on a buying frenzy to absorb a lot of music. A lot of chamber music...
Records or scores?
Records and scores. A lot of records. A lot of listening. A lot of going to concerts here in New York. I guess it rubbed off a little. For one thing, it got me focusing more on my left hand. Around that time, I had been playing in a certain style of jazz, where your left hand accompanies the right hand playing melodies when you’re soloing. That’s great, but I had lost some of the facility in my left hand to the point where I was thinking, “Wow, I probably had more dexterity in my left hand when I was 12 than I do now.” So it was sort of an ego or vanity thing that bugged me a little, and it got me into playing some of this classical literature where the left hand is more proactive.
Were you composing music in the early ‘90s? After your first record, most of your dates feature original music. Around when did that start to become important to you? Was it an inner necessity? Did it have anything to do with having a record contract and having to find material to put on the records?
I’ve never actually thought of when I began writing tunes until you asked the question. I guess there were a few sporadic tunes from the time I arrived in New York until 1993, or 1994 even. I guess I was comparatively late as a writer in that I was an improviser and a player and a sideman before I was trying to write jazz tunes. Two of my early originals appeared appeared on my first trio record with Jorge Rossy and his brother, Mario Rossy. On my next record, when I got signed to Warner Brothers, Introducing Brad Mehldau, there were a few more.
A lot of your titles at the time reflect a certain amount of Germanophilia.
At the time, for sure.
You wrote liner notes that referenced 19th century German philosophy, but applied the ideas to the moment in interesting ways. Can you speak to how this aesthetic inflected your notions of music and your own sense of mission?
What I was trying to do was bridge the gap between everything I loved musically, and there was this disparity for me between Brahms in 1865 and Wynton Kelly in 1958—all these things I loved. Looking back, at that age, I was very concerned with creating an identity that would somehow, if it was at all possible, mesh together this more European, particularly Germanic Romantic 19th Century sensibility (in some ways) with jazz, which is a more American, 20th century thing (in some ways).
One connection that still remains between them is the song—the art songs of Schubert or Schumann, these miniature, perfect 3- or 4-minute creations. To me, there is a real corollary between them and a great jazz performance that can tell a story—Lester Young or Billie Holiday telling a story in a beautiful song. Also pop. Really nice Beatles tunes. All those song-oriented things are miniature, and inhabit a small portion of your life. You don’t have to commit an hour-and-a-half to get through it. But really good songs leave you with a feeling of possibility and endlessness.
Not too long after your first record for Warner Brothers in 1995, which featured both your working trio and a trio with Christian McBride and Brian Blade, you began to break through to an international audience. You had a nice reputation in New York, but then overnight to receive this acclaim, where people pasted different attitudes onto what you were doing, whether it was relevant to your thoughts or not. . . . Trying to develop your music and stay focused while your career is burgeoning in this way could have been a complicated proposition. Was it? Or were you somewhat blinkered?
It was complicated. I think I was sort of in the moment, so I don’t know if I viewed it as such, but retrospectively, if you’re addressing the attention factor from other people, I developed a sense of self-importance that maybe didn’t have a really good self-check mechanism in it. If I could go back and do it all over again, some of the liner notes would be maybe a little shorter! Not completely gone...
You did write long liner notes.
Long liner notes. And I still do.
Using the language of German philosophy.
I still do, so I shouldn’t even say it. But I suffered a bit from a lack of self-irony (for lack of a better word). I think I’ve pretty much grown out of it now—an old geezer at 36.
People became accustomed to the sound of the first trio with Larry Grenadier and Jorge Rossy, and when you formed the new one, as an editor put it to me at the time, his friends in Europe were saying that they were afraid that now you wouldn’t play as well, that the things that made you interesting would be subsumed by a more groove-oriented approach, or something like that. Speak a bit to the way the trio evolved into the one you currently use.
What you’re alluding to is certainly true. A lot of people approached me directly and said, “What are you doing, changing this thing you have that’s so special?” That was interesting. One way I can mark the progression is that at first Larry and Jorge and I had a lot more to say to each other about the music. As I mentioned, Jorge and I would have these sessions, and work specific things like playing in odd meters. All three of us would talk about whether or not something was working on a given night, what it was about, what we could do to make it better. Over the years, as it became easier to play together intuitively, we reached a point where we had less and less to say. It was either working or it wasn’t. I don’t want to say that we were resting on our laurels, but there was a slight sense that almost it was too easy. That even was Jorge’s phrase. I think he was feeling that as a drummer, personally—just as a drummer, independent of playing with us—and wanted a new challenge playing a different instrument.
