No pianist of his generation has had a greater impact on the sound of jazz circa 2014 than Brad Mehldau, who turns 44 today. For the occasion, I’m appending the transcript of a conversation we had on WKCR in 2006, which was originally web-published a few years ago on http://www.jazz.com. Some may also be interested in this uncut DownBeat Blindfold Test, which I posted on this blog in 2011.
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IN CONVERSATION WITH BRAD MEHLDAU
Below is the first part of Ted Panken’s extensive interview with pianist Brad Mehldau. Click here, for part two of this article. Also check out jazz.com’s Dozens feature on twelve essential Brad Mehldau tracks, and the essay“Assessing Brad Mehldau at Mid-Career.”
by Ted Panken
You met Jorge Rossy, the drummer in your working trio between 1995 to 2003, in the early ’90s, perhaps when he arrived in New York from Boston.
Yes. Jorge already had a lot of musical relationships with people that I met after him—for instance, Kurt Rosenwinkel and Mark Turner, Larry Grenadier as well, Joshua Redman, Chris Cheek, Bill McHenry. A lot of people who you hear about now as fully developed, with their own voices, at that time were also growing up together. As a lot of people still do, they went to Boston first, and then came to New York. I met them all when they came here.
You, on the other hand, decided to jump into the sharkpit right away.
I came straight here.
I recall someone saying that they asked you what it was like at the New School, and you responded that it was a good reason to be in New York!
Reflecting back, how would you evaluate that early experience, newly-arrived at 18? You’re from Connecticut, so presumably you knew something about New York at the time.
A little bit. I knew that I wanted to come here because it was everything that the suburbs wasn’t. I was a white, upper-middle-class kid who lived in a pretty homogenized environment. Yet, I was with a couple of other people, like Joel Frahm, the tenor saxophonist, who went to the same high school as me. A group of us were trying to expose ourselves to jazz. So New York for us was something that was sort of the Other, yet it wasn’t too far away—a 2-hour-and-15-minute car or bus ride. What really cemented me wanting to go to New York was when I came here with my folks during my senior year of high school, and we went one night to Bradley’s, and heard the Hank Jones-Red Mitchell duo. That blew me away, seeing someone play jazz piano like that, about six feet from you.
A couple of blocks away from where you’d be going to school.
That’s right. The next night I heard Cedar Walton’s…well, the collective Timeless All-Stars formation, which was with Bobby Hutcherson, Billy Higgins, Ron Carter, and Harold Land, small ensemble jazz. The immediacy of hearing Billy Higgins’ ride cymbal and seeing Cedar Walton comping, after hearing it for three years on all those great Blue Note records I had. That was it. I knew I had to come here, just from an actual visceral need to get more of THAT as a listener.
When you arrived at the New School, how did things progress? How fully formed were your ideas at the time?
I was pretty formed. Not to sound pompous, but I was more developed as a musician than maybe half of the students there,. But a few students there were a little ahead of me, and also two or three years older, which was perfect, because in addition to the teachers who were there, they acted as mentors and also friends. One was Peter Bernstein, the guitarist, another was Jesse Davis, the alto saxophonist. Larry Goldings was there, playing piano mostly—he was just starting to play an organ setup. Those guys were immediately very strong influences on me. I have a little gripe in the way we tell the narrative of jazz history, or the history of influence. People often are influenced by their peers, because they’re so close to them, and that was certainly the case for me. Peter and Larry had a huge influence on everything I did playing in bands at that time. That’s pretty much what I was doing. I wasn’t trying to develop my own band. I was just being a sideman and soaking everything up.
If I’m not mistaken, your first record was in 1990, with Peter Bernstein and Jimmy Cobb. Jimmy Cobb had a little group at the Village Gate maybe at the time?
Yes, Jimmy Cobb had a group that was loosely called Cobb’s Mob with Peter and [bassist] John Webber. He still has it in different incarnations. It’s a quartet, most of the time with Pete playing guitar. Jimmy Cobb taught at the New School, and his class was basically play with Jimmy Cobb for 2-1/2 hours once a week. For me, that was worth the price of the whole thing.
I think Larry Goldings said that during the first year, when the curriculum was pretty seat-of-the-pants. . .
Arnie Lawrence would interrupt the harmony class, and say, “Okay, Art Blakey is here for the next three hours,” and that would become what the class did.
But getting back to this notion of influences from your contemporaries, how did their interests augment the things that you already knew? I’d assume that by this time, you were already pretty well-informed about all the modernist piano food groups, as it were.
A fair amount. I came here at 18 completely in a Wynton Kelly thing. Then it was early McCoy, then Red Garland thing, and then late ’50s Bill Evans. I was jumping around stylistically and still absorbing stuff I hadn’t heard maybe until four years in New York, and then I slowed down. It’s that whole notion of input and output, where you get just so much, and then slow down to digest.
