Eleven years ago, I had an opportunity to do the DownBeat Blindfold Test with Brad Mehldau, then 30, and in residence at the Village Vanguard for a week-long engagement. It was conducted in Mehldau’s hotel room on the Upper West Side; if memory serves, he listened to the selections through headphones on a Sony Diskman…or maybe it was an Aiwa. In any event, here’s the pre-edit version.
Brad Mehldau (Blindfold Test) – (9-21-00):
1. Art Tatum-Red Callendar-Jo Jones, “Just One Of Those Thing,” THE COMPLETE ART TATUM GROUP RECORDINGS (#1) (1956/199_) (5 stars)
Tatum. “Just One Of Those Things.” I guess I know it’s Tatum from his melodic concept on here, because he’s not playing solo, which then you can really hear it in all his voice leading. Just aesthetically, I prefer his solo playing. With the rhythm section… I don’t know who this is. Is this Slam Stewart? [No.] I’m hearing the drum solo now that he’s playing four-to-the-floor. I have a feeling I should know this drummer from his style on the brushes. I can’t put a name with it. But he sounds great. The bass player, too. [you've haven't heard this before.] No. [Is Tatum someone you've listened to a lot?] More his solo stuff, like the Pablo reissue of his solo albums, where it’s just one standard after another and these incredible things. But this is really something I want to check out. [AFTER] Jo Jones! Unbelievable. Definitely 5 stars. His whole melodic approach to lines, the way he’s playing over changes is so much not-informed by bebop. It’s so fresh to hear that. But very unto itself, really dealing with the changes. He’s also using the whole instrument. Even though he’s not playing solo, he’s really getting down there. Amazing.
2. Chick Corea, “Monk’s Dream,”SOLO PIANO: STANDARDS (Concord, 2000). [solo piano] (4 stars)
I really don’t know that person’s style. I wouldn’t even know who to guess. It’s “Monk’s Dream.” I would give it 4 stars, because it’s really creative and interesting harmonically. This kind of feel for me is a little jagged. As a performance, it left me feeling a little unsettled rhythmically, just for my own taste. But really creative, interesting harmonic things he’s doing, using the upper register there and different melodies going on at the same time in some places. [AFTER] Really? It’s a live performance, huh? Nice recorded sound, too. You can hear a lot of the room in there, which I also like.
3. Christian McBride, “Lullaby For A Ladybug,” SCI-FI (Verve 2000). [Herbie Hancock, piano; Diane Reeves, vocal.] (4 stars)
It’s a beautiful composition. I don’t know the vocalist. I don’t feel like I know anyone. The piano player is somebody who’s been influenced by Herbie Hancock, but I’m not sure whether it’s Herbie himself. It’s a tough call. [Why is it hard to tell?] That’s a good question. There are some spots where the piano player is playing a lot, maybe more than sometimes Herbie does — but sometimes Herbie plays a lot, too. That would probably be my only criticism, is that on the actual piano solo itself it’s a little out of context to what’s going on around the whole thing, and sometimes he’s jumping on the vocalist a little with some of the things that he’s reacting to. But just my taste; that’s a taste thing. But the track is beautiful. The composition itself, and the recorded sound is great. [So do you think it's Herbie or not?] I’d probably guess Herbie. [LAUGHS] I got a couple of them right here. Diane Reeves? I don’t know who the composer was. [AFTER] No kidding? I didn’t even recognize Christian, because he’s so unobtrusive. Wow, I’m going to have to get this record. Who is the drummer? He’s great. 4 stars.
4. Hank Jones-Dave Holland-Billy Higgins, “Yesterdays,” THE ORACLE (Emarcy, 1989). (4 stars)
That’s got to be Billy Higgins on drums. It’s kind of tough to tell the piano player. I’m not sure about the bassist. Maybe Ron Carter? The piano player, there’s a feel there that’s kind of like the feel I associate with Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan, but I’m not sure whether it’s one of them. I really don’t know. It was a little aimless in some parts of the arrangement, but it felt great. I liked how it started out in D-minor, I think, and then modulated down, and I liked that little bass thing. 4 stars. Every record Billy Higgins is on is just going to feel great. I’ve played with him a few times with Charles Lloyd. The experience of playing with him is like nothing else; it’s like being taken for a ride. I should have just guessed Hank!
5. Geoff Keezer, “Maple Sugar Rays,” ZERO ONE (GMN, 2000). [solo] (3-1/2 stars)
Maybe Mulgrew on some solo record I don’t know? [You're warm.] I don’t want to make a generalization, but for me the style was a little too much of the same thing for the whole thing. It’s kind of predictable after a while. Really inside the harmony, and a certain kind of melodic vocabulary that sort of sounds like a vocabulary already. So after a while I’m not too interested listening to this. Also, dynamically it’s always pretty loud, which after a while gets on my nerves. There were some spots in the arrangement that were nice, where he was doing some harmonic stuff that made it interesting, but for the rest of it I felt like he was kind of running stuff. It got to be a little of the same after a while. 3-1/2 stars. [AFTER] That’s interesting, because I have this but I’ve only listened to it once. Was this an original? Some of the pieces on here were really different, where he’s treating the piano. That makes sense, because it’s a certain style… It’s more of an aesthetic thing than an actual qualitative thing, because that’s a whole school of piano playing that I haven’t gravitated towards too much, like Harold Mabern and some of those guys. It’s not my taste.
