AN INTERVIEW WITH BRAD MEHLDAUDeveloping A True Fellowship

This interview was conducted by William Turfcott in January 2002 via email.

The current state of music known as “jazz” is one of complex homogenization. With artists like Herbie Hancock teaming up with Canadian “Progressive House & Breakbeat” pioneers The New Deal for a tour, you’ve got to wonder if the music is heading in directions that leave the high art once observed by Monk, Coltrane, Miles, and countless other artists in the rear view mirror. Then you hear an artist like Brad Mehldau. There are many levels to which one can claim they’ve “heard” or “listened” to an artist; the aesthetic beauty of the initial listen, the in-depth comprehension of the communication amongst the group as a whole, the voice of both the individuals and the group individually and as a whole, and all of the combinations and variances between these distinctions. This is precisely why an artist like Brad Mehldau is such an anomaly. You can approach his compositions and playing from nearly any angle and leave completely satisfied, thus a wide range of listeners can latch on to what he and his group have to offer.

William Turfcott: Let’s begin with some of your current listening. What discs/bands/artists are currently in your heavy rotation?

Brad Mehldau: That changes a lot and is pretty all over the map. Right now I'm on the road and I'm carrying around The Who, Live At Leeds, Cheap Trick's self-titled first record, Andy Bey's latest, Tuesdays in Chinatown, Jason Moran's new one with Sam Rivers (forget the title), Schnittke, great contemporary Russian composer, his Songs of Repentance in a beautiful performance and recording by the Swedish Radio Choir on ECM.

What is your take on the state of improvisation-oriented music today? With such a wide range of artists/groups developing their style around improvisation-oriented music where do you see the future leading us?

I see everything musically splintering outwards in all directions, with no linear logic to any of it, which is just fine. But the question is a good one, because it points to what I've perceived as a growing interest in improvised music, in general. A lot of people I see after our shows that I get to talk to have a definite leaning towards music that places a heavy focus on improvisation, but within that realm their tastes are varied. One guy I talked to recently had just been to hear [John] Scofield and his band, was checking us out that night, and was on his way to a Phish show. I don't know if that's more prevalent now than it was 10 years ago, but it seems like there's more of it. When I was in high school, there was a group of us who went to a lot of [Grateful] Dead shows and loved to hear whatever incarnation of the Allman Brothers was playing around the east coast. Beyond that and a really cool band named Max Creek that played primarily in CT and MA, there wasn't too much choice for music that had a strong focus on improvisation outside of jazz, which was more of a separate niche then. Now the line is not nearly so clear - there's not nearly as much of this protectionist kind of stance with jazz as there was then, and by the same token, there's not that obligatory sub-culture with a lot of the more rock-based stuff like there used to be. You don't have to be wearing patchouli and sporting dreds to check that stuff out, although that's cool too. It's just that the focus seems to be more on the music. And that's a good thing in all respects.

Aside from your extensive library of original composition you’ve recorded and performed quite a few “popular” covers ranging from Paul Simon to Radiohead. Your arrangements are so fresh (both harmonically and rhythmically), and often reshape the piece being covered. Can you explain a bit about your process and approach to arranging?

It really varies from tune to tune. A lot of the time, with music that's written and conceived more from the guitar, something cool happens naturally if you just put that guitar part right onto the piano and and don't change it too much. Then build in the bass and drums around that. That was more or less the approach with Radiohead's "Exit Music" and Nick Drake's "River Man". What's fun is that you then think of harmony in a different way than you're used to, and that can really affects the shape of the improvisation - the melodic content in particular. Having said that though, in certain key respects there's not a fundamental difference between our approach to a more contemporary pop song, and, say, an old chestnut like "Long Ago and Far Away" from our latest CD. In either case, we're really interested in a steady process of abstraction, for lack of a better word, from the initial tune itself, once we get to the improvisation. Giving a play-by-play of that process of abstraction would get a little dry and procedural. But it's an important part of the whole deal: it's how we develop our own langauge.

If I had to give a definition of jazz as a thing unto itself, it would involve the actual complexity and sophistication of that improvised language. Not to sound snobby! But what I find exciting about some of our trio performances of those more contemporary tunes is not so much that we can cover a pop tune - anyone can do that - but, that we're beginning to develop an improvised language as a trio that can correspond to different material than we're used to. That different material feeds the improvised language in a weird, passive kind of way, just by being what it is. So there's a cool kind of symbiotic thing going on with the tunes and the improvisations.

At the end of the day I'm a full-blooded jazz musician in this sense - there is no rock music - for me - that has managed so eloquently to provide a deep sophistication and subtlety, coupled with a visceral quality that can knock the wind out of you, that jazz has. Keith Moon gives me that visceral punch when I listen to Live at Leeds; Elvin [Jones] gives it to me when I listen to Coltrane Live at Birdland. But I'll probably be going back to the Coltrane when I'm old and grey, and I couldn't be sure that I'll be still cranking The Who, although who knows?

