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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.

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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 Two from 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."

When leading his trio, Mehldau doesn't disappear. Oh, no. Seeing him back in 1998 at Fairfax Avenue's understatedly classy Largo (a club that has become his favorite), you can't swivel your eyes off him. There's the posture: He arches way over the keys, peering straight down six inches like he dropped a contact lens on middle C. He's almost always chording or riffing with his left hand, but his right is often poised, fingers hanging straight down, till there's something that has to come out. He might work a strong melody with his left hand in the midrange while tripping out precise arpeggios with his right an octave or two up. Or the two hands might run after each other in a Bach-like fugue. Or if it's a standard, he might slowly pick out individual notes, as if he were remembering details of an old story one by one. The tone is Venetian glass; each note rings.

Up and down and all around Mehldau's lines, Larry Grenadier wedges his bass into the spaces, somehow defining the rhythm and conversing with the piano at the same time. Jorge Rossy taps and splashes, constantly changing your perspective and providing commentary. When you think of a piano trio, you tend to imagine a couple of workmen building a solid stage to support a pianist's flights. You don't think of this. But now you might.

WARNER BROS. PRODUCER MATT PIERSON heard something that turned him around back in 1994, when Mehldau was playing with Redman. Pierson got the piano guy his own platform, and in 1995, Introducing Brad Mehldau, featuring Redman's rhythm section on a mix of standards and the pianist's originals, entered the world to not especially wild acclaim. Though it attractively framed a well-versed young keyman playing in a relaxed modern-traditional mode, it didn't stand out. And in 1997, despite a newly recruited permanent working group (old music-school mates Grenadier and Rossy) and a touching reversal of Oscar Levant's disingenuous "Blame It on My Youth," The Art of the Trio Volume One knocked open only a crack in the wall that separated Mehldau from the public at large.

But Pierson and Warner Bros. weren't about to withdraw the siege engines. Noticing that regular work and a chance to focus on his own inspiration were stimulating leaps in Mehldau's development, they accelerated the release schedule. The all-standards program The Art of the Trio Volume Two, recorded less than a year after Volume One, broke through; Mehldau's halting, rushing versions of "It's Alright With Me" and "The Way You Look Tonight" communicated "young and in love" more vividly than your favorite prom photos -- you could smell the nervous perspiration. Nine months later, Songs: Art of the Trio Volume Three combined originals that perfectly reflected the workings of a lucid, obsessive mind (the simple lyricism of "Song-Song" and the distracted abstraction of "Sehnsucht" -- "yearning," at root something like "sinewmania") with sentimental standards ("For All We Know") and a confident foray into up-to-date pop interpretation (a Chopinesque take on Radiohead's "Exit Music [for a Film]").

All the Mehldau personalities were at a peak: the passionate interpreter, the meditative songwriter, the classically subtle player. And the trio was an ideal conglomerate: three coequal players switching roles, bumping each other around like squirrels, having fun just doing it. Last year's Art of the Trio 4: Back at the Vanguard, with three extended recapitulations of Mehldau's past hits, felt like a summation, especially released back-to-back with a new direction in Elegiac Cycle, a skein of piano-solo originals that reflected a surge in his ever-present devotion to Brahms while retaining the spirit of jazz improv.

Now, if not a pop celebrity, Mehldau is being pulled close to the fast currents of the mainstream. He's won a bunch of awards. He gets airplay. He was on the soundtrack to Stanley goddamn Kubrick's final movie. But he plays jazz, real jazz, which has never been a megabucks commodity. So where's he going with it?

MEHLDAU LIVES IN A HOLLYWOOD BUNGALOW that seems smaller than it is because there are two pianos in it: a Baldwin upright and a Steinway grand. Piano tuner Niles Duncan has just attended to the latter; he ripples out some Beethoven as a final test before leaving. The books on the shelves are many, and include The Brothers Karamazov, Moby-Dick, Plexus, City of Night, No One Here Gets Out Alive, some Mann, Marquez, William Burroughs, a Bible, a Dutch dictionary (his girlfriend is from the Netherlands). He has no TV.

Pale, eyes alert but partly closed, Mehldau wears a sweater on this misty November day, so the dragon tattoo that will be visible on his right arm in a January New Yorker picture is hidden. He says he got it done several years ago "for no particular reason."

For over three years, since he was 26, Mehldau has hung his hat in this burrow, not too many blocks from Catalina Bar & Grill, the club where he first arrived in L.A. as a sideman, playing with Redman or David Sanchez.

