In the jazz-community around the world, pianist Brad Mehldau is, to use an understatement, at least well-known. Mehldau belongs to the younger generation of musicians who, with the help of a deep knowledge, versatility and thoroughness, create their individual, unique sound. His latest album "Largo", produced by John Brion, breaks ground by moving into a musically broader spectrum. The intricate group-sound it features was achieved by a comparable opulent instrumentation.
Mehldau's most visible and maybe favorite voice, however, is his permanent trio with Larry Grenadier and Jorge Rossy - a real working band, it has been together over several years now. This spring the Brad Mehldau Trio is on an international tour and will stop for three concerts only in Germany to perform in Berlin at the jazzclub Soultrane.
Before the tour, Carina Prange made this E-Mail-Interview with Brad.
Carina: You are interested in a wide-spread variety of themes: philosophical aspects, books of different genres, of course music in all of its forms - and much else. What role do philosophy and religion play in your life?
Brad: Well, philosophy has been an on and off interest of mine for a number of years. I've been interested in the teleological questions that it poses: Is there an order to everything, is there a reason or logic to anything, is there a purpose to our existence? That interest has kind of waned in the last two years or so, for whatever reason. On a much smaller scale, though, philosophy has probably affected my thinking about music: What exactly is music - does it have a purpose, and if so, what is it? I don't think that question is necessary for a musician, but for me it's always been interesting to ask, "What exactly is happening when I play music?"
There is never a specific answer to any of those questions that resolves them forever, but I enjoy the process of searching. Religion seems to address the same kinds of questions, but in a different way. It doesn't involve a dialectical process like philosophy, but demonstrates something by confronting us more directly. I am not religious in the sense of an organized, specific denomination. Music itself, for me, has something of philosophy and religion both in it.
Carina: People call you an innovator of the "old-fashioned" jazz-piano-trio. How do you feel about this statement? What is your position towards the tradition of jazz - compared maybe to that of Wynton Marsalis?
Brad: The instrumentation of the piano trio could be looked at like the frame around a painting. It's a strong format, like the string quartet, or the sonnet form in poetry. It's a beginning point. Whether or not the content of the actual music we play is old-fashioned is for someone else to judge. But there's an important distinction between instrumentation and content for me. What I notice is that often these days music is called innovative because it finds a new instrumentation: a turntable gets added to a band, and voila, something new. Ironically the musical content itself is often old-fashioned - funk, blues, limited be-bop. There's nothing wrong with that. I think, though, that a certain unavoidable fetishism with technology sometimes clouds our eyes a bit.
The question for me about a musician is not, "What is the instrumentation of his or her band?" The question is, "Is the musical expression compelling to me as a listener?" The answer to that question almost never has to do with what instruments, voice, or technology are involved. It is the particular way that a musician manipulates that instrumentation or technology as a means to a creative end. If the musician achieves that creative end and affects me emotionally, by that time, I've forgotten about what instruments they're using. So I would say, I dig what Bugge Wesseltoft or Sidsel Endresen are doing on the records I've heard from them a lot, but I don't dig it because they're using samples. I dig it because they're compelling musicians, who have a strong viewpoint that draws me in.
'm probably different than Wynton Marsalis in the way I look at the tradition of jazz. I read an interview a few years ago, where he said that technology has nothing to do with innovation in jazz. I would probably say, "Technology isn't the only thing that dictates innovation in jazz." What's confusing is that, for a period of time, technological developments were very related to changes in the music itself. I'm thinking of a period of time in the late sixties and seventies, when Miles went electric, and bands like Weather Report, Herbie's Headhunters, and Tony William's Lifetime were on the scene.
But to see the tradition of jazz as progressing only in a technological manner is also limiting: at the same time, you had musicians like Keith Jarrett, Joe Henderson, or Woody Shaw who were continuing to develop the music in an acoustic setting. So the tradition for me is not linear; rather, it sort of grows out of itself in all directions, forming concentric circles.
That tradition, then, is something that is constantly reassessing itself; it doesn't stay fixed. Wynton seems to want to define that tradition and kind of draw a map of the music with a beginning and end. I think there's something good in that, because it gives a starting identity: Wynton says, "This is what jazz is," and then at least you have a starting point from which you can agree or disagree with him. I think that his point is that you can't have a conversation about a non-identity - you can't talk about something very well if you say that something is everything. He wants to put a frame around jazz; I just think that the frame should be more porous, more malleable.
Carina: "Elegiac Cycle" is a complex solo-piano-album, your other five CDs are recorded with your trio. In contrast to these all, your new CD "Largo" is based conceptually on music of various styles in a "jazz-surrounding" and features a large ensemble. Did it feel very different to record "Largo"? How does rehearsing and recording with so many people change the working process?