The Coltrane Quartet performance is multi-dimensional: I can listen to it and hone in on that visceral rhythmic thing, but I can also endlessly dig the way Coltrane and McCoy are abstracting the harmony, building a castle to heaven together in this spritual way that also has an intense intellectual vigor. I'm kind of an old-school Platonist when it comes to my jazz: I think there's a reason why there's beauty - it corresponds to an ideal form that we're lucky enough to have stumbled on. If that beauty is complex like Coltrane or Miles' quintet of the sixties, then there's some specific reasons for it, and the reasons are beautifully complex.

What happens with people, unfortunately, with jazz, is that they sense the intellectual vigor that's involved in the music, and get turned off at the gate. I'm never an apologist for that palpable intellectual quality to a lot of jazz because it's part and parcel with the actual aesthetic experience. It's what Freud meant when he said the process of sublimation involves finding more "difficult" pleasures. Monk is a difficult pleasure: you stick with his music and the reward is all the more rich.

There are certain things in rock music that have become codified, that people fall back on over and over again. People criticize a lot of pop music because those devices - harmonic, melodic, formal - have been reified to the point of being formulaic. Often the criticism is sound. The thing is, jazz also has its own structures that have been used to death, and they can become really formulaic and predictable. Zappa was one of jazz's most successfull gadflys when he complained about the tyranny of constant 2-5-1 progressions in jazz, because he spoke with the authority of a musicain who was doing some fresh shit that wasn't locked into any musical locus, rock or jazz.

So those kind of tunes that come from a more guitar-oriented, rock and roll place displace the point of reference that we're used to as an acoustic jazz piano trio. But we are an acoustic piano trio nonetheless, with a heavy love for a rhythmic and harmonic language that has much more to do with Elvin Jones, Coltrane, or Herbie Hancock than it does Ginger Baker, Eric Clapton or Stevie Windwood. There's some intersecting going on, and that's what makes it fun for us as an improvising unit.

You mix up your use of form quite a bit throughout your original compositions and arrangements, are there any artists that you look to for their either unique or simple approach to form?

With form, simplicity is usually where it's at for me. "Form" covers a lot of ground as a word. Form and content mix immediately in the in-time process of experiencing music. So someone like Monk is a hero for me because of the formal cohesiveness of his compositions, the economy of their means: One idea gets him a long way. Brahms and Beethoven for the exact same reason. With those three, the architecture of the initial idea is never very far away - it informs everything. With Monk, form becomes the content of his solo. In a similar respect, I'm often thinking about the melody of whatever song I'm playing while I'm improvising, referring to it in a much more haphazard way than Monk. I could never play with that kind of profundity/simplicity, but there's definitely an influence from him, that you can hear on a tune like 'Dream's Monk' from our latest.

From the performances I’ve attended, and heard (Art of Trio, Vol. II, IV, & V ), your group executes a type of “group” improvisation (where no one really leads, but the group improvises as a whole) on a regular basis. Do you attempt to determine the approach or context to the improvisation while composing/arranging?

Good question, because I wouldn't be able to say yes or no right away. I guess the ideal with the three of us has become, more and more, to not try to determine the context or outcome ahead of time. And usually that's the case. With Larry [Grenadier - bass], we've developed a lot of devices together just from playing, that we've never discussed. That has to do more just with both of us thinking about music together through the act of playing it together. Larry has big ears and is quick, but he doesn't jump all over my shit all the time - a lot of the time he's really being a bass player-bass player. That resonates with me. With all of us, there's lots of trial and error. But most of the time it's not error in the sense of a tangible failure aesthetically, for us at least.

Sometimes with Jorge [Rossy - drums] I'll have to use words a little more to explain what I have in my head, but that's not a reflection on him, it's more me: I'm not a drummer, so I can't say "Play this and that" specifically. So if I do say something to him, I usually wind up telling him what I don't want and then he sort of reads my mind and does a deduction to find a part to play. Jorge is indispensable to me because he doesn't think about a preset rhythmic pattern the way drummers often do (although there's nothing wrong with a pattern per se). Yet, with my originals at least, I do have a vague idea of a feel that I know he can get to, that's very unique to him. For example, the kind of things he gets to on "Quit" or "Resignation" from our last record. So in that sense, I do have something in mind, and it very much has to do with both of their musical personalities. Those guys are both vital to me. If, hypothetically, all of the sudden I had to get a new trio, I'd have to radically change my own approach.

What made you decide to make Progression a live album?

