Brad Mehldau: Excitement and Energy

By Nenad Georgievski for All About Jazz
Published: February 13, 2007

It's not easy to be a musician these days. There may well be more critics than musicians, but looking at any genre's past there's an enormous amount of music created by thousands of musicians. Still, very few of them can be considered groundbreaking artists who have expanded, informed and enlivened the genre they work in. Ironically, some of the things that have made pianist Brad Mehldau popular inside and outside the jazz tradition are his non-jazz instincts and musical tastes.

Drawing equal inspiration from jazz, classical and pop has made him one of jazz's towering pianists, whose broad musical taste has clearly enriched and enlivened the genre. Some of his work has been featured in films such director Stanley Kubrick's swan song Eyes Wide Shut (1999) and the French film Ma femme est une actrice (2001). Mehldau was also part of the Million Dollar Band (also featuring Daniel Lanois, U2, Brian Eno, Jon Hassell and Bill Frisell), which recorded the soundtrack for director Wim Wenders' The Million Dollar Hotel (2000).

2006 was a successful and highly productive year for Mehldau. He released two excellent collaborative projects: Love Sublime (Nonesuch, 2006) with renowned soprano Renee Fleming, and Metheny Mehldau, a duet record with guitar icon Pat Metheny. He also released a trio album, House on Hill (Nonesuch, 2006), culled mostly from a 2002 session featuring his regular bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jorge Rossy, who has since been replaced by Jeff Ballard. House on Hill showcases his talent as a writer rather than as an interpreter. Love Sublime, commissioned by Carnegie Hall, demonstrates his classical leanings. Metheny Mehldau is a duet made in heaven for musicians, fans and record company executives alike. In many ways it's a dream pairing, based not only on mutual admiration, but shared inspiration as well.

All About Jazz: What prompted your collaboration with Metheny?

Brad Mehldau: Well, I think it was mostly a mutual admiration that we have for each other's music. I began listening to his music when I was 12 or 13, when a friend played "Are You Going With Me" [from Pat Metheny Group's Offramp (ECM, 1982)], and for me he is one of the formative influences as a musician and we finally got an opportunity to do something.

AAJ: Could you describe the approach you took on this record from a conceptual perspective? Were there any things that you wanted to do or did not want to do?

BM: It challenged me to play a duo with guitar, where there aren't many things that should or shouldn't be done. We just have two instruments together to play harmony. We didn't have a specific concept going in to make a record or a clear idea that we were going to do a record together. When we first began listening to each other playing we were trying not to get in each other's way or to play in the right register, and in general we were trying not to give the listener too much information as these two instruments can generate too much harmony.

AAJ: It seems like two distinct voices enjoying playing with each other. As someone who has played with all kinds of musicians, what do you find most rewarding about collaborative work?

BM: To me it's kind of a spirit in jazz, where you would get a certain person or several personalities together and then you get to see what happens. In jazz it has an added dimension because of the tradition, and because we are improvising. The improvisation implies a certain spontaneous response when the musicians are playing with each other, so it gets really interesting — especially when you know someone's music like with Pat, as I already had a close affinity with his music for years. But still, the effort when you go into the studio and the music starts rolling; there are a lot of surprises there that you don't expect to happen.

AAJ: So you and Metheny surprised each other during the recording. There was a rumor, when Metheny Mehldau was out, that you recorded a quartet album with your regular rhythm section while recording the duet album. Is there another project parallel to this one?

BM: Yes, that's right. There will be another record. The first one was mostly a duo, but we recorded for six days. For three days we recorded the duo and the rest was the quartet with Jeff Ballard and Larry Grenadier, my trio these days. We got a pile of music, so we finally decided to present the record — two records in fact — where the duo record has a little taste of the quartet.

AAJ: I assume the quartet record will be released next year when the tour with Metheny starts.

BM: Exactly. That is our plan to release it when we begin touring which will be in March [2007].

AAJ: Prior to the duet album with Metheny, Nonesuch released two records of yours — House on Hill and Love Sublime. Most of the compositions that appear on House on Hill were recorded during the Anything Goes (Warner Bros., 2004) sessions, basically a "covers" record, while House on Hill is a record featuring your compositions.

