The shape of things to come
Jazz pianist Brad Mehldau brings his masterful trio to Laxson Auditorium
And while Creole listened, Sonny moved, deep within, exactly like someone in torment. I had never before thought of how awful the relationship must be between the musician and his instrument. He has to fill it, this instrument, with the breath of life, his own. … And a piano is just a piano. It’s made out of so much wood and wire and little hammers and big ones, and ivory. While there’s only so much you can do with it, the only way to find out is to try; to try and make it do everything.”
This is how writer James Baldwin describes his junkie brother, a jazz pianist, in the 1957 short story “Sonny’s Blues"—arguably one of the best ever written. It also goes a long way toward describing the artistic process for the writer himself. Or the motivations behind one of today’s brightest young stars in the world of jazz piano, 30-year-old Brad Mehldau.
Often compared to the great Bill Evans (Miles Davis)—a critical comparison Mehldau adamantly disagrees with—the young star from back East is similar to Evans only in that he is white, a former heroin junkie, and a sophisticated and intelligent performer. But the comparisons end around there.
Local jazz fans will get a chance to hear the man who gained notoriety collaborating with Joshua Redman, Wynton Marsalis and, yes, Willie Nelson, when he brings his superb trio—featuring bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jorge Rossy—to Laxson Auditorium on Wednesday, Nov. 7. The tight-knit group is touring in support of its latest, The Art of the Trio: Vol. 5: Progression, featuring beautifully intricate explorations of tunes like Oscar Hammerstein’s “The Folks Who Live on the Hill,” songwriter Nick Drake’s “River Man,” and several original compositions with names like “Dream’s Monk” and “Resignation.”
Drawing equally from influences like Brahms and Thelonious Monk, Mehldau is considered one of the most adventurous pianists to arrive on the jazz scene in years. He has received two Grammy nominations and numerous awards from Downbeat magazine (including Jazz Pianist of the Year), contributed a song to the final Stanley Kubrick film Eyes Wide Shut, and had Time magazine hail his album Elegaic Cycle as one of the top 10 of the year in 1999. The critical praise has been almost universal.
Unfortunately, Mehldau was unavailable for an interview with the N&R because his wife was giving birth in Amsterdam. I thought the best introduction to the artist would be a selection of his own philosophical, essay-styled liner notes that accompany each album. The musings provide an intimate glimpse—as well as being generally more interesting than your usual album note fare of most genres.
Roger Hogan, adjunct professor of jazz studies at Chico State, says that jazz fans should not miss this opportunity to catch a rising star in the jazz world.
“Everyone’s talking about patriotism these days,” he said. “How about supporting America’s original artform? … From bebop to modern style, Mehldau is an outstanding improvisational performer.”
Needless to say, his performance at Laxson will speak for itself. With eyes closed and head crooked to his chest, Mehldau should take the audience on a harmonic and melodic journey well worth attending.
In his own words (from the albums Elegaic Cycle, Places, Back at the Vanguard, Progression)
“The process of improvisation is a kind of affirmation of mortality: Even in the moment you’re creating something, it’s already gone forever, and that is precisely it’s strength. … Music doesn’t just represent time, it moves through time, and the listener experiences that passing. … Amidst all its fractured ironies, art can still mirror that part of life that’s about hope, faith. It says: Whatever feeling you may have that something’s ending forever is illusory. Everything cycles around again and again—within a single day, within a cultural epoch, within a millennium. And what we gain each time through propels us towards the Manifestation of God.”
“Whether Beethoven or Coltrane were setting out to make timeless art is irrelevant. But they were dead serious about making art to enrich people’s lives, and not just reflect the shittiness around them. … However violently their music broke from the past, it nevertheless subsumes that past within it.”
“It seems like the grandeur of a place only reveals itself after I’ve left it. Memory can make a location more ‘real’ than it ever was in reality.”
“Music and language share a certain idealism: They both posit exactly beyond what they can master, but in that failed attempt reveal something obliquely. … Maybe music can be construed as an opening, nothing more … a clear space I cross over to achieve a solidarity with someone else.”
“Jazz musicians want to make the earth move now. They don’t want to interpret how somebody else did it and be told they’re wrong. Again, there’s something initially American in that project; after a thorough ransacking, a gleeful egg-tossing at the entire rule list of Occidental music, in favor of a hit-or-miss attempt at a kind of quick-fix transcendence, to be felt here and now, for the first (and maybe last) time. This is what I love about jazz more than anything—the spirit in which it is created.”
“Playing free of form has never been compelling to me because it feels like there’s nowhere to go. The very limitations of form imply the possibility of a destination; without them there’s no project. … Improvisatory creation … gives jazz its grandeur, which is a potential to eclipse written music in performance.”
“Count me out of the information age. To deify information is to pray to a legless stump—fetishism, nothing more. … The media has manufactured a demented cult of youth. … Everything has an expiration date and the spin doctors have us channel-surfing in a bleary haze of memory loss. All this can have a sad, tragic effect: It distracts us from our mortality. … Alas, life is short, art is long.”
“To close, I offer a scenario: If all the written music in the world suddenly burned up in a flash, who could still do a gig the same night, with complete strangers and no rehearsals?"