"It was sort of, like, squalor around there, so that was my conception of Hollywood," he says, his voice light, even, with no definite imprint of his Connecticut upbringing. "Most people have a one-dimensional conception of L.A. They don't know what's right under the surface -- interesting stuff that's probably kept me here. There's a lot of activity on this street." He reflects. "Not always the most wholesome activity, either."

Mehldau shifted his mailbox to the region in 1996, staying for a while with friends in Culver City after checking into rehab in Santa Monica for a much-publicized heroin addiction. He decided he liked this messy city -- "I love just driving around" -- even if it couldn't support the regular two-week stands he commands in New York. Despite friends' disbelief that he would put down roots so far from the holy font of jazz sustenance, he says being here has given him the chance to interact with locally based greats such as Lloyd, Higgins, Charlie Haden and Teddy Edwards, as well as The Tonight Show's Ralph Moore and Smitty Smith. Not that he wears jazz-only blinders; he's also spun sessions with ol' Willie Nelson, and Stone Temple Pilots' Scott Weiland.

It's been during his L.A. sojourn that the media spotlight on Mehldau has amped its candlepower. To The New York Times' Ben Ratliff, he was "one of the most important arrivals of the last 10 years." Producer Pierson has thrown around phrases like "the most important pianist to come on the scene since the mid-'60s," echoing the public-relations drum-up that accompanied the advent of Mehldau labelmate-bandmate Redman a few years previous. Though Warner jazz marketing V.P. Randall Kennedy says Mehldau's sales figures are not in Redman's bracket -- the pianist sells as much among the discriminating French as he does in quadruply more populous America -- the label remains committed to documenting his career as often as Pierson thinks there's something fresh to hear.

Mehldau welcomes the support, while cringing slightly at the publicity. Nine years ago, he was backing saxist Christopher Hollyday, of whom, though Hollyday was barely out of his teens, prominent critics were writing things like "Of all these youngsters, I believe [he] could well turn out to be the most important." After being subjected to an intense sink-or-swim campaign and then not "catching on," Hollyday, despite his considerable talent, has virtually checked out, keeping a low profile in San Diego.

The word hype draws fire from Mehldau, who's grown tired of all this importance. "I'm always a bit embarrassed when jazz gets the hard-sell treatment. Hype to me is fetishism -- often commodity-based. Who deserves to be the object of that? Nobody."

Mehldau is more seasoned than Hollyday was when the latter's media wave crested; still, Mehldau considers himself a young and growing artist. He doesn't need a diary, for example, to recall his "generally happy" childhood as the son of a doctor, supported in his musical endeavors by both parents.

"I wore glasses until I was 13, hung out alone a lot. A little moody -- thinking too much," he says. "Not much has changed."

For his first paying gigs -- the typical weddings and bar mitzvahs in Hartford -- Mehldau equipped himself with the previous generations' standards. Tunes like "It Might As Well Be Spring," "Moon River," "Young at Heart," "I'll Be Seeing You" and the Beatles' "Blackbird" showed up on his albums later on.

"I really grew to love them in New York, when I started learning how beautiful the melodies could be, how the really good ones had a special sentiment. That was less from recordings and more from peers of mine -- the great guitarist Peter Bernstein in particular, who taught me a lot of songs."

In New York, he studied jazz at the New School for Social Research, which is where he met Larry Grenadier (with whom he's been playing since 1992) and Jorge Rossy. It's been a kismetic relationship.

"The fact that we're all friends has made it possible to work together a lot over the years," says Mehldau, "and not kill each other."

Growth requires criticism, and when it comes to the trio's self-evaluations, the drummer and bassist take opposite tacks: Rossy obsesses over tapes; Grenadier ignores them. "I know what it sounds like," says Grenadier. "I was there."

Grenadier thinks of himself as a kind of fulcrum: "I might act as a balance of personalities, add a certain cynicism. I don't take things too seriously. Jorge also is a lighter element -- very much the clown." Still, the bassman doesn't want to reinforce Mehldau's brooding image. "People feel he's very serious, deep-thinking, always in his head. But the side I see is more down-home. Hanging out. Goofing around."

