Brad Mehldau Tells His Story

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​“Perhaps that’s a key to what makes me tick — a very strong curiosity, which makes me a perpetual fanboy of whatever I’m discovering,” Mehldau says.

(Photo: Elena Olivo)

At the tail end of 2022, Brad Mehldau took advantage of a New York sojourn to play piano with old friends at Smalls Jazz Club, the now-iconic room he opened in April of 1994 with guitarist Peter Bernstein, bassist Omer Avital and drummer Andy Watson.

In late December, he performed as a sideman with Bernstein — a close friend since their days at the New School during the late 1980s — in a quartet with bassist Vicente Archer and drummer Joe Farnsworth. Ten days earlier, Mehldau joined Farnsworth and bassist Peter Washington for another sideman date at the club. All six sets, viewed by 20,000 YouTubers and counting, were intensely swinging affairs, focusing on slightly less traveled bebop, hard-bop and American Songbook gems rendered on their own terms of engagement.

Last year Mehldau, 52, also toured internationally with Joshua Redman, Christian McBride and Brian Blade — all up-and-comers when they recorded Redman’s influential 1994 album Moodswing (Warner) — behind the summer release of the Redman-led LongGone and its 2020 predecessor, Round Again (both on Nonesuch).

And in March 2021, in Amsterdam, his primary residence over the last decade, he led a quartet with Dutch virtuosos Joris Roelofs on bass clarinet and Clemens van der Feen on bass and Catalan drummer Jorge Rossy. Rossy served as Mehldau’s partner on five Art of the Trio albums — recordings that fueled the pianist’s ascension to international prominence by age 30. The pared-to-essence flow propelled an interactive set postulating fresh, intriguing perspectives on repertoire Mehldau has frequently played with his second working trio (with Larry Grenadier and Jeff Ballard) since they formed in 2005.

“With Larry and Jorge and Jeff, there was a continuity and, of course, comfort — even as we grew together and, I like to think, moved the music forward in our own neck of the woods,” Mehldau observed via email. “But my earlier roots are with [the aforementioned musicians], and when I go back to play them, I find something striking — it is familiar and wonderful, but it is not my comfort zone anymore. Joe plays drums very differently than Jeff. He spars with me more directly, sometimes in the older tradition of Art Blakey — ‘dropping some bombs,’ as they say. It’s exciting but can throw me off, as Joe did when I played with him in the early 1990s. It keeps me on my toes, and realigns my perspective, which for almost half a lifetime is primarily being a leader. With Joe and Peter, I was not a leader. They were not on my turf any more than I was on theirs. We were having a spontaneous conversation. I was in my head a lot, which I accept. It’s telling me something about myself. It’s an opportunity for growth and further self-knowledge. It gets me out of a fixed story of who I am as a musician.”

Mehldau’s abiding determination to avoid “a fixed story” is palpable on his recent Nonesuch-Warner release, Your Mother Should Know, which dropped in February and contains 10 Beatles songs performed solo in September 2020 at the Paris Philharmonie. As when this writer heard Mehldau play solo last March in Bergamo, the interpretations are mostly pithy, less discursive than the comprehensive 2015 release 10 Years Solo Live, comprising 19 selections culled from European concerts between 2004 and 2014 (among them, a 16-minute rumination on “And I Love Her”) or, for that matter, the 2018 release After Bach, also from a Paris Philharmonie concert where Mehldau refracted works from The Well-Tempered Clavier into springboards for recomposition and improvisation. (He’s currently working on a similarly schemed project that pairs his compositions with the music of Gabriel Fauré.)

“I consider this, in a way, a companion to the solo record I did right before this in lockdown,” Mehldau asserted, referencing Suite: April 2020, on which none of the 15 tracks exceed four minutes. “For whatever reason, with all the time on my hands to play, I made things short in a way I never had done previously. In truth, I’ve always wanted to do it. It’s some kind of shift; whether it’s temporary or long-term, I don’t know yet. When I played solo in September at the Village Vanguard, set lists ran upwards of 14 tunes per set, versus the seven or so I’ve done for a long time in solo performances. The more condensed tune-offering may be a part of aging — wanting to not waste time.”

Asked if a different consciousness is at play interpreting the works of McCartney, Lennon and Harrison than compositions by Bach, Monk, Jimmy Heath or Cole Porter, Mehldau responded affirmatively, but noted “common elements that often are in the harmony, which, in a different but no less powerful way than more overt melody, gives a composer their calling card. Just about everyone will overlap with Bach, because he is a container for so much harmony. When you make those connections, you can actually free yourself from the genre a bit: If something in ‘Blackbird’ reminds me of Bach, why not let Bach’s own keyboard writing inform the approach? If something in Paul [McCartney]’s writing, like ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,’ reminds me of Monk, it’s an invitation to approach it more like a Monk tune, which is a bit what I did on this record.

