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Brad Mehldau

Jazz music is not just about hipness and swing, but it’s also about intellect. Among the younger generation of players, there are few more intellectual practioners than pianist Brad Mehldau.

Liner note readers were given an erudite treat with his 1999 Warner Bros. release, Elegiac Cycles, in which Mehldau lays his aesthetic credo in considerable detail. In the December 2003 edition of Jazz Times, he used a somewhat absurd debate about whether Sonny Rollins or Sonny Stitt is the better player to segue into a discussion about taste, ideology and politics. And there’s certainly no mistaking the thoughtful some (though not me) might say "ponderous" quality of his playing.

Mehldau’s latest release on Warner Bros. is Anything Goes. Recorded in October 2002, but only released in early February, this is his first disc since the wildly acclaimed Largo. Here he returns to the stalwart trio form with long-time trio mates, bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jorge Rossy; and once again the group turns in a meticulous, introspective and arresting product. The 10 tracks cover 75 percent of the 20th century and even the tip of the 21st everything from chestnuts like "Nearness of You" and "Get Happy" (a nod, one might think, to this year’s Harold Arlen centennial, though Mehldau seems dogmatically unsentimental) to a less-covered Monk composition ("Skippy") and another Radiohead arrangement ("Everything In Its Right Place"). If jazz got played on the radio, everyone would by now already be familiar with the trio’s take on Paul Simon’s "Still Crazy After All These Years."

While some of the material is a little surprising, the performances are exactly what one would expect from The Brad: sharp, acerbic, a post-postmodern blend of modern and classic jazz with Mehldau’s telltale touch of 19th-century Romanticism. Grenadier and Rossy are in excellent form, too, and enjoy a little more room than usual on this outing, with solos that can stop you in mid-sentence.

Readers of the following will observe that Mehldau gave a generous amount of time and attention to respond to the following questions.

JAZZREVIEW.COM: What makes a song great? Or more specifically, what attributes does a song need to attract you? What’s the common thread on Anything Goes?

BRAD MEHLDAU: I need the same thing that a listener needs I need to be moved by the song. It should resonate with me emotionally. When that happens, it feels like I’ve known the song already. There’s something powerful that can happen with any artistic object, where you feel that it's speaking to you directly, that it knows you. An acknowledgement takes place; the whole experience is a form of communication. A song has the ability to wrap itself around you in an intimate way, sometimes immediately and forcefully, and sometimes by getting under your skin more slowly. If you hear a song that you haven’t heard before and it hits you, for me what’s happening is outwardly a discovery, but inwardly, under your own layers, you are actually rediscovering something that’s already within you, and confirming it. That’s where the healing experience is it’s like you’re coming home after you’ve been away for a long time.

JAZZREVIEW.COM: Your long-time collaborators, Larry Grenadier and Jorge Rossy, sound especially great on this disc. Tell me about your relationships with them musically, personally: When did you meet? How did you come to first play together? Is there a secret to your longevity?

BRAD MEHLDAU: I think all of us sound especially relaxed on this date, more than anything we’ve done in the studio together thus far. We’ve been together for about nine years now as a band, and know each other very well. We’ve learned how to pace ourselves musically in the studio how to structure a succinct statement that packs an expressive punch. Larry, Jorge and I get along great; they’re two of my closest friends. In order to stay together as a band, the music has to remain interesting and fulfilling for all of us on a regular basis. As the leader, it’s important for me to give them the breadth to explore their own paths, independently of me. That’s important because then they bring something from the outside into what we’re doing; they introduce another identity. Then, we all pick up on that new thing, and it starts to adhere to our sound, to the sound that we already have.

JAZZREVIEW.COM: Anything Goes? consists of pop tunes, and, in the case of "Still Crazy After All These Years" and "Everything in its Right Place," contemporary pop tunes. To pick up on something you wrote a few years back, is there a spiritual (and/or mystical) aspect to these songs that has always been there just waiting to be tapped? Is that the case for everything?

BRAD MEHLDAU: I guess I inadvertently touched on what you’re asking here a couple questions back! The only thing I can add is that often there’s a certain amount of nostalgia that goes into playing a tune, as is the case with "Still Crazy" I remember that one from the radio in my childhood. Although there’s something essentially deceitful about nostalgia in itself seeing the past with rose-colored glasses it can be a powerful, effective force in your interpretation of a tune. You play that tune because you want to summon up the past, but hopefully your version doesn’t stop there, merely referring to what already happened. If that’s the case, if you just "cover" the tune, then your version will never stand on its own; it will never have its own lifeblood, and as such it will never resonate with anyone except for the group of people who share your nostalgia. No, what you want to do is put your perspective from now on the face of the past, and bridge the gap between the two. Then it has the ability to stand as its own statement. Nostalgia in that context becomes a universal feeling hovering over the music; not a feeling that’s fixed on a particular locus with which the listener must be familiar. It’s an important distinction, I think.

