Brad Mehldau has unquestionably been the most lauded pianist to come along in recent memory. Critics, contemporaries and fans alike praise his technique, taste and output with few, if any, criticisms. Joshua Redman, who claims to have “discovered” the pianist when he was still in his 20’s, and who himself has been one of the darlings of the industry since the early 90’s, is one of Mehldau’s biggest supporters. In a Downbeat article from a few years ago, Redman told the magazine that Mehldau is “a genius. He has everything going for him, and he has all the raw talent: perfect pitch, perfect time, an incredible memory, flawless technique, and he’s one of the hardest swinging people I know.”
Mehldau’s skills go far beyond his technical abilities however, and the nuances of what is already an extremely established career are what make him a true genius.
1 ~~ His repertoire
Along with Larry Grenadier on bass and Jorge Rossy (later replaced by Jeff Ballard), Mehldau has released a strew of trio albums in the last 15 years. Strongly in the vein of the classic Bill Evans and the more recent Keith Jarrett trio recordings, the set lists most often are comprised of standard interpretations. But what Mehldau has worked hard to do, and what has greatly contributed to his crossover success, is incorporate a new era of “standard” into his repertoire. The music of Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Harold Arlen and George Gershwin have become intermixed with the music of Lennon and McCartney, Nick Drake, Radiohead, Paul Simon, and even Soundgarden. Far from the kitschy or dubiously executed attempts by artists such as Herbie Hancock, Don Byron, David Hazeltine and Joshua Redman to do the same, Mehldau has exemplified an uncanny ability to interpret these songs in a way that makes them stand up to their classic counterparts. Besides having superb taste, his tasteful and selfless interpretations show that there truly are some incredible songwriters around today.
This version of Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy After All These Years” is one of my favorite recordings. Mehldau realized that a melody as original and beautiful as this one stands on it’s own, and refrained from soloing over the entire form. Instead, after stating the melody, he takes the end of the form and builds it to a gorgeous climax whereupon the melody returns and sounds 10 times as beautiful as it did in the beginning. This moving interpretation certainly brings a whole new meaning to an already amazing song.
2 ~~ His solo performances
Heavily influenced by the solo concerts of Keith Jarrett, especially the Bremen/Lausanne concerts, Mehldau has become a modern champion of the style itself. His approach is less cerebral and improvisationally based than Jarrett and others like Paul Bley, instead choosing to perform his solo concerts just like his trio concerts: with a setlist of standards and some originals. What he achieves by doing this is a distinct intensity not found in the playing of others. While the solo recordings of Jarrett and Bley have a more inward-looking and symphonic feel to them, Mehldau’s solo concerts play more like pop albums.
This recording of Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android” is a great example of both Mehldau’s incredible interpretation skills as well as his intense solo performances. At the peak of the performance, Mehldau sounds like he is 4 different piano players at once, and the effect makes it seem like there is an entire band on stage. His approach is also very classical in nature, both structurally and technically. What begins with a simple melody statement in the exposition continues into a raucous development and ends with a technically flawless and heavily contrapuntal recapitulation. The result is a masterful mix of classical, jazz, pop and solo improvisation.
3 ~~ His heavily motivic improvising
Other than his incredible technique and penchant for contrapuntal playing, the best evidence of Mehldau’s classical training is his motivic approach to soloing. It is by no means “original” to stick to a single idea as a basis for improvising, whether it be a launching point or a returning point, or both. However, to successfully utilize it in improvisations can be extremely tricky. It is very easy to make the use of motifs sound forced, contrived or even stupid. Mehldau, on the other and, has the ability to use this approach to such an effective degree that sometimes it takes far more than a single listen to discern that he is even doing it.
On this track, which also showcases Mehldau’s excellent rhodes playing, he takes an extremely simple rhythmic motif and wrings it for all it is worth. If you listen carefully, from it’s initial debut at 3:34-3:35, it is constantly being thrown around until he finally digs into it once again at the end, around 4:38, almost as if to say to the listener, “have you noticed that this is pretty much all I have been doing?” What Mehldau achieves in this is to create a solo that is both well rounded and extremely intricate in it’s presentation.
4 ~~ His role as a sideman
While Mehldau is most famous for his work as a leader, his most impressive work could arguably be said to be his sideman dates. Piano players have the distinction of being important as both leaders and supporters, because of their instrument’s flexible role. Some piano players have become famous solely for being leaders, such as Ahmad Jamal and Keith Jarrett. The former has few if any sideman dates, and the latter stopped recording as a sideman over 25 years ago, as soon as he could afford to. However, most pianists have become almost entirely associated with the leaders that made them famous. McCoy Tyner was “John Coltrane’s pianist”, Red Garland, Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock were made famous by their stints with Miles Davis (although only Garland had an undistinguished solo outing), and Joe Zawinul will forever be associated with Cannonball Adderley and Weather Report. On the more extreme side, pianists like Hank Jones and Wynton Kelly were known almost exclusively as sidemen. But, because of the role of the piano, these distinctions didn’t necessarily cost these players any renown: Jimmy Jones is one of the most famous piano accompanists of all time, despite only recording one far out-of-print 1950’s LP.
Mehldau, on the other hand, has the best of both worlds. Not only is he one of the most succesful leaders in jazz since 1990, but he is an extremely gracious, selfless and effective sideman. As a supporting pianist, Mehldau has appeared with Joshua Redman, Charles Lloyd, John Scofield, Chris Cheek, Mark Turner, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Michael Brecker, Allen Toussaint, Willie Nelson, Jon Brion and many, many others. Content to be understated and introverted on his solo outings, he also understands the effect of a powerfully and flawlessly executed piano solo in a larger piece. This recording from Joshua Redman’s album Timeless Tales (For Changing Times) features Mehldau returning to the saxophonist’s group a few years after their initial quartet’s demise. It is clear that this modern arrangement of the standard “Yesterdays” was written with Mehldau in mind, because the way he approaches the unusual form and moves effortlessly into the duet afterwards could only be executed by such a masterful accompanist. This solo stands as a premier example of Mehldau’s skills as a sideman and is probably one of hist most incredible recorded solos.