When we play live, we have the audience in front of us, and they definitely inspire a different kind of performance than you can get in the studio. It's more about going out on a limb, putting yourself out there in the improvisations. You want to surprise that audience if you can, and maybe give them a moment of transcendence. And if you feel your audience right in front of you, if they're with you in the act, there's more of an incentive to deliver. I feel a definite affection and warm feeling for an audience, when I feel that warmth from them. That puts a good vibe on the proceedings before we even begin to play. When you're in the studio, there's no vibe - not bad, not good. It's the difference between live Bird records and the studio ones. Same with Miles and Coltrane's bands. I always prefer the live. But that's a question of personal temperment. I've noticed that some people dig our studio records more than the live, and vice-versa. I think they both have certain merits, but I feel the most kinship with our live stuff if I had to chose.

You released an album titled Places in 2000. How much do your touring experiences influence your songwriting, and were there any specific instances/compositions that pushed you to make the album?

Places was strange: I got this big sort of idea fixe for the record, one that had to do with the transience that you can feel from being dislocated in time and place. But that idea only developed retrospectively after about half of the tunes were written. It started out much more pragmatically: I couldn't think of titles for tunes, and I was writing them on the road because we were touring so much that year - 1999 mostly. So I titled them after where they were written. The themes started connecting and overlapping unconsciously, and then as I developed the idea behind the record, I consciously exploited their similarities in the writing. The record became more about constancy amidst transcience, the constancy being one's own consciousness. In that sense, it had a lot of parallels with Elegiac Cycle, an earlier solo record I did. Some critics got it completely backwards, though, and described the record as a "Travelogue". There was nothing inherently Spanish about "Madrid", for example - it was more "here I am in this place, I'm the same person with the same shit." The idea was that music (and other arts, other experiences like a vivid dream) is something that can give the lie to all that banality, by throwing it in a strange, unfamiliar light.

In the development of an artist, one usually chooses to focus on the virtuosi aspects of creating or the artistic aspects of creating. Obviously there is a good bit of gray area between the two. Which do you think is the most effective in distinguishing an artist as an individual?

"Virtuosi" sometimes has a pejorative ring to it: it means a stunning technique, but can imply technique at the expense of musicality. The flip side is someone with tons of creativity but no technique. Both of these characterizations operate on a false dichotomy, by asserting that technique and creativity run contrary to each other. Nothing could be further from the truth. In a very pragmatic sense, your technique is a means-end kind of deal: It's what you aquire to be able to express yourself in a creative fashion in the first place. If you have no technique, then, for all practical purposes, you can have all the creative ideas in the world, but you're not able to create them, thus, you're not creative. But some of that misguided duality comes about from an older more classical view of just what technique is.

In jazz at least, technique is more subjective. To be sure, there's a common ground, a kind of playing field that people are familiar with - "If you want to sit in with us, you've got to be able to hang on an up-tempo." But some players don't even pay that heed. And there's not a clear reason why they should. The desired end of a technique is to express something that you hear in your head as a neverending ideal. And the reasons that you have that ideal are very messy and personal - they're totally tied up with who you are individually. Art Tatum's technique was radically different than Tommy Flannagan's. Herbie Hancock's technique is radically different that Andrew Hill's. There's not any clear aesthetic value judgement you can make from that observation in itself.

Do you plan on exploring any other keyboard instruments (organ, Wurlitzer, clavinet, etc.) in the future? Or have you in the past?

Not really. I'm the kind of person who goes into one thing deeper and deeper. I'm not really a multi-tasker. Piano is enough to keep me engaged for several lifetimes. Not to say that couldn't change. I recently played a little vibes on a record I'm recording, but in a real simple, kind of melodic role. That doesn't reflect on any of my tastes though - some of my favorite music is Lyle Mays' synthesizer with Pat Metheny over the years, Zawinul with Weather Report, and the great bands that Herbie and Chick have led througout the years that involved different keyboard instruments. I'm a big fan of Larry Goldings and think he's really leading a kind of renaissance on the Hammond B-3, and Sam Yahel's another one who's doing some great work on that instrument.

Aside from the fantastic trio that you play in now are there any other musicians that you’d really like to collaborate with in the future?

Just more with my peers. There are a handful of guys that I used to play with more often that I haven't gotten to play with as much over the past few years since we've been so busy: Peter Bernstein, a guitarist who's been a big influence on me, Mark Turner and Kurt Rosenwinkel as well, who play together a lot. I love their aesthetic and feel really close to it.


Brad and his trio are hitting the road beginning with a 10 night run on the west coast including a special 6 night run at the acclaimed Yoshi's in Oakland, and ending with a two night stand in LA’s Knitting Factory. The cohesion of this group in performance is unparalleled. It is so rare that players of this caliber develop the rapport that this group has achieved. Often players like the guys in this group end up in a never-ending cycle between sideman and front man. Thankfully these guys have chosen to stick together and develop something very unique to modern music…a true fellowship. You’d be mistaken to not at least see one of these upcoming performances. These days it is rare to say that an artist’s performances could be regarded as “history in the making,” and this group’s music is very likely just that.

Check out Brad's tour dates!
[Published on: 5/7/02]

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