Nostalgia could be said to be an integral of the human make-up for your homeland, for your childhood haunts, for an old apartment, for a former president ... It can be expressed very powerfully in music or art in general, as the raw feeling in itself. But that should be differentiated from art that depends on a cultural referent to manufacture a false, quick fix nostalgia. The first, good nostalgia is about remembering something from the past, and bringing it into the fold of your present day experience. The latter, cheap version is all about forgetting the present by willfully jumping into a one-dimensional simulation of the past.

Pop music, it seems to me, has been stuck in a rut of cheap nostalgia for the most part for a number of years. It’s very funny that this has happened, when you consider one of pop’s biggest tropes: "Hope I die before I get old."

The ’70s and ’80s are just far away enough to shimmer with the authenticity of something that was vital and real; in this case, the present that pop is trying to forget is its own vapid output, constantly folding back onto itself.

JAZZREVIEW.COM: "The Nearness of You" and "Smile" of course have been around for ages, but right now they seem particularly popular; I must have heard about six new recordings of "Smile" in the past year. Are there songs for our times, songs that for whatever reason speak more to more people at certain times? Why is that?

BRAD MEHLDAU: It is true that those particular tunes are in the air lately, although we recorded this stuff a year and a half ago and had been playing them already then for at least a year. I heard the terrific tenor saxophonist Joel Frahm play "Smile" and that’s how I discovered that tune; I know he’s been playing it with different bands he’s led for several years already. [Frahm recorded "Smile" with Mehldau on Frahm’s latest record, Don’t Explain, on the Palmetto label).

We had already been performing our arrangement of "Smile" as a trio for a year or so before Jackie Terrasson’s record of the same title. The same is the case with our version of "The Nearness of You"; that had been in our book for a while before Norah Jones’ version came out. I don’t know if there’s some mystical thing at play there or if it’s just coincidence; I’m inclined to say the latter, since there’s many more tunes that people don’t pick up on at the same time.

JAZZREVIEW.COM: You recorded tracks for a second album the same time you recorded Anything Goes. What’s that disc all about?

BRAD MEHLDAU: Larry, Jorge and I went into the studio pretty soon after we recorded my previous record, Largo, and recorded for two days. We wanted to document everything that was "ripe" things that we had been playing for a while that had developed into what could be an emblematic version, captured in the studio. We recorded 18 tunes in two short days. Almost half of them were originals, and a little more than half were the standards that became Anything Goes. Matt Pierson, who co-produced the date, had the idea of splitting them up into two records, accordingly. I thought it was a good idea, to release them sort of in tandem with each other.

I had no idea this first one would take so long to come out, and the possibility of the other record coming out is really up in the air. In the interim period from when it was recorded up until now, Matt, who brought me to Warner Brothers, left the company and things haven’t been the same there for me since, which isn’t a tragedy but has been an adjustment.

Matt had a great philosophy great for me in particular which was to document the growth of this particular band as it happened and release the records accordingly. It might mean a few more records than the norm, but it wasn’t such a big deal because our records aren’t particularly expensive to make we go in the studio for two days tops. The philosophy with Warner now seems to be to worry about not releasing too much stuff all that marketing stuff that I can never wrap around anyways. It’s a bit unfortunate, because now we’ve got this record of originals that’s completely mastered and I’m really proud of, and they’re sitting on it; meanwhile other projects are getting put on the back burner as well. In any case, I feel grateful of course for what I was able to do there for several years, so it’'s not such a big deal life is long.

JAZZREVIEW.COM: There’s a consistency to the way you treat songs fragmenting the rhythm of the melody, that pulse-like arpeggiated left hand, taking the changes to unexpected but logical places. It’s a sound I identify immediately with you. How did that method develop? What are the antecedents?

BRAD MEHLDAU: Thank you. The greatest compliment someone can give you is that they recognize a "sound" that you have. I think the devices you’re mentioning are a mixture of whatever music I’ve absorbed over the years, and I’ve built them into something from playing and practicing a lot alone, but also from finding what works with Larry and Jorge. For example, a big thing I’m always aware of with the arpeggiated left hand stuff that you mentioned is being careful not to be redundant with what Larry’s doing, not to let my part cover his register or convey the musical information that he’s already supplying.

JAZZREVIEW.COM: There’s also a consistent color to your work not dark, but melancholy, poignant ... not nostalgic, more anti-nostalgic. And above all serious, even on songs like "Get Happy" and the title track. Is that you? Is that part of "Romantic aloofness"? Are those two things the same?

BRAD MEHLDAU:I like that "anti-nostalgic"! I try to give an emotional palate. For instance, within a set, there’s usually a number like "Get Happy" that serves that more "serious" purpose that you mention something maybe a little more outwardly intellectual, more discursive in the way it presents its musical ideas. Then we might follow with a ballad, something that’s more directly emotional.

I think it’s important to give the listener a broad range of emotional experience within a performance, and the same applies for an album. That’s why I’ve never had the urge to do a "ballads" album. I like when a ballad stands in contrast to something else, when it acts as a sanctuary from something more noisy and busy.