6. Bill Charlap, “All Through The Night,” ALL THROUGH THE NIGHT (Criss-Cross, 1997). [Peter Washington, bass; Kenny Washington, drums] (4-1/2 stars)
I really enjoyed it. It was tough, because the solo introduction was sort of in a different style than what it turned into with the trio. I was thinking about the trio as it went along… Maybe Ahmad Jamal. I don’t know who it is, then, but I really loved the performance. I thought this arrangement where they kept going back to that theme reminded me of something Ahmad might do. But the melodic concept was… You could hear some of a bebop kind of thing in there. Also, we were just listening to Tatum. There are some triple-time things he was doing, but very original, though, in his or her own right, with the lines, doing some different, creative, fresh melodic things that really were fun to listen to. I really liked it. A great, swinging trio thing. It was really locked-up. Not 5 stars, because I could have done without the intro, a lot of flashy stuff. 4-1/2 stars. Cole Porter really has a specific sound as a composer. Sometimes it reminded me of “From This Moment On,” sort of the way his harmonic movement is. But Bill put in some great changes on his own, too, that really were nice, the way they worked with the melody under it.
7. Earl Hines, “Prelude To A Kiss,” PLAYS DUKE ELLINGTON (New World, 1974/1997) [solo piano] (5 stars)
Wow! I don’t know the performance, but I think it’s Monk. It’s not Monk? It’s “Prelude To A Kiss.” Whoever it is, I’ll have to give it five stars. It’s so deep harmonically, what he’s doing inside the chords, the way it builds up as an arrangement throughout. He starts from something and just develops out of it organically, and it gets more and more dense. The other thing that’s great is once the time starts it’s really right there. You can always hear the quarter-note no matter what’s going on. I don’t know Monk’s solo playing too much; that’s why I might have guessed him. [Monk would tend to be sparer.] A little more spare, yes. Because I did hear, again, some of those Tatumesque runs in there. That seems to be a theme of a lot of what we’re listening to. [Do you think it was a more contemporary player or an older player?] I’m going to guess older because of the nature of the recording quality and the piano horribly out of tune! But I just don’t know. I’m disappointed in myself. [AFTER] [In your learning process, were you into older piano players?] Not as much. It’s more just because I haven’t gotten around to them yet. But the ones that I really know are some Tatum and some Duke.
8. Ahmad Jamal, “I Love You,” BIG BYRD (Verve, 1996). [James Cammack, ass; Idris Muhammad, drums; Manolo Badrena, percussion] (4-1/2 stars)
I’m going to guess Ahmad again. That’s a great arrangement. Now it’s staying on this vamp and… I don’t know his later records too much, but I’ve had the chance to hear him live a lot, and there’s still that great way of taking “I Love You” and making these vamps throughout it which make it a different kind of compositional thing. And he plays so compositionally, too. He plays with that arrangement. The tune is almost incidental a lot of the time, which is what’s so great about it. I definitely checked out “Live At The Pershing” and “Awakening,” the one that he did “Dolphin Dance,” explored the oeuvre of Herbie and Bill Evans. The drummer has a really fat groove. 4-1/2 stars.
9. John Hicks, “Passing Through,” AN ERROLL GARNER SONGBOOK (High Note, 1997). [solo piano] (3-1/2 stars).
I have no guesses on this one. I’m coming up short here. [AFTER] Again, that’s sort of not my aesthetic. My thought was that this is someone who probably plays more in groups regularly, and solo piano is sort of a departure for him. What I noticed is that… Maybe it’s because I’m a piano player. I feel that his rhythmic thing is almost reacting to an invisible band that’s not there. So as a solo performance, I wanted a little more of what the bass and drums would typically supply somehow, no matter how abstractly that might be. It felt like there was this hole. The composition was kind of normal for my taste. It didn’t particularly get me too much. 3-1/2 stars. Nice recorded sound.
10. Kenny Kirkland, “Ana Maria,” KENNY KIRKLAND (GRP, 1991) [Andy Gonzalez, bass; Jerry Gonzalez, congas; Steve Berrios, drums; Wayne Shorter, composer]
I love the composition, but I can’t pick out which one it is. The shape of the melody sounds familiar. Is it a Wayne tune? I love the way the piano player states the melody, nice and rhapsodically through the bar-line, with a nice texture building up. During the blowing the piano player has a nice, crisp technique in the right hand which I always enjoy hearing. The kind of crispness I associate with Wynton Kelly, a really articulate thing which is nice in the double-time stuff. I thought it could have been maybe a chorus shorter, because after a while you hear certain melodic shapes repeating themselves over and over again. As a group performance, I felt like there was a piano player, then there was this percussion thing that was reacting with the piano a little rhythmically in the double-time stuff, and the bass and drums were sort of in the background. It could have been the mix. I have no clue who it would be. 4 stars. [AFTER] Kenny Kirkland is another one I haven’t gotten to. I kind of missed him. I was so involved in my own listening pattern in the early ’90s and late ’80s. I was really into guys like Sonny Clark and Mal Waldron — a lot of compers. I loved Mal Waldron, and the stuff he did with Steve Lacy; the minimalism he uses appealed to me.