BM: I was so glad that I could finally put House on Hill out, because I always wanted to do that. It was recorded a couple of years ago and because there were expenses that were happening with Warner Bros. [which shut down its jazz label in 2004] there was no opportunity to release the music. Finally it got to come out. It's something that I haven't done much: a record with all original material. There was a point that I reached with that trio, with Jorge Rossy on drums, that allowed me to write songs very much in that vein, with Larry and the sound we had. And they are very connected. For me it's a document of that period and the way the trio played back then.

AAJ: Can you compare and contrast House on Hill and Day is Done (Nonesuch, 2005)? Even though Day is Done is a "covers" record can you compare the performances on these two a;bums, because to me both are exceptional performances with a musician at the top of his game.

BM: Thank you, I appreciate that. I think that House on Hill is a record that was done with a drummer who played with me for ten years and Day is Done is an exciting record because it was the first record that was done with Jeff, and we've been playing together for about twelve months now. There is a certain excitement and energy between Jeff, Larry and me, and I think that perhaps this added a kind of energy to the music. It included more rhythmic details than the other record. That was interesting to see — the sound that was developed by us playing with Jeff and you can see where we were a year ago.

AAJ: On some bootlegs available there are tracks performed by the trio even before they were recorded in the studio. I assume you play those tunes live until you get the right feeling to record them?

BM: Yeah, that is more of the idea. For me it has always been the best approach: to take a piece of music and start performing it in front of an audience. Until it has a connection with the audience a piece has not been born yet, I guess. It's hard to explain. If I take a song and rehearse it, and if we are going to record it with the guys it won't be fully developed until we play it live several times over the course of a tour. We have our discussions about it, but what happens is that we develop an arrangement for something that I wrote and basically it changes every time we play it on the tour — because we improvise a lot — until we get to a point where we are ready to record it.

AAJ: The band you work mostly with is the trio. What attracted you to this format?

BM: For me I just love playing with a jazz trio. I love other formats like Miles Davis' sextet or Coltrane's quartet. It's just that it doesn't attract me enough to do those other formats too often. The trio is democratic in the sense that even though I pick the material, or write it or arrange it, it's still us three who are shaping the music. For years I've been working so much with the trio and have concentrated on the music that I don't really remember what is so special about it [laughs].

AAJ: Prior to Jorge Rossy leaving the trio, the band had worked together for ten years. What are some of the advantages of having steady personnel over the years?

BM: Well, hopefully what the band would develop is a particular and identifiable sound, and they wouldn't sound like anyone else. They would be developing an identity and that identity is a collective identity and not my identity. It's the identity of all of us together.

The advantage is that we kind of develop a language with each other, hopefully a fluid language. It's like we are having a conversation with each other. For certain things to happen, and to reach a certain creativity, it takes time to introduce yourselves to each other — for that thing to happen because we already know each other. For me, what is most exciting about jazz is the collective improvisation, where there are a bunch of things happening that can be very profound and intellectual, and in order for that level of depth to take place (this is not necessary but) it will come from people who know each other and who have played together for a long time.

AAJ: That is why I see the Art of the Trio series as a process where a band is growing and maturing. How do you look back at these releases?

BM: I can see the growth of that band. For me it's very interesting, except for the title, which wasn't my idea. It was an idea of the guy who put me on the Warner Bros. label — Matt Pierson. I didn't know about that title. I thought, "Wow, man, that sounds really, maybe big," you know?

"What is most exciting about jazz is the collective improvisation, where there are a bunch of things happening that can be very profound and intellectual."

It was exciting to have that title in 1995. I didn't have a plan to do a series like that. Actually, that is how I develop as a musician. I never make a plan for the future that is big like that. However, retrospectively I look at it as a past and as a confident leader who developed in its own world of identity. Usually, I don't make plans for the future but I do look back at my musical past. So far I see us fully exploring that deeper and deeper. That is how I look back at my past.

AAJ: Largo (Warner Bros., 2002) was a departure for you, as it expanded the basic trio into a bigger band. Even the context of your playing was changed. How do you look back at the recording of this album?

BM: That was a particular recording that really came about from my desire to have a collaboration. I look at it as a collaboration between myself and Jon Brion. Jon Brion is the producer but is also a creative musician. He is someone that I wanted to work with from the first time I heard him. What Jon has is a certain jazz feeling in the way he produces records. He is a very spontaneous person. The way I improvise with melody and harmony and rhythm, he improvises with microphones, arranging decisions and orchestration decisions. He does many things in very spontaneous ways. That brings a lot of surprises. He has great knowledge about things and at the same time the thing I like about him is that he is a kind of retrospectionist. He achieved great sounds for that record which were appropriate for the music we were recording.

