A Fireside Chat with Brad Mehldau
“ Freedom is there but it's conditional on a deep mutual respect for the people you're playing with. ”
Jazz is a fickle sonance, often dogmatic and always insistent. One moment, favoring celebrity and the next, consuming the very identity that allowed for such acclaim, jazz is not unlike life. A beacon of musical sincerity among the modern mercenaries, Brad Mehldau (unedited and in his own words) has an incorruptibility that jazz nor Hollywood could exploit. Perhaps that is why Mehldau seems less a celebrity and more an artist.
All About Jazz: Anything Goes is your tenth recording for Warner Bros. Established pop acts don't have that kind of longevity.
Brad Mehldau: Thank you. I've been lucky to be surrounded by a great group of people for a while. Larry Grenadier and Jorge Rossy are very important to me. I think the longevity comes about because we try to approach it as a band. If it's not a band - if it's just me out there in front with two people accompanying me - then those people are sort of expendable creatively; someone else could replace them. If it's a band though, which I think I have with Larry and Jorge, then their musical viewpoints are vital, and they have a personal stake in the music we make, a vital interest that keeps them around for the long haul. Although I'm the leader and it's my name out front, I try to shape the music around them as well, simply because that's always what's made it work; that's what's made it exciting and kept it spontaneous.
AAJ: You empathize with ballads. On Anything Goes , "Nearness of You." How do you approach a ballad?
BM: Often I'll have a version that I love. In the case of "Nearness of You," I've always been nuts over a recording of Bird playing it with the Woody Herman Band on a record I have called Bird With the Herd. More often, I know a version with a singer and listen to how he or she phrases the melody. I get a lot from vocalists that I love - Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Frank Sinatra - the way they phrase the melody. Often the mere attempt to make the piano phrase like a human voice can point you in an expressive direction: the impossibility of acheiving vocal effects on the piano - a long sustain, vibrato, and the like - is a given, but if you have that as an ideal, you can communicate a certain longing in your phrasing.
AAJ: Anything Goes features your trio, which has achieved a lasting collective endurance. Does it ever become old hat?
BM: It's become easier in some ways playing together. There's often less explanation necessary, verbally, when I bring something new in for us to play. It's also become more challenging in a way for all of us because we don't want to tread over old ground. Certain musical approaches have a life and an expiration date - there comes a point when they're not compelling anymore. Then you have to find something new, but you can't force something new to appear. So then you have to listen for the possibility of something and let it take shape, and stay out of the way of the process.
AAJ: The ego could get in the way of such process. Is it a challenge to reign pride in and allow the music to develop?
BM: Yeah, I've got an ego like everyone else unfortunately. The ego operates on fear, in this case fear that the creativity is drying up. That fear doesn't help anything, so having the awareness that it's no use worrying about how things go creatively is about the only temporary salve. And I'm not sure whether being at peace with yourself helps the creative process. Creativity has its own non-rules. Trying to map it, how it works, is always reductive. I mean, it's also reductive to say that you've got to be in flux in your life, maybe messed up emotionally or whatever, to be creative. Why would that follow?
AAJ: What kinds of liberties does the trio afford you?
BM: Just speaking selfishly, Larry and Jorge give me this elastic, churning foundation that I can jump off of. But ideally, they're jumping off as well, from me, from each other. Although it sounds redundant and maybe touchy-feely, there's an intense satisfaction in playing jazz, when you know that you're giving someone else the breadth they want and need creatively in any given moment. It's an altruistic act, but it's satisfying to your own selfworth to know that you have the ability to set someone else free. There's a certain truth factor that's necessary for the whole thing to work with everyone together: if you play selfishly and usurp someone else's buzz, you're just screwing yourself over in the by short term of whatever tune you're playing together right then, and in the long term, in terms of your credibility with those players in the future. You don't get points too much for the future - people are critical by nature, and tend to remember if they're slighted in a creative situation. That's as it should be I think; it keeps everyone in check. Freedom is there but it's conditional on a deep mutual respect for the people you're playing with.
AAJ: You've spawned instrumentalists doing Radiohead covers. Has Radiohead sent you a fruit basket?
BM: "Cover" is an unfortunate word - I guess it works pragmatically to describe an interpretaion of a tune that hasn't been around long enough to be deemed a "standard." But "cover" also means just playing the tune - like you're a wedding band and the bride says, "Can you guys play 'We've Only Just Begun?'" and you cover it for them. You have to do something more with the tune if you want to transcend just doing a "cover" in that narrow definition of the word, and with us it's through the interpretation of the melody and harmony, our rhythmic approach, and most importantly, the collective improvisation that ensues.