11. Denny Zeitlin, “Cousin Mary,” AS LONG AS THERE’S MUSIC (32 Jazz, 1997/2000). [Buster Williams, bass; Al Foster, drums] (5 stars)
That got me off the most out of anything you’ve played thus far. It felt great. I don’t know the piano player, but I might know the bass and drums. Maybe it’s not them, but it sounds a little like Ben Riley and Buster Williams, that kind of feel. Oh, it is Buster. The drummer has that great tipping feel; it feels so good. I love the piano player. I never hear any vocabulary. First of all, the arrangement of “Cousin Mary” is really great. You would think, “What can you do with that tune?”—but he finds another harmonic thing that really is also referring to the original, with the strange, different chords for the blues. You get the feeling that he’s blowing on that, but at a certain point he’s just getting away from what roots should be, and he’s sort of making up different forms of the blues — one thing, one thing, one thing, and then… Again, these 12-bar things. Which I love. [Does he remind you of anybody?] You can hear a lot of the history of piano playing in there. I’m probably going to be really embarrassed that I should have known him. 5 stars. [AFTER] Denny Zeitlin! Wow. I’ve never heard him. Charlie Haden always tells me to check this guy out. Really inspiring. A great trio performance. For me the piano is a little high in the mix, but it still doesn’t detract. It’s still really great.
12. Martial Solal, “Round Midnight,” BALLADE DU DIX MARS (Black Saint, 1998) [Paul Motian, drums; Marc Johnson, bass] (4 stars)
The tune is “Round Midnight,” but you’ve got me stumped on the player. Because I just heard Paul Motian play duo with Frisell in Monterrey, some of the brushwork in this kind of approach where there’s not a leader was reminding me of Motian. I could do a deductive thing and say maybe it’s Paul Bley. No? Now, when I just Paul with Bill, one thing I liked is that within a rhythmic context they were following each other a lot, phrasing together. With this, one criticism would be that the piano player was going and the other guys were following his phrasing. So after a while it got to be a little too much of that, and not so much interaction. It gets kind of noodly, I guess — for me. Within all that, there were flashes of harmonic things sticking out there in between. So it might be the kind of thing I could listen to more and start to enjoy more. It’s definitely a brilliant performance. I like how the bass player, too, was finding certain notes in there to ground it. 4 stars
13. Ornette Coleman-Joachim Kuhn, “Passion Cultures,” COLORS (Verve-Harmolodic, 1997) (5 stars)
It’s beautiful. I think it’s Ornette and Joachim Kuhn. Beautiful! I have another record of them that was made in the studio which is much different than this. Somebody gave it to me in France. It’s so great to hear a real kind of tonal thing, for the most part, taking place, these modal sections with Ornette’s beautiful melodic thing over it, and then the way Joachim Kuhn found his way out of the harmony slowly, with Ornette. It’s a wonderful process. A nice composition that really stands up, the whole thing. There’s this sort of urgency or sort of mortality feeling to that melody, something haunting that Ornette has the ability to evoke so well. They’re really together on that. 5 stars. Definitely a great performance. Nothing wrong with that. I checked out mainly the early Atlantic stuff with the quartet, with Don Cherry and Charlie, like Change of The Century, This is Our Music. [Does his late '60s stuff or the '70s harmolodics appeal to you?] That stuff I haven’t checked out as much. Actually, just in the last couple of months while I was on the road, Larry Grenadier was playing me a few things I’d never heard by Prime Time. So that’s all another “yet” to me. A lot of times with that quartet, I hear changes. I’ve talked to Charlie Haden, and he’s like, “Hey, man, we were just making up changes.” But there’s still definitely a harmonic component going on.
15. Ruben Gonzalez, “Almendra,” INTRODUCING RUBEN GONZALEZ (World Circuit/Nonesuch, 1996) (4-1/2 stars)
It’s a great rhythm section. It sounds Cuban from the beat. I’m not too familiar with the players, so I really wouldn’t know who to guess. But I love the bass player and the Latin rhythm section; they’re so locked in. The arrangement is cool, because they’re just blowing over this… You hear the beginning, the head, and it’s a V-chord. So it’s suspended on this pedal thing for the whole blowing, because he’s just staying there. And the piano player is rhythmically free of that and he’s sort of just playing over everything, extemporizing over that, which at first is interesting, but I guess after a while it sort of drags on a little. The content was interesting. I found myself being reminded of Duke sometimes, actually, in the spaciousness of the way he plays melodies sometimes 2 or 3 octaves apart and leaves this wide-open space in the middle and gets in the lower end or upper register, and using those parts of the piano — and some of the voicings, too. I thought it was really interesting, the chromatic things he was doing. 4-1/2 stars.
It’s really interesting. It’s difficult after the fifth one. You find yourself swamped with information and it gets hard to be objective. But you never are objective, really. You’re listening, and then it would be nice to listen to it again. Then your opinion might change.