AAJ: The title, Largo, was taken from a club with the same name.

BM: That's right, Largo is a club in Los Angeles where I first heard Jon Brion. He was there every Friday night and he was the first musician I heard in L.A.. For three years we had great communication and it influenced my approach towards music. It opened me up to many things, including rediscovering good and interesting pop music, including what Jon was doing and some other people that I heard at Largo at the time like Fiona Apple and Aimee Mann. It eventually influenced some of my writing at the time. I lived in L.A. for five years, and the sum of my musical experiences can be heard on this record.

AAJ: Another record that refers to location is Places (Warner Bros., 2000), with tracks devoted to cities like L.A. Were these tracks just a tribute to those cities or were they inspired by them?

BM: Those tracks were actually written in those cities. That was part of the idea behind the record. There was a connection between time, place and memory. It was kind of a weird idea and one of the things that I wrote about in the liner notes, referring to the actual nature of the place regardless of whether it is L.A. or Madrid. Although many people may see it as a track devoted to Madrid.

It was a time when I was touring a lot and I was never home, so I was writing a lot on the road. At first it was some sort of a joke; I gave them titles after they were written because I couldn't think of titles anyway. And then I started to develop this idea about the notion of travel, about leaving a place, how it resonates in your memory, how it changes over time and your own consciousness follows you wherever you go — you can't escape from it. This record sort of connects all that together and also develops a little more what I began on another record called Elegiac Cycle (Warner Bros., 1999). That form was cyclical, and was beginning to go around from the beginning again.

AAJ: Places and Elegiac Cycle are essentially solo piano records [there are a few trio tracks on Places] that drew some comparisons. Do you ever get bothered or fed up when people compare you with some of jazz's greats who have done something significant in the solo piano domain, like Keith Jarrett or Bill Evans?

BM: Ah those two. I would say for solo it would be hard to deny that that Keith Jarrett is definitely an inspiration because to me what he does is really change what is possible in the actual vocabulary of jazz. He can also transcend jazz, where it becomes piano solo music [laughs]. He broke a barrier in terms of expressive possibilities, not getting caught in a particular style of playing. He just drew from everything that occurred in music, and that is a bit of what I try to do when I play solo. For me he is an inspiration.

AAJ: You also did the music for the French film Ma Femme est une actrice, were part of the Million Dollar Band and some of your tracks found their way into movies such as Eyes Wide Shut. Do you enjoy this type of work, composing film music?

BM: It's something that I feel I have a limited experience in. The music I wrote for the film Ma femme est une actrice, the film was nothing huge like Lawrence of Arabia, so it didn't require a huge orchestral score. It was a perfect introduction for me because it didn't require very much music. Consequently I feel I don't have too much experience beyond that scoring for film and I would love to [do more]. There is a possibility of doing more scoring for the director of that film for other projects he plans to do in the future that might be bigger and that might require music that looks more like a film score.

AAJ: What about being part of the Million Dollar Band which recorded the soundtrack for Wenders' The Million Dollar Hotel?

BM: The funny thing about that was the recording. At the time I was doing a gig in Dublin, Ireland, and a guy pulled up with a limousine and he said, "Would you like to come and record music with us? We are making a soundtrack for a Wim Wenders film." The whole thing was very strange and secretive. I said OK, a limousine waited for me and I went to the studio way out of town. It didn't look like a studio from the outside but inside there was Bono, from U2, with Daniel Lanois, the great rock producer, and other interesting guys.

By the end, the last thing I remember was Bono and Lanois getting on a rowboat and rowing away across the Liffey River, which is a famous river if you have read [James] Joyce's Ulysses. The last thing I saw was them rowing somewhere. Where the hell were they going [laughs]? Bono is an incredible singer, a great musician and a great person.

AAJ: Recently you collaborated with Lanois on his critically acclaimed Belladonna (Anti, 2005). You even worked with him when he produced a Willie Nelson record.

BM: The Willie Nelson's record is called Teatro (Island, 1998). I played on that record six years ago.

AAJ: What was it like working with Lanois, one of my favorite sonic sculptors?