Not that Mehldau is any species of lightweight. He scrutinizes his work from every angle, and tunes in to how audiences perceive him. "In the context of a tour, usually about one out of every four gigs just kind of sucks. That's the nature of jazz: It's an improvised music, so there's less control. When it's not working, you begin to feel like a fraud. I did a show in Lincoln Center, and the first set just sucked really badly, and I was so dark about it, because there was a lot of press and everything. I came out and I said, 'Before we start this next set, I just want to tell you all that that last set just really sucked.' There was this gasp in the audience, and it probably wasn't appropriate â language for that kind of crowd -- there were a lot of wigs there. And friends of mine told me after, that's really sort of an insult to the audience when you say that, because they dug it, so you're almost dissing them. And that's true, I think. So now I just keep my mouth shut."

That's hard, because he cares. He's seen what happens to musicians who've been at it for 40 years, repeating themselves and catering to expectations. What if performing became just . . . a job?

"That's my worst nightmare. Passion is so important that sometimes it gets overlooked. What excites me when I go to hear someone is that feeling of mystery, that I really don't know what the hell they're gonna do next. That can happen in jazz, and that can happen in classical, like when you're listening to a Glenn Gould recording that you've never heard. You're almost a little fearful, 'cause you don't know how the fuck they're doing it, and where it's coming from. I don't hear that a lot in jazz or rock & roll. Usually within about five minutes of listening to someone, I kind of know what the deal is. It can be really great, but it's not gonna exceed a certain level.

"Rock & roll is going through the same kind of identity crisis as everything else. When we look back and get some distance on it, it's really gonna look fuckin' weird -- retro this, neo this. You almost resign yourself that everything's been done -- which is not a fact, but it's such a strong feeling that people give in to it."

This is a big theme. For Mehldau, 1999 was the peak of his anti-postmodern, anti-irony, anti-despair crusade. It was the year that another visionary guy in his 20s, Jedediah Purdy, made a splash with the book For Common Things: Irony, Trust and Commitment in America Today. "Everything we encounter is a remake, a rerelease, a rip-off or a rerun," wrote Purdy. "We sense an unreal quality in our words and even in our thoughts."

When Mehldau read the book, it generated a sympathetic vibration. What he'd been attempting with his music was to inject real feelings, real communication, into a world that laughed at everything, a world in which, as Mehldau paraphrases Purdy, Jerry Seinfeld is "like the Antichrist. Irony incarnate."

Maybe Seinfeld's departure was a sign that the holy war was being won, that the Romantic ideals of Goethe, Rilke and Schumann, whom Mehldau so much admires, were turning the tide. The scene raised eternal questions about artists and art.

"You see the artist in the work itself," says Mehldau. "That causes you, hopefully, to question what art means, and what life means. Art gives meaning without giving easy answers. We learn to get comfortable with not knowing the answers -- to accept that with grace."

But too much acceptance has its pitfalls. "Marxism and revolutionary politics failed, rock & roll isn't dangerous anymore, jazz has become corporate -- so let's not try to accomplish anything new. Much easier to watch Rome burn and offer witty commentary.

"Romanticism for me, played out in art, would be a way of expressing a pining that's part of the human condition now as much as it was in the Middle Ages probably. The pining is for a wholeness that reconciles us with history and escapes it simultaneously."

The goal isn't euphoria. "What's called the Sublime is not a 'pleasant' feeling -- it's a kind of vertigo that involves fear. The fear is compensated for by a glimpse beyond all the contingent, transient muck that we get caught in almost all of the time.

"All this to explain why art is so important to me -- it's salvation."

If art is salvation, that makes the artist a savior. In music, Jim Morrison and Marilyn Manson have literally climbed up on the cross. Famous graffiti -- "Bird lives," "Clapton is God" -- show how deep the notion of artistic transcendence runs in even the anonymous chalkhead. And Mehldau is uncomfortably conscious of his own developing role in the lineage of spiritual conduits.

In his liner notes to Back at the Vanguard, Mehldau writes, "Jazz musicians want to make the earth move now," and describes the most inspired improvisation as a "fuck-you to mortality."

"When I put on Brahms' piano concerto, or Rachmaninoff, it's the same thing I used to do with Jimi Hendrix and Coltrane," he says. "It's like air guitar. Or air drumming with Elvin Jones. That's what a big part of music is about for me -- the fantasy of being as great as a human being can be. I'm totally fantasizing that I can be that person, but it's always beyond my grasp."