Then I heard Jeff Ballard in the trio Fly [editor's note: with Mark Turner and Larry Grenadier], and felt a sense of possibility in the way Larry was playing with him. Larry plays differently with different drummers—he plays one way with, say Bill Stewart, and a different way with Jorge and me. In Fly, he plays in a way I’d describe as more organic and intuitive, and it surprised me. I almost felt sort of a jealousy. I thought, “Wow, I never heard Larry play like this, and I’m playing with him all the time.” It made me almost want to grab Jeff!
What was it about what he was doing? Was it a more groove-oriented approach?
I would say yes. A certain groove, and also, though it may sound strange, my trio has become more precise since Jeff joined. The way Jeff and Larry state the rhythm is very open-ended, but precise in the sense that I can play more precise rhythmic phrases, which adds a bit more detail to the whole canvas. You can see the details more clearly, let’s say. Jorge was always very giving; he usually followed my lead in terms of how I’d build the shape of a tune. One thing that Jeff does that’s different, which is sort of a classic drummer move (if you think of Tony Williams or Elvin or someone like that), is putting something unexpected in the music at a certain point. Say we’re on the road, we’ve been playing one of my originals or arrangements for a month, and we do a big concert somewhere in front of two thousand people—and he starts playing a completely different groove. At first, I had to get used to that—if I don’t change what I’m doing, it won’t make sense. So I have to find something new. Then we’re actually improvising again, developing a new form or canvas for the tune.
Talk about the balance between intuition and preparation, how it plays out on the bandstand.
I don’t write really difficult road maps, as they call it. Maybe some of my stuff is a little hard, but most of it is not too difficult where you’re going to have your face in the music. I like that, because then you start forgetting about the music, and it becomes more intuitive, which hopefully is the ideal. That’s how it feels with the three of us. A lot of times with a band, you start playing a tune, an arrangement or your own original. You find certain things that work formally within the entire shape of the tune, places along the way, roughly, where you build to a climax, or a certain thing that one of you gives to the other person, like a diving board that you spring from to go somewhere else formally. In that sense, the process becomes less improvised, because you get this structure that works, and it helps you generate excitement and interest.
A few years ago, maybe around 1999-2000, you began to look for new canvases by incorporating contemporary pop music into your repertoire, and on Day Is Done it comprises the preponderance of the recital.
That development coincided with your move to Los Angeles and associating with the producer Jon Brian, who it seems showed you creative ways to deal with pop aesthetics.
Mmm-hmm. What I loved about him when I first heard him at this Los Angeles club, Largo, was that I felt like I was going to see a really creative jazz musician—in a sense even more brazen than a lot of jazz musicians. Really completely improvising his material, the material itself, taking songs that maybe he had never played from requests from the audience, and then developing a completely unorthodox, strange arrangement in the heat of the moment, right there, for those kinds of songs, which were more contemporary Pop songs. Also Cole Porter and whatever. All over the map. Completely not constrained by anything stylistically. That was definitely an inspiration for me at that point.
As somone who’s played a good chunk of the Songbook and as a one-time jazz snob, can you discern any generalities about the newer pop music of that time vis-a-vis older forms? You’ve said that you see the limitations of a form as a way of finding freedom, rather than the other way around.
Right. For me personally, not a judgment on other stuff. I need to have some sort of frame. I need to have a narrative flow. That’s what makes it cool for me, if I’m taking a solo or whatever. With more contemporary pop tunes, pop tunes past the sort of golden era that some people call the American Songbook, all of a sudden there are no rules any more. That’s the main thing. With people like Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell, you can often hear similar structures, with verse, chorus, that kind of stuff. But in a lot of pop music and rock-and-roll, it’s not that the forms are complicated, they aren’t at all, but there is not a fixed orthodoxy. In the songs of Cole Porter songs and Rodgers and Hammerstein and or Jerome Kern, there’s a verse and then the song itself, which is often in an AABA form, something within the bridge, and then that something again with the coda. These forms often keep you thinking in a certain way about what you’re going to do when you’re blowing on the music. When you get out of that, it becomes sort of a wide-open book, with often the possibility for a lack of form to take place. I try to take some of these more contemporary songs and somehow impose my own form on them in the improvisation. That’s the challenge. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.
Given that you’ve been a leader and highly visible for more than a decade, it seems to me you’ve tried hard to sustain relationships with the people you came up with and to keep yourself in the fray, as it were—being a sideman on Criss-Cross dates and so on. Is it important for you to do that?
Someone like Keith Jarrett comes to mind as someone who is really in his own realm, who hasn’t been a sideman. But I value the experience of connecting with other musicians who are outside of my band, and not being a leader. Not to sound self-righteous or whatever, but it does teach a certain humility when you go into a record date and you have to submit your own ego, to a certain extent, to someone else’s music, and go with the musical decisions they want to make. The challenge is to negotiate a balance between your own identity, which the person who called wants to hear, and the identity of their music, what they’ve written. To try to do justice to that is always fun and exciting, and I like that challenge.