When Brad Mehldau appeared on the international scene with his trio in the early 90s, comparisons rained down on this pianistic phenomenon. Keith Jarrett, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock and of course Fred Hersch, his mythical teacher. Today he has become a legend in his own right with a discography without equal in its aesthetic plurality.
On the occasion of the release of his latest album Your Mother Should Know: Brad Mehldau Plays The Beatles on Nonesuch, a tribute to the Beatles, let's take a trip down memory lane and explore what makes Brad Mehldau one of today's most fascinating contemporary musicians.
An inimitable style
One evening in July 2021, I had the pleasure of listening to him play solo at the Théâtre Antique during the famous Jazz à Vienne festival. That evening, Mehldau displayed for more than an hour his incredible science of counterpoint which is as much the envy of jazzmen as of classical musicians.
Several melodies were played independently of each other, in very distinct rhythms at times, while obviously coming together for our greatest pleasure. Just as Keith Jarrett 's solo concerts have become, Mehldau's musical moments are masses with sacralized rites. We wait for the quotes, we hear the gimmicks of the musician and of course the rock or progressive rock inspired encore that he is so fond of. At the very end of the concert, as a farewell, the melody and the first chords of David Bowie's Life On Mars? appear in a harmonic and melodic treatment that is more than faithful, frankly post-romantic and of a disarming sentimentality. Here is in a few minutes the Mehldau brand.
A master of the piano nourished by the classics
If Brad Mehldau discovered jazz at the age of 13 and listened extensively to Oscar Peterson, captivated by his immense technique and his magnificent clarity of elocution, his piano and musical studies began long before the discovery of jazz, as he took piano lessons from a very young age and studied with a classical music teacher who also introduced him to improvisation based on songs taken from pop music. He will keep all his life this particular attraction for pop music to feed his improvisations. After a failed performance at a piano competition where he was supposed to play Chopin's First Ballad opus 23 , he moves away from classical music to throw himself body and soul into jazz which offers him more freedom. He returned to classical music at the age of 20 with Bach, Beethoven (he played the 32 Sonatas) and Brahms. His album After Bach (2018) reflects his aesthetic attraction to the German composer's contrapuntal language. He mixes original Bach pieces with his own, austere and elaborate ones such as the Inventions and Sinfonias. This album brings him closer to Keith Jarrett, also a fine interpreter of Bach. But pianistically, he should be closer to Johannes Brahms, with whom he shares more than he thinks and more than one can imagine. It is enough to hear his interpretation of theIntermezzo in B flat major op. 76 no. 4 to be troubled by the musical resemblance between these two musicians: a lyrical musical idiom, thick in the pianistic texture, of an immediate frankness, a polyphonic clarity both inherited from Bach and a typically German way of harmonizing the melody (full of disinence and delays). To paraphrase Cioran, "If there is anyone who owes everything to Brahms, it is Brad Mehldau. Youtube, a breeding ground for rare or neglected videos, offers us a moment where the musician analyzes Brahms' music, plays it and talks about his Quintet for Clarinet and Strings in B minor, Op. 115, a work that has meant so much to him.
A true contemporary
Since his youth, Brad Mehldau has been interested - like a curious teenager of his time - in pop music as well as in jazz and classical music. He remembers for one of his birthdays having begged his mother to give him a Pink Floyd record(The Wall) after receiving his first vinyl turntable on which he discovered the great names of jazz, rock and of course the Beatles. His love for this group is not new.
" Their music crosses cultural and generational boundaries as new listeners continue to discover it. There is an immediacy and integrity to their songs that appeals to everyone. Their music, and its influence on other artists, continues to inspire me. Considering the Beatles and the multitude of artists who have been influenced by one facet or another of their work, this paradoxical recipe for longevity is one way to view their permanent imprint. For there is a healthy dose of strangeness in much of their music, especially in the series of game-changing albums from Rubber Soul to their latest release, Let It Be."
He goes cheerfully from the Beatles to Bach, to Radiohead or Nirvana without forgetting the romantics like Brahms; his musical eclecticism is certainly one of the most extensive in the contemporary sphere. Because before being a jazzman, Brad Mehldau is a contemporary musician open to the aesthetics of his time like few of his colleagues. To be a true contemporary musician is not simply to live in a certain temporality: it is also to know the other who lives and creates at the same time as oneself; to be curious about the novelties (sometimes disconcerting) or to play with the tools of today in one's creations.
Brad Mehldau is certainly above all a pianist, but he knows how to get out of this ancestral role by taking up the microphone, playing the drums, synthesizers or the Fender Rhodes to explore and cross musical borders. The most emblematic album of this fertile versatility is still his exciting record - and Grammy Award winner in 2020 - Finding Gabriel (2019) made from his intensive readings of the Bible.
With more than thirty albums to his credit, as a soloist, in trio or as a sideman, the discography of this American born in 1970 in Florida, forces the admiration of the musical world and has certainly installed him at the top of the list of the greatest jazz pianists of this century. Inspired as much by Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier as by a Nick Drake or Joni Mitchell hit, Brad Mehldau seems to constantly need to renew himself with each album. Although known and celebrated as a trio, he is constantly looking for novelty, even if it means confusing his audience, as with Finding Gabriel where he played all the instruments, singing and creating surprising sounds and which was quite criticized at its release before becoming iconic and one of his best albums of these last years.
In the cinema
The cinema is interested in his music and offers him a notoriety that only he can sometimes offer to musicians. In Eyes Wide Shut, Stanley Kubrick uses his version of Blame It on My Mouth from his The Art Of The Trio, Vol. 1 (1997) where the influence of Bill Evans is obvious.
For The Million Dollar Hotel, Wim Wenders will compose, for one of the most touching scenes in the history of cinema, a custom-made soundtrack by calling upon (excuse the pun) Brian Eno, Bono, Jon Hassell, Bill Frisell, Chris Spedding and Brad Mehldau.
A special mention for the soundtrack of Clint Eastwood's Space Cowboys (2000), which contributed to the success of the film. Let us also underline the fruitful collaboration with the French director Yvan Attal for several original musics of which the recent very successful soundtrack of Mon chien Stupide (2019).
Definitely, Brad Mehldau is a musician who is very curious about the music of his time but also about the music of the past and this can be felt in his musical creation - and this last Beatles tribute album is a new proof.
Photo © David Bazemore