He’s No Keith Jarrett

I once had a minor tiff with Brad Mehldau, an exchange of words in the pages of the L.A. Weekly that, I hope, ended up serving us both well. It started when I wrote up a plug for a rare Keith Jarrett appearance, saying that Jarrett had influenced a generation of young musicians. For proof one needed to look no further than Mehldau’s recorded rendition of “Blame It on My Youth”

BRAD MEHLDAU TRIO LIVE, Nonesuch Records

I once had a minor tiff with Brad Mehldau, an exchange of words in the pages of the L.A. Weekly that, I hope, ended up serving us both well. It started when I wrote up a plug for a rare Keith Jarrett appearance, saying that Jarrett had influenced a generation of young musicians. For proof one needed to look no further than Mehldau’s recorded rendition of “Blame It on My Youth” and compare it to Jarrett’s. Mehldau, of course, didn’t like the insinuation that he had mined Jarrett’s work—he claimed to have never heard Keith play “Blame It On My Youth”—and wrote a pointed letter to the editor saying as much, taking the time to belittle some of the other things I’d said in the Jarrett piece, including the fact that for me listening to the pianist and his trio over the years had become a near-religious experience.

Mehldau was playing the following week at LA’s Café Largo and the appearance gave me the opportunity to respond while making him the subject of my jazz pick column. I stuck to my contention that there were a lot of similarities even if they were accidental in Jarrett and Meldau’s takes on “Blame It on My Youth” (maybe the pointed melancholy of Oscar Levant’s lament made for a collusion of mood and approach). And, I argued, it wasn’t such a bad or unusual thing, especially for us godless sorts, to find inspiration, meaning and yes, reason to live in music as wonderful as Jarrett and Mehldau’s.

All (apparently) was forgiven—the keyboardist certainly had larger considerations in his life than what some alternative rag journalist had said about him—and we had a nice chat between sets one Sunday afternoon at a downtown concert sponsored by the Da Camera Society. Mehldau even granted me an interview a year or so later in which he espoused intelligently on his direction. The pianist is known to pontificate about art and his music. Some of his liner notes go to great academic lengths while dropping the names like Goethe, Foucault and Thomas Mann. While they may seem a little overblown at times, these insights are revealing. His notes to House on the Hill are one of the best explanations of the jazz form’s theme-and-variation concept we’ve read (you can find it here [http://www.bradmehldau.com/writing/index.html#]) and Mehldau continues to practice what he preaches. That he has a good intellectual understanding of what he does is a refreshing and educational change from what passes as exposition and criticism of art of any sort (this screed included).

I bring up the Jarrett story to make a similar, hopefully less foolish, Keith-and-Brad comparison. It strikes us that Mehldau is his generation’s Jarrett. The comparison is not so much musical–despite “Blame It on My Youth”–as situational. Both have a long-standing trio (drummer Jeff Ballard replaced Jorge Rossy in 2005) making the evolution of interplay between the three men as interesting as any other component. Both have impeccable musical tastes and an ability to do almost anything they like on the keyboard (which may be truer in Mehldau’s case, