Jazz Should Be Complicated 

Jazz upstart Brad Mehldau isn't Bill Evans or Harry Connick or a candy-ass. Dig it.

Brad Mehldau sits alone on the stage of the Village Vanguard in New York City. With heavy lyricism, his left hand orates and reshapes the melody to Radiohead's "Paranoid Android" -- the part of the song where the original finds Thom Yorke repeatedly begging "Rain down on me." Meanwhile, his right hand is hammering out machine-gun clusters of chords with an unsettling, nervous ferocity.

It's not even like Mehldau sounds as if he's trying to be two pianists at once; it's more as if he's trying to be ten. Furthermore, it doesn't sound like a jazz pianist putting an ironic spin on a pop ditty; it sounds like a two-fisted overthrow of modern music.

Offstage, Mehldau doesn't seem any less contradictory. He'll speak with equal adoration about the first Cheap Trick record and an early Beethoven piano sonata. He'll bitterly acknowledge the plasticity of pop culture and celebrate the Beatles. The self-penned liner notes to his albums read like cultural critiques vacillating between punk history and postmodern transcendentalism without missing a beat. And he'll admit that sometimes people just don't get it.

"I guess in my case the connection doesn't happen for everybody, all the time," he says. "Some things -- the more intellectual, discursive stuff we do -- reach one portion of the audience. And I can always feel that some people are not with us, but they're politely waiting until we do something that connects with them. Then there's the more emotionally direct stuff -- ballads, songs -- that sort of bring everybody back. I need that emotional fulfillment myself as well, so there's no pandering going on. It's just what I would want as a listener."

By playing what he would want to hear, Mehldau himself has become something of a contradiction in terms: a popular jazz musician. Though he grew up studying primarily classical music, his prodigious affinity for jazz earned him Berklee College's Best All-Around Musician award while he was just a high-school junior. After studying under a who's who of New York luminaries and spending time as a sideman to veteran jazz drummer Jimmy Cobb and saxophone colossus Joshua Redman, he formed his own trio in 1994. While Mehldau was still in his early twenties, critics gushed that he was the second coming of Bill Evans, and he soon rose to iconic status in his own right, both in and out of jazz-exclusive circles.

Apart from Mehldau's own compositions, credit this phenomenon to a genre-blind repertoire that has exposed younger crowds to avant-garde jazz while simultaneously introducing the stodgy jazz set to a select handful of disarmingly hip pop songs. Through deconstructing and rebuilding familiar songs by Nick Drake, the Beatles, and Radiohead, Mehldau has enjoyed crossover popularity probably unheard of in the pre-Norah Jones world.

"A great song is easy for people to fall in love with -- it is a miniature world with a beginning and end," he says. "But it has the ability to leave you with the possibility of endlessness that makes you want to come back to it again and again."

Thus, these stunt cover tunes are often captured on his boldly titled Art of the Trio series and liberally tossed into Mehldau's live sets. And though his explorations of pop songs have drawn much attention in secular circles, it's a tradition he's adopted from the most popular and progressive innovators in jazz history. After all, Coltrane played show tunes. Miles played Disney.

"Sometimes people read that we play some pop tunes and they see a picture of me, and they're expecting some candy-assed Harry Connick kind of thing," Mehldau says. "At a certain point, jazz music and pop music moved away from each other. Songs like 'Stella by Starlight' were already decades old when Miles played them in the '60s. Those songs are vehicles for improvisation. They're a collective reference point that still exists for people to connect with each other in a pragmatic, quick way. If someone is creative, they can always do something meaningful with them, because it's not so much about the song with jazz; it's about the interpretation, improvisation, and emotional directness."

As perhaps the broadest collective reference point, Mehldau's version of the Beatles' "Blackbird" from Art of the Trio Vol. 1 is a perfect example of his ability to enchant familiar songs with emotional directness. Over the breathless rhythmic backdrop set by trio-mates Larry Grenadier (bass) and Jorge Rossy (drums), Mehldau explodes through improvised variations on the melody, constantly stretching the familiar tune to its limits with a muscular battery of technique. One second he employs an estranged figure from romantic-era classical music, and the next he strides through an echo of a soulful blues mash-up that might belong to B3 legend Jimmy Smith.

"The idea is hopefully to get the listener in an empathetic state with you, to take them on a ride, and to some extent, get them feeling what you're feeling from the music," Mehldau says. "That's sounds presumptuous in a way -- people should be allowed to have their own emotional response, and it may be varied throughout the audience, blah blah blah. But you hope that they're on the same page as you, to a point. I don't consciously try to manipulate or control people with the music -- some musicians do that, and I find it cynical and condescending. But I think ideally there's a kind of emotional consensus that takes place in a successful performance between the audience and the performer."

Capturing the interaction between audience and performer led Mehldau to release a set of live recordings (volumes 2, 4, and 5 in his Art of the Trio series), staged at the Village Vanguard. People familiar with Bill Evans' seminal live recordings from the same venue were quick to draw parallels, and over time it seemed that talking about Mehldau without referencing Evans was like talking about Andrew W.K. without saying the word "party."

Mehldau still bristles at this. "It's not my place to tell people what influences me," he says. "That sounds strange, but I really think it's the job of someone else -- someone with a fair amount of musical scholarship -- to draw conclusions. I haven't seen that yet, and I'm not holding my breath. If I tell you 'Composer A, B, and C,' 'Player A, B, and C' ... it's just an arbitrary pick from hundreds of musicians who I've listened to and absorbed. The interesting thing for me is: What does a player do with those influences? How does he or she twist them and bastardize them into something that then becomes their own?"

It's a response that leads to Mehldau's most compelling contradiction: His particular brand of bastardizing, drawn from countless musical fragments and musicians, has made him one of the most aggressively singular voices in contemporary jazz.

"I've always loved what some might call the 'difficult' aspect of jazz," he admits. "Jazz should involve an implicit trust that the musician has in his or her audience: The musician trusts that the audience listens with a certain intelligence. That intelligence doesn't have to involve prior knowledge of jazz history or anything like that; it involves a certain willingness to inquire into the musician's viewpoint, which may be challenging.

"At the risk of sounding elitist, this is what keeps great jazz in a privileged space, apart from the rest of a culture that is not challenging, that is often banal and predictable," he continues. "Jazz is unique because it can occupy the thing it's critiquing -- some aspect of pop culture, for instance -- and take it apart at the same time. That function seems more vital and necessary than ever right now: So much of everything that we are inundated with as soon as we walk out the door is designed to put us into a kind of dumbass, easy consensus -- more like a stupor. We need to be shaken out of that."


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