By: George Varga
Jazz, classical and rock don’t intersect for Brad Mehldau so much as they co-exist as happy equals that provide him with endless inspiration and sustenance. Justly hailed as one of the greatest jazz pianists of his generation, he reaches across idioms whenever the spirit moves him.
“Anything that I love musically, I listen to obsessively. For pleasure, spiritual fulfillment and edification. In that order,” said Mehldau, who is embarked on a North American duo tour with top saxophonist Joshua Redman that runs through late May.
Make that listen to and perform, since his impressively varied resume includes intriguing collaborations with such renowned opera singers as Renee Fleming and Anne Sophie von Otter. In 2007, he was accompanied by the Orchestre National d’Ile de France for the world premiere of his whimsically titled piano concerto “The Brady Bunch Variations.” More recently, Mehldau, 39, was named to the Richard and Barbara Debs Composer’s Chair at Carnegie Hall, where he will succeed such contemporary classical icons as Elliott Carter and John Adams.
In jazz, Mehldau’s collaborators have included Wayne Shorter and Charlie Haden. Among his many recording credits are the soundtrack to the 2000 Wim Wenders’ film “The Million Dollar Hotel” and album dates with Willie Nelson, frequent U2 collaborator Daniel Lanois and Stone Temple Pilots’ singer Scott Weiland. The Florida-born pianist is as comfortable reinventing songs by Radiohead, Nirvana, Nick Drake, Soundgarden and The Beatles as he is at transforming jazz standards into something fresh and riding his own, finely crafted compositions to new improvisational heights.
So, while some may still regard jazz and classical as aesthetic opposites — never mind rock — the question of these idioms being at odds with each other is one Mehldau politely dismisses.
“I don’t know anyone who only listens to one kind of music, so I can’t relate,” he said in an e-mail exchange from Holland, where he was nearing the end of a European tour and lives part of the year with his Dutch wife and their two children. “I think — not to belittle the question — (it) becomes more and more moot. I don’t know how to address it because I don’t make a division in the first place.”
Perhaps the best example of his catholic tastes is contained on his ambitious new double-album, “Highway Rider” (Nonesuch).
It teams him and his excellent drummer and bassist, Jeff Ballard and Larry Grenadier, respectively, with saxophonist Joshua Redman (in whose jazz quartet Mehldau rose to prominence in the 1990s) and a chamber orchestra conducted live in the studio by Dan Coleman. Seven of the 15 compositions also feature drummer Matt Chamberlain, who has recorded with Fiona Apple, Keith Urban and Liz Phair.
The producer of “Highway Rider” is Jon Brion, whose past clients range from Kanye West and David Byrne to The Crystal Method and Tom Petty. Brion and Mehldau previously teamed on the pianist’s 2002 album, “Largo,” which proved highly influential in many music circles with its striking blend of jazz, psychedelia, classical, funk, heavy metal and touches of Indonesian gamelan.
But “Largo” was very much a studio creation, in which Mehldau’s sterling piano work was often electronically filtered and manipulated, sometimes underpinned by insistent beats rarely heard on non-rock recordings. Conversely, “Highway Rider” was designed to leave as much as possible to chance, so much so that the chamber orchestra and the core jazz instrumentalists didn’t meet or perform together until recording was under way.
The inviting music that results contains elements of jazz, classical and other styles, but is not bound by any of them. It is less a hybrid than an organic blend that mixes familiar elements in unfamiliar ways. The combination of jazz spontaneity and classical precision, and their periodic inversion, did not come quickly to Mehldau, who as a boy held Vladimir Horowitz and Oscar Peterson in equal esteem.
“I guess the short answer would be (it took) almost 40 years of life and listening and study, and absorbing and everything gestating inside of me,” he said.
“Eventually, everything melds together and comes out. That’s not to say it wasn’t a lot of work; I worked on writing the music for ‘Highway Rider’ for more than a year. I’m quite proud of it because I feel like I did something I haven’t done before. But I also feel like it is the culmination of everything I’ve absorbed for a long time. That’s very satisfying.”
So is the manner in which Mehldau extends the dynamic, emotional and textural range of his chosen instrument.
“I don’t even think of Brad as a pianist, because he plays in such an orchestral way,” said guitarist Pat Metheny, one of Mehldau’s longtime fans and periodic collaborators. “He’s really got one of the most developed and advanced harmonic and rhythmic dialects in improvisation of the last 30 or 40 years. He’s magnificently loquacious as a player.”
In any setting, improvisation is at the heart of Mehldau’s music. But being able to fully realize his musical ideas on the spur of the moment is as much a matter of constant preconcert preparation as it is sudden inspiration, especially at his solo piano concerts.
“I usually realize if there is a formal coherence to what I’m doing in the moment,” he said. “The funny thing about structure and improvisation (is): You would think that the specifically formal success of a given performance would rest on something conscious and intellectual, something planned or thought out. But really, when the music is formally coherent, it is simply a matter of inspiration. All the work — all the learning and analysis, all the practice, all the study — all of that takes place offstage.”
The ability to create thematic variations and invent new songs within existing songs are constants in jazz. Before the 20th century, the ability to improvise was also a part of classical music, albeit to a lesser extent.
“Did (previous classical) musicians know how to improvise? I don’t know. I wasn’t there,” Mehldau said. “We hear anecdotal stuff about how some of the great composers were able to, but they were the great ones, after all. Actually, what I’m seeing in the last decade or so is an increasing number of classical musicians who can improvise.
“The thing about improvisation is that it’s not just some spontaneous, off-the-cuff inspiration. You have to have a language to draw from, and the only way that happens is if you study music deeply. But a great improviser has a different kind of talent. He or she can take what he or she has been studying and absorbing — whatever genre it might be — and then express outwardly again in a way that is illuminating and different, not a mere regurgitation. Great improvisation in that sense is the exception and not the rule.”
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