“Mostly I adhered to the original, and much of what contributed to the final product was to slim it down to a piano arrangement. The exceptions were an extended rumination at the end of ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,’ a stretched-out series of amen cadences at the end of ‘Golden Slumbers’ and a radically slower tempo on ‘Baby’s In Black’ as well as an extended ending, where I came up with a new harmonic progression that became an extended ‘outro.’ I’ve taken that approach with solo for a while now — going to another place after the tune is done, like a very long tag. I sometimes wished I had a crack at these songs in the studio, because I didn’t quite ‘hit’ any number of little details — things I wanted to honor in the original Beatles orchestration, but lapsed on. I’m sure some folks will hear a few melody snafus on a close listening. That’s the nature of a live recording. I’ve been having fun playing a lot of these live, so I can redeem myself for those errors.”

Mehldau takes full advantage of studio resources on the March 2022 release Jacob’s Ladder and 2018’s Finding Gabriel. Both are phantasmagoric cross-genre epics, with eschatological intention, a broad sonic and beat palette, lots of keyboards (on three tracks on the former date he functions as a multitracked one-man band), many beautiful voices and an attitude privileging compositional and ensemble imperatives over improvisational impulses. On Jacob’s Ladder, made during the latter stages of lockdown, Mehldau incorporates prog gestures, electronica, classical piano, lieder, spoken Biblical text and wordless vocals deployed as discrete instruments with distinctive timbral properties. On Finding Gabriel, gestated midway through the Trump presidency, he more explicitly references Old Testament prophecy and wisdom (Daniel and Hosea, the Psalms, and the Books of Job and Ecclesiastes), endeavoring to transmute Biblical study into, as he writes in the program notes, “a corollary and perhaps a guide to the present day — one long nightmare or a signpost leading to potential gnosis, depending on how you read it.”

Jacob’s Ladder is my most personal, biggest record, but I can’t sense the impact it might have on other people the way I have with other records,” Mehldau said. “I could tell Finding Gabriel had hit people. But Jacob’s Ladder might be too strange. I can say that it’s a crisis record. To give a one-word description, it was a breakdown. It’s all there — the descent, the way through and the way out. I made it as I was going through it.”

Mehldau hadn’t unpacked this recent episode sufficiently to discuss it, but termed the experience his most difficult journey since the formative years he addresses in his just-published memoir, Formation: Building A Personal Canon, Part 1 (Equinox Press). It’s an unflinching account of his turbulent first quarter-century, recounting and intersectionally contextualizing, in searing, transparent detail, the circumstances that framed the establishment of the musical relationships and tonal personality that he has elaborated and refined ever since.

In the process of “saying goodbye” to his story “as a path to healing,” Mehldau applies a dictum of the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh (Mehldau is a practitioner of his Plum Village tradition) that “literature and music ‘inter-are.’” He models the text on the German bildungsromans of Goethe and Hesse — “a book that traces the life of a young person up to the point when they reach a provisional maturity, and ends there.” He mashes up literary genres — transgressive fiction, confessional autobiography, critical theory, social history, music criticism — with the interdisciplinary fluidity that he applies to his admixtured narratives in notes and tones. There are painstakingly detailed descriptions of childhood trauma, his early musical training, his drug dependency — escalating from cannabis as “a daily coping mechanism that got me through high school” to the heroin addiction that consumed him during the mid-1990s — and his “fluid sexuality.” He maps with sociological rigor — and an ironic touch — the layers of his various school communities in West Hartford, Connecticut, and “the New York jazz scene as I experienced it with a group of peers from roughly 1988 to 1994,” showing us tribal alignments; his position within them; the psychological and material circumstances influencing the protagonists he interacts with and his own motivations within those interactions.

Perhaps this encapsulation sounds pedantic and heavy-handed; Mehldau’s prose is anything but. In tracing the twists and turns that shaped the canon that has helped shape the sound of 21st century jazz, he presents compelling tangents: nuanced riffs on how German philosophy and Marxian-Freudian literary theory infuse his aesthetics — for example, “the crushing sublime” in relation to the musics of John Coltrane, Jimi Hendrix and Lee Morgan. With vivid, microscopic detail, he portrays the respective scenes at New York rooms like Augie’s, Bradley’s, the Top of the Gate; the rituals attendant to drug use or a random hookup; a harrowing episode of sexual abuse from a high school principal; his relations with the GenX jazz factions (“bebop Nazis,” “goons” and “straddlers”) he intersected with during apprentice years. He mentions piano classic solos without which “I wouldn’t be who I am” — piano solos like McCoy Tyner’s on “Chain Reaction” with Hank Mobley, Wynton Kelly’s on “No Blues” with Wes Montgomery, Bobby Timmons’ on “Spontaneous Combustion” with Cannonball Adderley. And he explains why they were so important.

Mehldau’s preferred way to communicate for this article was through emailed responses to DownBeat’s questions, which he composed while preparing for an end-of-January week at the Village Vanguard where he debuted a new quintet with Dayna Stephens, Josh Evans, McBride and Farnsworth. His words were equally eloquent as those in Formation.