Brad: The biggest difference with "Largo" for me was that I didn't exactly know what was going to happen in the studio, and I was stepping into a recording situation that I had very little experience with. My preparation for the record was very different. I wrote simple things, and only sketched out some other things, because I wanted the music to be malleable enough that I could change it in the studio. Usually I have a set list of songs that I'd like to record before I go in the studio; this approach was very different - some of the pieces were realized in the studio that week (We recorded for 6 days), and some of them were not written at all - just collective improvisation, which again was something new for me.
The working process itself was refreshing and exciting. What I liked about it the most was that I was not so much 'in charge'. There were many more personalities involved - more musicians, more engineers, orchestrator, etc... - who played vital creative roles in making that record. And of course the biggest difference was working with Jon Brion. He was the first real producer that I've ever worked with, in the more traditional sense of the word - someone who has a very strong vision of music already, and puts his stamp on whatever project he's working with.
Brad Mehldau - "Largo"
Carina: It seems far-fetched for a jazz-musician to have a singer/songwriter as producer - how did that happen, and what is special about your musical relationship?
Brad: Jon is one of those people who can do everything. I first heard him as a musician, performing in L.A., and immediately fell in love with his music. Then I bought some records that he had produced, and records that he played on as a sideman, and loved them as well. I thought, wow, this guy can do anything! But it's the emotional thing that drew me in. With Jon, there's an unabashed romanticism to his music, and an incredible vulnerability that's authentic. That's what I look for in music.
So I felt a real simpatico with him. We got to know each other for several years before the idea even came up for a record. We had a lot of conversations about music, and although we didn't realize it then, they were important conversations, because we were getting to know each other musically, and that knowledge was useful when we went to make a record together. I also sat in with him frequently at his shows, which was lots of fun.
The record is kind of an intersection between his musical vision and mine. I would almost call it a collaboration and not my record. But Jon nevertheless is an extremely capable producer because he doesn't impose anything on you too much. His talent is to place you into a different situation - his situation - where you would not usually find yourself, and then in spite of that, allow you to be comfortable and relaxed enough to express yourself as well and if not better than you usually do.
Jon has a pop sensibility in the level of care and refinement, and knowledge he has in the technical aspects of recording in a studio - I'm thinking of good pop music, like the Beatles, for example, where you had someone like George Martin. Jon is definitely informed by that school in so far as he sees the studio itself as a musical instrument, a potentially creative means of expression.
That was a revelation to me - to see firsthand how the studio itself - the microphones, the mixing board, the compressors, the reverb, the pre-amps, etc... can become such a creative platform. Jon's approach to all that, though, is very jazz, in the sense that he likes to improvise. He likes to discover a sonic environment for the first time, something that will inspire the musicians to play some different things.
Carina: Listening to and experiencing music means something different for every person - depending on the thoughts and memories of the individual. What is your opinion: how is it possible that in a concert an audience of individuals besides all differences feels connected to each other and to the music they listen to?
Brad: Great question! I often wonder. I think part of the appeal of music, at least music without lyrics, is that it is non-verbal. There is a cognitive connection between everyone - 'We're all hearing the same thing' - but you are not being presented with a specific object, as in linguistic communication. You are not being told, "This is a chair. My name is Joe. You are a nice person."
But you're being compelled by a communicative force, nonetheless, compelled to feel things, and, like you say, be influenced by certain thoughts and memories. I think that part of the connection in the audience is the mere evidence music gives, that there exists the possibility of some other way of communing with each other. Just the possibility in itself is sublime.
Carina: You have a distinctive style - let's call it the "Brad Mehldau"-style. How much does that style depend on musical training or education, how much on your personality? Is there something like a factor "x"?
Brad: It's probably more like a mixture of several factors, some things that are in my control and some things that aren't. I think personality is important. Usually important aspects of people's personalities are formed very early in their lives, from strong, first experiences they have - positive ones, and negative ones. You learn happiness, and you learn sadness and loss.
Also with music, I think the things you hear early in your life make the strongest impression in a way - the first pleasure that you experience with music imprints a memory on you forever, and you always try to chase that memory. I think what I'm trying to do often in my music is to make a 'rückblick'. I'm looking back, giving praise to a memory that becomes more beautiful because it's not real anymore - that is, my own memories. But in doing that I'm trying to make it relevant in my life now. I'm trying to connect the past with the present, and also trying to escape from them both.
Brad Mehldau im Internet: www.bradmehldau.com
Warner Jazz im Internet: www.warnerjazz.de