It should come as no shock that Mehldau reads a lot of philosophy. "It's the same buzz you get from music," he says. "If it's really good writing, it transcends language." Kierkegaard's The Sickness Unto Death was on his nightstand in November, and he was confronting thoughts like "When the ambitious man whose watchword was 'Either Caesar or nothing' does not become Caesar, he is in despair . . . he now cannot endure to be himself." For a jazz musician, there's nothing more important than being yourself, creating your own individual sound -- this in fact is the way you become a Caesar, if not a Christ. "To have a self, to be a self," Kierkegaard goes on to write, "is the greatest concession made to man, but at the same time it is eternity's demand upon him."

So it's understandable that Mehldau would be irked at the constant comparisons to Bill Evans, the pianist who got his first big break with a 1959 appearance on Miles Davis' Kind of Blue and went on to define the sensitive side of the American middle class. Anyway, the parallels -- a romantic inclination, a light touch, a similar posture on the bench -- are at most tangential. You'd imagine that, when approached to perform on a CD of various pianists offering tribute to Evans, Mehldau would have ripped the phone out of the wall. But he agreed, adding his own twist.

"They didn't tell me what tunes to play, so I just picked some standards, figuring that Bill Evans had played them, because he's played just about every standard. I chose 'The More I See You' and 'My Heart Stood Still,' because I'd been working on those anyway. It was funny, because the producer says, 'Yeah, Bill's got that great version of "The More I See You."'

"I pretended like I had heard it -- 'Yeah! Right!'"

This is the kind of irony Mehldau can endorse: It has meaning. To him.

A major drawback of the Evans association is that it ties Mehldau to the past at a time when he's rooted firmly in the present and growing rapidly toward the future. After a generation of post-Marsalis jazz musicians announced their retrograde intentions with a '50s Brooks Brothers wardrobe and music that often sounded like random pages ripped from a jazz encyclopedia, the Young Lions were criticized for failing to cut the umbilical that connected them with a sacred Tradition.

No, no -- Mehldau doesn't want that. So when he's compared to a famous dead white guy, there's a whole range of booby traps set for him: the originality thing, the race thing and, in Evans' notable case, the heroin thing, which was one throwback that even the Young Lions have never been known for.

For Mehldau, the drug was an especially nasty monkey, one he couldn't shake until he'd been in and out of several rehabs. He has repeatedly insisted that it caused him nothing but harm: the strained friendships, the cork in his creativity, the public embarrassment. Then what was the attraction? Mehldau isn't Art Pepper. The saxman, who died in 1982, said he was born a junkie -- his first snort sealed his fate forever. And of course there was the example of his generation's god, Charlie Parker. But that's only one kind of addict.

Mehldau talks about the self-critical, hyperanalytical "tapes" that keep playing in his head. Most people hear those tapes, but can turn them off. Others don't even know where the switch is. Asked if he sometimes wishes he could turn off his mind, Mehldau's response is just "Yes!"

Each generation uses drugs in its own way, and the prevailing attitude during Mehldau's young adulthood was a gray ghost of the creative cool that was Parker and Coltrane's grail. It was the era of Alice in Chains' narcotized Layne Staley, Stone Temple Pilots' heroin-detoured Scott Weiland, and junkie saint Kurt Cobain (dead in 1994).

Mehldau rediscovered Nirvana while rummaging through Redman's CD stash on tour, and, typically, got something new and positive from it. "Cobain captured something 'Romantic' for me þ not lederhosen and Schubert, but dealing with how fucked-up and broken the world is. Another word for broken might be mortal. Cobain was riffing on his own mortality, making it shimmer."

What he says about Cobain, as well as his personal playlist -- "Elliott Smith, Brahms, Coltrane and Stereolab sit next to each other on my CD player" -- shows how crucial an ingredient current pop is in Mehldau's recipe. He wants to draw on its richest expressions, mix them with the best of the past, and improvise himself (and you) out of the muck. A powerful motivation: the mental pain, the "yearning," the Sehnsucht he was explaining before. When Mehldau talks about the need for passion, too, keep in mind that the word's most basic meaning is "suffering."

"SUFFERING IS AN INTERESTING THING," SAYS Charles Lloyd. "We've all been through it and had our detours and researches, and even li'l Brad's had his. But I'll tell you, man, he's a sensitive. And he's the real thing."

Lloyd isn't the only one who'll vouch for Mehldau's credentials. Back at the Largo with the trio for several days in late fall, the pianist is fleshing out new material in his first set, and the audience -- a packed house every night -- is glad to watch him just explore variations on simple phrases. Less appreciative was L.A. Times jazz critic Don Heckman, whose review this morning called an earlier performance "dulling."

