Music News

In the Key of Free

A touring musician sometimes finds himself in strange places at strange times. Jazz pianist Brad Mehldau knows this firsthand.

"I'm in Seoul, South Korea, about thirty miles away from the demilitarized zone," Mehldau says. "Weird!"

Weird, perhaps. But the show must go on, even in unlikely places. And despite the current turmoil abroad, Mehldau finds that audiences overseas are not all that different from those here at home.

"I don't think there's too many fundamental differences; at least that's been my experience," he says. "It really shifts from gig to gig. You have an enthusiastic audience in one gig, the next gig is a little more tepid. It's all good."

At home in the States, the response to Mehldau's work has been more good than tepid. Over the past few years, he's come to be regarded as one of the jazz world's leading contemporary pianists. With drummer Jorge Rossy and bassist Larry Grenadier, Mehldau has released five volumes in his Art of the Trio series, releasing them in batches from 1997 to 2001. On last year's Largo, the thirty-something player revealed his more adventurous side by bursting out of the relatively staid and safe trio arrangement, at least for a little while. (The band has already recorded material for a sixth installment of the Trio series.) The album showed Mehldau as an artist who's not as easily pegged as previously thought.

Classically educated, with a love for big, noisy, rock music, Mehldau is often likened to legendary '40s- and '50s-era pianist Bill Evans; both play an introspective, almost European style of jazz, and both of their styles reflect a cerebral sensibility and penchant for improvisation. But Mehldau's formative performance years were most shaped by his association with saxophonist Joshua Redman. After attending the jazz studies program at the New School in Manhattan in the early '90s, Mehldau cut his teeth as a sideman in Redman's quartet and helped build that band's local, then national, reputation; the experience helped him learn the band dynamic while honing his improvisational skills.

In 1994, Mehldau formed his own combo and released a solo CD, Introduction, the following year; the first Art of the Trio record, released in 1997, drew major attention to his playing. Culled from live recordings at the Village Vanguard, volumes Two, Three and Five were live recordings that kept the pulse of the post-bop era and inspired music scribes to hail Mehldau as a contemporary arbiter of a fundamentally traditional approach to modern jazz.

But Mehldau has done much to step outside the boundaries laid down by tradition. Amazingly, he has done so without desecrating those boundaries: He's moved the bricks around without knocking down the walls. On Largo, Mehldau blooms like a mad orchid, combining hip-hop rhythms, a traipsing and melodic use of the acoustic piano, and even motifs from Radiohead songs. Working with a revolving cast of players, Mehldau wanders off on fascinating modal and harmonic improvisations that always come full circle -- eventually. But the tension between tradition and innovation is always there.

"People may quibble over whether some of the things on Largo are 'jazz,'" he says. "Before that, I put out several records that were piano trio, which is pretty standard instrumentation. So I don't run into [that] that often. If I meet someone who really loves Bird, I'm glad, because I love Bird, too, and his music informs most of what I play, to some degree. If someone thinks that's how their jazz should sound, that's fine with me. It's not like anyone's trying to get legislation passed that everyone should play like Charlie Parker."

Largo is Mehldau's ninth album for Warner Bros., and the record captures his improvisational gifts and the near-telepathic communication between him and his longtime sidemen Rossy and Grenadier; drummers Matt Chamberlain and Jim Keltner also play a major role in the recording. But Mehldau's collaboration with producer Jon Brion -- an underground studio whiz who's recently produced records for Fiona Apple and Aimee Mann and appeared on recordings for Robyn Hitchcock, Badly Drawn Boy and Elliot Smith -- signals the biggest departure from Mehldau's earlier work.

"It was the first time that I really collaborated with the producer," Mehldau says. "The record stems from Jon Brion's vision sonically -- how he hears ensemble, how he records instruments, how he mixes, etc. Then he basically allowed me to do my thing on top of that, still giving me a lot of breathing room.

"[Largo] is really a 'drum' record," Mehldau adds. "On most of the tracks, there was more than one drummer. If someone told me that was going to happen ahead of time, I would have been wary of a flabby-sounding affair, with too much arbitrary stuff. Jon's method, though, is to throw out a lot of sonic options to begin with and then rein them all in, molding them into something cohesive."

There was method in that madness, which involved pairing Mehldau with several configurations of players and some unusual instrumentation; at one point, Brion used poster putty on the lower two octaves of the piano strings to elicit a harmonic, almost synthesized sound. Combining Brion's quirky sensibilities with Mehldau's more traditional background could have been messy; fortunately, both men handled the project with a subtlety that prevented it from becoming an overwhelming cacophony.

"It's definitely new for me to record that way," Mehldau says. "What was fun in general about this record was sonically doing things from a classic-rock lexicon and then improvising my jazz vocabulary over it. It was a nice fit and felt natural. There's something new in that regard, yoking together aspects of those two idioms."

Still, despite his foray into a free-form style, Mehldau will always return home to his first love: the piano trio.

"I just recorded a lot of stuff with my regular trio, and that will probably be the next record," he says. "I'm pretty excited about it. I think it's more mature than anything we've done thus far."

Maybe leaving foreign lands and going back home doesn't necessarily mean going backward.

"Largo was a great experience for us as a band. It was like going on vacation together, seeing some new stuff," Mehldau says. "I think it made our identity stronger, actually. We got some new ideas about what we could do together, and we also defined more strongly what we already have in terms of a sound."

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Kurt Brighton