JAZZREVIEW.COM: I find a lot of jazz writing and reportage to be banal. Is there something writers and critics can do to make jazz and art in general important, urgent, even just relevant?

BRAD MEHLDAU: Those last three words of your question, "even just relevant?" are the most interesting to me. Are they ironic? It’s the common plea that we hear after all, what can be done to make something relevant?

For myself, I’m immediately suspicious of anything that’s deemed "relevant." It’s a double-edged sword, that term, in as far as it refers to the vagaries of time. Someone’s not "relevant," it seems, because their music has cultural referents that match up to a different time and place Germany 1840s, New York 1950s. So we hear that jazz isn’t relevant because it’s using a vocabulary that is "dated." But that’s never how music works; the music of Brahms is completely powerful to me and more alive than ever; he was operating in a musical language that in some cases was already considered archaic by his contemporaries.

The double-edged aspect of "relevance" as such is that if you are deemed relevant, then you know it has a time-line on it. In any case, writers and critics can never have the power to make the thing they’re writing about relevant. They can, if they’re good writers, make their own writing relevant to the subject they’re addressing. I have a high standard for music writers; I think they deserve to be judged with the same standards that they apply in their own critical writing. That means, then, that their level of imagination, insight, and downright scholarship should match equally to the work they’re writing about. Otherwise they’re in over their head.

JAZZREVIEW.COM: What’s a thoughtful artist to do in this age of frivolity and the cults of youth, celebrity and marketing?

BRAD MEHLDAU: I don’t have the answer. I think you just have to beat your own drum no matter what, and if no one listens: Screw ’em.

One of the best things that my wife and I have never done is get cable. We have a TV but only for playing films. We happily miss all this stuff "American Idol," "Survivor," etc. If I’m in a hotel and I see Chris Mathews on Fox News or that fascist, what’s his name O’Reilly, I actually have a physical reaction. I get cramps in my stomach.

JAZZREVIEW.COM: "Freedom" is such a loaded word these days in America. Does ‘freedom" mean the same thing in Romanticism as it does in Post 9/11 USA.?

BRAD MEHLDAU: Yes, for me! But probably no for the "freedom fries" crowd.

JAZZREVIEW.COM: Did anything change artistically or aesthetically for you after 9/11? Did 9/11 confirm or support your take on art and Romanticism?

BRAD MEHLDAU: It’s an interesting, delicate question. First, what you’re referring to, I’m guessing, is my belief that I’ve battered my poor record buyers repeatedly with the romantic ideal of art as an autonomous entity, not fixed to any moral compass. As you imply, that ideal is up for a reassessment every time tragedy hits. Should art now somehow "reflect" 9/11? Is that an obligation of an artist morally, or is it even possible? And isn’t this "Beyond Good and Evil" stuff out of place, "irrelevant," even distasteful? Shouldn’t art play the role of guiding our moral compass strongly, of reflecting the times we live in, a new time where good and evil seem so clear and defined, so polarized against each other? Absolutely not. Art and music are always better when they remain independent of any consensus view; a simple consensus on good and evil narrowly defined is dangerous.

The reality is that good and evil have never been less defined then they are now, and we have a government that’s trying to simplify the terms of the engagement to suit its own interests. If music is going to be political, maybe it could reflect the inconsistency and murkiness in the story we’re receiving. Radiohead’s last [album] had a few tracks that did that pretty well. If I want music that tells me that "everything’s different since September 11," which really means, "let’s get behind the president, even when he lies to us repeatedly and doesn’t have our interests at heart," I can listen to that country singer who slammed the Dixie Chicks for being unpatriotic.

But he’s just re-hashing the consensus view; it’s kind of anti-art because it defines its terms ahead of time in a narrow, moralistic way. That’s why you should keep the idea of Romantic Freedom in music and art lest you wind up listening to cheesy patriotic country music! Nothing changed for me artistically or aesthetically as a result of 9/11. At the risk of sounding insensitive, it bears out what I already thought about music, mainly that at least in terms of my own musical development, it is autonomous of outside events to a certain point. Music and art are so precious to me because we don’t absolutely need it; it is a luxury.

Going back to the issue of relevance, one great luxury for me is playing music that might be totally irrelevant to something like 9/11. All through the ’90s, everyone was ironically navel-gazing with Beck while a genocide was committed in Rwanda and ethnic cleansing took place in the Balkans. Where was the relevance of music that was coming out of the ’90s to what was going on in the world? There was none. There was a disconnect.

If art and music are expected to wake up out of their blissful irrelevance just because something strikes us closer to home, that’s not consistent or moral either, so I say better not to expect anything from them in the first place. Especially pop art, because it can get co-opted so easily these days by an oppressive power and wind up spitting out the consensus view at you even as it tells you it’s being subversive.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Brad Mehldau
  • Interview Date: 10/1/2003
  • Subtitle: Brad Mehldau's Opening, Middle and Endgame
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