By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
|Photo by Debra DiPaolo|
YEAH, HE'S PRETTY QUIET. PIANO IS ITALIAN for quietly. Brad Mehldau gets heard, though. Because: He turns old tunes into bright new lamps. He writes songs that mean something. He catches fleeting moments and holds them up -- see, this is what it is. He's a person of the present.
|Listen to Brad Meldhau:
There are plenty of questions you could ask about Mehldau. Why did he move to Los Angeles, graveyard of jazz, and stay here? How did he lose the needle and find the thread? How did he make it okay to think and feel again? Why is Jerry Seinfeld Satan?
Since he's got the best answers, you'd better listen to him. You could, for instance, start with his Live at the Village Vanguard: The Art of the Trio Volume Twofrom 1998, which delivers some of his most direct music and his most playful liner notes. If you dig that thing called jazz, you will probably want to hear more. From the source.
But you might think these here grubby pages contain some answers. All right, you have been warned. He does talk quite a bit here, anyway. But before he does, a few basic observations he might be too modest to make himself.
First: Mehldau can connect through a piano . . . as if there were no piano there. Let you straight into his thoughts and emotions. Like opening a window.
Second: Verbally, he can map out his motivations and extrapolate from them like a soul cartographer. If you're a critic, you can go ahead and call him the new Bill Evans or a modern Romantic, or focus on his interpretations of several generations' standards and forget about his own composing -- but the guy has already headed you off with more sophisticated analytical apparatus.
Third: He can disappear. An unusual ability -- let's start with that.
JUST AS THE PIANO CAN SEEM TO VANISH INTO him, Mehldau himself can vanish into other musicians' purest expressions. He's as happy spreading color-coordinated backdrops for saxophonists such as Joshua Redman, Mark Turner or Lee Konitz as leading his own trio. This side of him makes selfless art that seems almost not to be art.
Take a certain moment on the patio of L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art last September. The group leader is Charles Lloyd, an elevational saxist currently experiencing an artistic peak equal to any in his long â mountain-switchback of a career. Lloyd, who can pick most any bandmate, has selected Billy Higgins, the dalai lama of jazz drummers; Darek "Oles" Oleszkiewicz, a CalArts-educated Polish bassist Mehldau calls "one of the best"; and Mehldau himself.
It's a warm evening, gigantic mirrored towers catching bright streaks of light against a dimming violet sky, and Lloyd -- large, slumpy, a beret over white hair -- wanders around the edges of the packed plaza before the show, running into one and another old acquaintance. He hails a particular gentleman: "Good to see you, my brother. I want to thank you for the inspiration I've gotten from you, and also for the slack you used to cut me in those jam sessions when I was a kid."
Once on the stage, Lloyd is in the mood to expand. He lifts his tenor sax in prayer, blowing joy and humility for a long time as the wraithlike Higgins and the stocky Oles sustain a groove like swamp grass in the wind.
Mehldau, planted on his piano bench in colorless shirt and baggy khakis, hunched away from the crowd like a vagrant at a library table, is almost invisible. Nearly inaudible, too, for a while. Then Lloyd bows amid applause, and it's time for Mehldau's own solo. Up to now, he hasn't been abstaining, just not asserting. But: He doesn't change what he's been doing just because it's his turn -- everybody's in heaven with this rustling groove. Pushing Pacific Standard Time aside, he settles in and rides, sloshing a single low-midrange chord with his left hand, rocking slowly around the gravitational center of the rhythm. Then, a note or two at a time, his right hand ventures into the musical pool, and he lets his fingers trail in it, trail in it some more, as night descends. By and by, when everything else is forgotten, he concludes, flicking a few notes into the air.
Dark police helicopters thump above, but Higgins consumes their beat. They have no power here.
A couple of months later, Mehldau describes the sensation: "With Higgins, that beat is so deep and strong, you either submit to it and get pulled along with it, or sound like an idiot." Which is one way of saying that you must interact appropriately with your musical surroundings -- a mastery that usually takes a busy-fingered youth many years.
Lloyd recognized it in Mehldau.
"A CD of his music was sent to me, and immediately I heard that he was driving with his lights on," Lloyd says in his pleading Memphis lilt. "He has this classical technique, yet he can swing very hard. He came to visit with me, and we talked about the music, and there was a quiet gentleness about him, and strength, of course, but I especially liked that he was very bright. I touched him in his chest and found out something. When I see those who have that ecstatic thing and who are seekers, there's a certain vibrational vibrancy that happens."