But in New York, I suppose you’d have to find ways to apply these ideas in real time.
I’m interested in the way that process happened, to allow you to start forming the ideas that people now associate with your tonal personality.
Definitely. When I came to New York I had sort of a vocabulary, but not much practical knowledge of how to apply that in a group setting, which to me is indispensable if you’re a jazz musician. Part of my definition is playing with other people, and, if you’re a piano player, comping. Comping in jazz is very difficult to teach in a lesson, because it’s a social thing, an intuitive thing, something that you gain from experience—the seat of the pants. It also happens through osmosis—I watched players like Larry Goldings, Kevin Hays (who I was checking out a lot), and of course, people like Cedar Walton and Kenny Barron. Nothing can replace the experience of watching a piano player comp behind a soloist. If you watch closely and to see what works and what doesn’t, that will rub off very quickly. I’d say doing that helped me become a more social musician, versus friends of mine who came to the city at the same time I did but stayed in their practice room the whole time. You don’t develop in that same social way, which to me is indispensable as a jazz musician.
Did you have direct mentoring from any of the older pianists?
I had some very good lessons at the New School with Kenny Werner and Fred Hersch, and Junior Mance was my first teacher there. He was a little different than Fred and Kenny. Fred concentrated on getting a good sound out of the piano and playing solo piano a lot, which was great, because I hadn’t gotten there yet. Perfect timing. Kenny showed me ways to construct lines and develop my solo vocabulary—specific harmonic stuff. With Junior, it was more that thing I described of soaking it up by being around him. We would play on one piano, or, if we had a room with two pianos, we”d play on two. I said, “I want to learn how to comp better. I listened to you on these Dizzy Gillespie records, and your comping is perfect. How do you do that?” He said, “Well, let’s do it.” So we sat down, and he would comp for me, and then I would comp for him and try to mimic him. Yeah, soak up what he was doing. Junior is a beautiful person. A lot of those guys to me still are models as people, for their generosity as human beings, and Junior is certainly one in that sense.
Did you graduate from the New School?
I did. It took me five years. I took a little break, because I already started touring a little with Christopher Holliday, an alto sax player. That was my first gig. But I did actually get some sort of degree from there.
But as you continued at the New School, the Boston crew starts to hit New York, and a lot of them are focused on some different rhythmic ideas than were applied in mainstream jazz of the time.
I’m bringing this up because once you formed the trio, one thing you did that a lot of people paid attention to was play very comfortably in odd meters, 7/4 and so forth, and it’s now become a mainstream thing, whereas in 1991 this was a pretty exotic thing to do. How did you begin the process of developing the sound that we have come to associate with you?
I’m not sure. A lot of it certainly had to do with Jorge Rossy. To give credit where credit is due, those ideas were in the air with people like Jeff Watts, who was playing in different meters on the drums. But Jorge at that time was very studious, checking out a lot of different rhythms, not just odd-meter stuff. He was grabbing the gig with Paquito D’Rivera and playing a lot with Danilo Perez, absorbing South American and Afro-Cuban rhythms. I never studied those specifically, but by virtue of the fact that Jorge was playing those rhythms a lot and finding his own thing to do with them in the sessions we had, it found its way into my sound.
We’d take a well-known standard like “Stella by Starlight,” and try to play it in 7 and in 5 as a kind of exercise. Some of them actually led to arrangements, like “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was,” in 5, which is one of the first things we recorded in an odd meter. Then we moved on to 7, and got more comfortable with it. It was fun and exciting, and it seemed to happen naturally. But Jorge was ahead of me in terms of the comfort level. There was a lot of him playing in 7, holding it down while I’d get lost and then come around again.
How long did it take?
It took maybe six months or a year where I felt as comfortable in those meters as I was in 4. Then also, I started to crystallize this idea about phrasing. If you listen to Charlie Parker or to someone really authentic playing bebop, like Barry Harris, you notice that they are completely free with their rhythmic phrasing. It’s swinging and it’s free on this profound level, because it’s very open. But when you hear people who take a little piece of bebop and condense it into something (they can also have a very strong style), it gets less interesting. One thing I’ve always loved about jazz phrasing, is the way, when someone is inflecting a phrase rhythmically, it’s really advanced and deep and beautiful, and also makes you want to dance. One thing I heard that perhaps we were trying to do was get that same freedom of floating over the barline in a 7/4 or 5/4 meter as you could find in 4/4, versus maybe… Not to dis fusion or whatever, but some of the things that people did with odd meters in the ’70s had a more metronomic rhythmic feeling, more literal—“Hey, look, we’re playing 7, and this is what it is.”
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.
Brad Mehldau, by Jos L. Knaepen
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.