BM: Mine too. He is what I think a great producer is, because you really don't know what he is doing while he is doing it. He is making several decisions at the same time that eventually lead to the great sonic world that he captures so well, that has so much air and space that allows the music to breathe. He allows for everything to happen.

AAJ: You were part of [saxophonist] Joshua Redman's band for two years. What are your thoughts about the time spent with Redman?

BM: It was an incredible experience for me. It is probably my favorite band that I've ever been in. We were talking about the notion of a band and what that means for me. That band had to do with the way Josh was right for all of us, the way we externalized that. We really learned a lot playing with Josh. For him, it was leading things and making decisions with a certain amount of a real democratic approach, allowing us all to develop our own ways.

AAJ: Since you've played with so many people as a sideman, what are some of the philosophies you adhere to when you are a bandleader these days?

BM: I don't think it's absolutely necessary, but if somebody is a young musician and asks me, "What should I do? I'm a twenty year old piano player, what should I do to develop as a musician, how should I get my own sound," I always suggest to be a side person, because when you play in someone else's band you can find out very quickly what you like and what you don't like as a musician.

Maybe the band leader is playing something and you don't like the way it sounds or you [do] like the way it sounds. There is a whole process of working under someone else's leadership. What happens is you have an opportunity to develop your own aesthetic as a musician. It's like being an assistant for a doctor, you are working but it's not your thing. When working in a band you have to have a strong idea of who you are because you are out to discover your own identity in that context.

AAJ: The collaboration with Renée Fleming for Love Sublime is an inspired one. How did you develop affection for classical music?

BM: Classical music has been ingrained [in me] longer than jazz. I started playing classical piano as a kid. It was the first music I tried to play. When I got into jazz as a teenager I lost interest in classical music. Then, when I was 22 or 23, for whatever reason I rediscovered classical music and started reading a lot of about the music — chamber music, symphonic works and solo piano literature. It's really in my blood and I feel that some of it has influenced my playing. And as a jazz composer, when I think about the notion of what a song is, what it means to write a song…

I finally got an opportunity to investigate that interest in a more original setting. The project with Renée Fleming was a huge project. It was the biggest thing I have ever done actually. I worked on that for two years. It was exhausting. It was really a labor of love. Eventually when Renée learned the music and we recorded it, it was beyond anything I could have hoped for because she can sing incredibly and can make the music her own. She really owns that music and she interpreted it in her own way.

AAJ: Your music has attracted people that have no interest in jazz. What do you think about today's jazz climate worldwide?

BM: There is such a big interest in jazz that sometimes I don't understand why people are not optimistic about it. It's contradictory when it seems that it attracts so many people but people tend to give pessimistic prognoses. This music will always grow.

Selected Discography

Pat Metheny/Brad Mehldau, Metheny Mehldau (Nonesuch, 2006)
Brad Mehldau, House on Hill (Nonesuch, 2006)
Brad Mehldau, Day is Done (Nonesuch, 2005)
Brad Mehldau, Live in Tokyo (Nonesuch, 2004)
Brad Mehldau, Anything Goes (Warner Bros.,2004)
Brad Mehldau, Largo (Warner Bros., 2002)
Brad Mehldau, The Art of the Trio, Vol. 5: Progression (Warner Bros., 2001)
Brad Mehldau, Places (Warner Bros., 2000)
Brad Mehldau, The Art of the Trio, Vol. 4: Back At The Vanguard (Warner Bros., 1999)
Brad Mehldau, Elegiac Cycle (Warner Bros., 1999)
Brad Mehldau, The Art of the Trio, Vol. 3: Songs (Warner Bros., 1998)
Brad Mehldau, The Art of the Trio Vol. 2: Live At The Village Vanguard (Warner Bros., 1997)
Brad Mehldau, The Art of the Trio, Vol. 1 (Warner Bros., 1997)
Brad Mehldau, Introducing Brad Mehldau (Warner Bros., 1995)

Related Articles at All About Jazz

A Fireside Chat with Brad Mehldau (Interview, 2004)
Brad Mehldau's Opening, Middle and Endgame (Interview, 2003)
A Conversation with Brad Mehldau (Interview, 1998)

Visit Brad Mehldau on the web.
Brad Mehldau at All About Jazz.

Reprinted with permission. Copyright © 2007 by All About Jazz and Nenad Georgievski

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