“My favorite jazz musicians, like Miles, are storytellers first and foremost, and many of my records are informed by more overt narrative devices in literature,” he said. “Joyce’s Ulysses was a big model for Elegiac Cycle and Places, for example. Narrative implies a lot of things, but one big one is form. Form is first and foremost an expressive device — it gives the content meaning. There is a sense of journey, of departing and arriving, of time passing. Although I don’t address it in the book, the other influence in this narrative/formal sense is cinema. One reason why this book languished on a hard drive for a good 15 years is because I could not find the form/story — I had a lot of the material, but it had no frame until about three years ago. What it is finally is only one-third or so of that writing.

“I wanted to tell a story and then drop that story once and for all,” he explained. “That is a paradox, but I’m happy to say it’s worked to a degree — I no longer feel burdened by this younger identity I write about. My actual trauma was more of a perfect storm: the depression I’ve grappled with my whole life, unquestioned answers about my origins in terms of my adoption, insecurity about homosexual feelings that was much more prevalent in that time, and then, the actual negative, abusive sexual experiences, which added another level of shame, and, I learned later, repressed anger. The anger was then reinforced by the depression that was always rearing its head, and they fed off of each other. Then you get stuck in this persona where the experiences have already happened but you keep reliving them. It’s that story you need to drop. It’s the story of a victim. Anyhow, when you add up the whole mix, it was too much for me, and I needed to medicate it somehow.

“For a long time, I was reluctant to talk about what happened to me in high school. I had friends who had worse childhood and adolescent experiences on the face of it — physical abuse, neglect, outright rape. I felt I should just shut up about what happened to me, or downplay it as a joke.

“When the #MeToo movement began, I was emboldened and inspired by other people coming forward with honesty and courage. I thought perhaps there was a way to show how healing could take place for people who had similar traumatic experiences as mine — particularly other men.

“One tacit theme I wanted to communicate is the spiritual principle of non-differentiation I’ve found in Buddhist teaching. Suffering is holy. That means to me that the trauma you experience is your own holy moment, because it contains the path towards salvation. The grace is there within you already. That holy kind of suffering is yours, and yours alone. It makes you who you are. You can’t split it off from the stuff you like about yourself, the stuff that works — and you don’t need to. You can draw from it the rest of your life as a musician. The whole process is beautifully mysterious and sacred. Every part of you has unfathomable beauty, even the infinite sadness you may face. That’s where I find my faith. For me as a musician that’s meant traumatic experiences are just as rich — often richer — to draw from as a musician as positive, joyful ones.

“When I began getting some recognition as a musician, there were a lot of questions about drug use. I was defensive. I felt they played into cliches about drugs and musicians — jazz musicians in particular. There are reasons why some of my greatest musical heroes stuck a needle in their arm; it was their trauma, or an affliction that already lived inside them. That is both tragic and sacred. We shouldn’t talk flippantly of it, and we should be careful speculating on it if we weren’t the ones who lived it. To make some flimsy causal connection is an insult to the music and to those musicians. Now in writing this book, I feel I can give my own past drug abuse a broader context, and explain why it happened, just as much to myself as to the reader. It is an act of self-forgiving. During those defensive years at the beginning of my career after getting clean, it wasn’t just that I wanted to tell my own story and not have someone else trivialize it. I didn’t yet know what that story was. It took half a lifetime to get the story right, tell it, and finally begin to let it go.”

Mehldau also discussed the interface between writing and playing music. “I was a big reader from an early age, but didn’t write that much until my 20s. The first things were some of my liner notes for the earlier Art of the Trio records. I wasn’t as good a writer as a musician; I’m still not, and probably never will be. But there was something there — a certain ability to synthesize ideas I was collecting from literature, maybe something similar to what I can do in music.

“It strikes me that I was trying to sound smart in some of that earlier writing, and I hope I’ve managed to steadily excise that quality. The genuine freedom from the ego I find in making music I do not find in writing with words. There is a flow and a zone you get into undoubtedly, but it is always mediated by a self-appraisal in real time — ‘That came out well and had an economy of words ... this sounds too stuffy, too overwrought … ,’ etc. The white heat of improvisation leaves no time for that inner discourse.

“In this regard there is still an unresolved question for me about writing versus music-making: Can you ever be truly vulnerable as a writer? Even when you are revealing your warts to the reader, aren’t you still controlling what you put on the page? In an improvised musical medium, sometimes you fall on your ass in front of an audience, and in that moment, something opens up inadvertently with its own fragile grace. I tried to explain a redemptive vulnerability in the musical sphere that I value in some of the greats in the chapter ‘Dragon Music.’”

Mehldau’s soliloquies touched on many things, one being his self-assessment of his accomplishment and his impact.

“I don’t like to make assumptions about my influence on others,” he prefaced. “I would like to think, though, that I have offered a model of assimilation. The gift I perceive in myself is an ease in bringing together musical streams that may seem disparate — German Romanticism, hard-bop, singer-songwriters, prog and the like. Henry James referred to ‘the blessed faculty of wonder.’ He meant that curiosity, in itself, is a kind of gift. We all have it, but perhaps that’s a key to what makes me tick — a very strong curiosity, which makes me a perpetual fanboy of whatever I’m discovering.” DB



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