Seeing a guy scribbling in a notebook, one listener, who turns out to be a pianist himself, is driven to offer his rebuttal to the Times slight. "This guy is a miracle," argues the listener, trembling with urgency. "He takes Bill in another direction. And the way he seems to bend notes -- like Monk, but soft."

While the first set of unproven originals has done little to refute Heckman's description as "narrow" and "minimalist," the trio blossoms around the second set's familiar standards, which explode into new shapes. Mehldau wanders into "Long Ago and Far Away" like a vacationer at a newsstand, only to be confronted by Grenadier's aggressive panhandler of a bass solo and then braced by Rossy's uncharacteristically hard-sell groove on drums; Mehldau's chords turn warily from one to the other, then he engages them both, compressing the three into a ball, spinning the unit fast and releasing it to wind down into entropy.

Now Mehldau does one alone. It's the Dave Mann­
Bob Hilliard ballad "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning," whose Frank Sinatra version, recorded back in 1963 right here in L.A. with Nelson Riddle, is the reference point. "That's the time you miss her most of all," Frank would sing if he were here, but Mehldau renders the words unnecessary. He's sad, he's hopeful, he's very, very gentle. He even gets a little conflicted for a second, but needs no more than one perfectly articulated dissonant note to show it. The emotion is real.

The audience is as still as a photograph. The picture doesn't move till Mehldau has let the last note die out, then people start clapping. They don't yell or stomp, they just keep it up, even and insistent, for a long time.

FOR ALL MEHLDAU'S INTELLECT, IT'S THAT KIND of pure emotion that connects. His own compositions cut sharply through complicated knots -- listen to the solo album Elegiac Cycle, which mourns and celebrates creators such as Allen Ginsberg; novelist­jazz legend Artie Shaw is going around telling people it's the most interesting music he's heard in the last 10 years. But when he plays a standard, it's love, and everybody gets that.

Maybe we're leaving the age of cynicism and entering another Romantic era, in which imagination and emotion will be the coin. If so, Mehldau will be rich, assuming he retains a core of simple directness.

Because you can see that's why he stands out: It's a Zeitgeist thing. Mehldau's nontraditionalist piano club has a number of fearsomely inspired youngish members who don't reflect their cultural climate quite as precisely. In Massachusetts, under the tutelage of Yusef Lateef, Alex J. Marcelo's mathematically resonant note choices, augmented by electronics, realize an arctic beauty. Canadian D.D. Jackson combines power and passion with determined originality. Frenchman Jacky Terrasson has almost too much technique and imagination for his own good. In New York, Matthew Shipp has brought a fresh melodic sense to "free" jazz. Here in L.A., recent Thelonious Monk Composition Award winner James Carney possesses a journalist's ear for narrative and a master percussionist's rhythmic sense.

They're all great, and thank God they're not obsessed with being pop stars. But none of them seems to own Mehldau's ability to touch a wide range of people the way they want to be touched right now.

Mehldau's alignment with his time isn't something you can plan.

"I try to stay in the moment," he says. "It's been my experience that it always changes by its own accord. You just sort of let the process happen. My playing has changed, the people I've played with have changed. Really, the only constant the last four years has been that I've played with the same guys in my trio. But that's continued to develop. If it stopped developing, then I think we'd all feel it and say, 'Let's do something else.'"

The changes will surely include a change of residence at some point. Mehldau has never belonged to Los Angeles. He doesn't know how long this city will continue to be his base, with so many forces tugging at him. He tours a lot, of course. His girlfriend and sometime collaborator, the singer Fleurine, is Dutch, but also sings in Portuguese and speaks the language of many of his musical and literary idols, German -- a tongue he began learning when they lived together for two months in Berlin. She lives in Europe; those airline fares can add up.

The world will be here tomorrow, one hopes. Today, sipping tea in his bungalow, Mehldau turns to the upright piano and picks out the melody of a cover tune he's been working on, by another one of those Seattle bands, Soundgarden: "Black Hole Sun." That's the kind of sun with the strongest pull. Strong, but not irresistible.LA

 

Brad Mehldau will play solo in a $200-per-plate benefit for Homeless Health Care at Maple Drive Restaurant in Beverly Hills on Sunday, June 11. Call (213) 744-0724, Ext. 116.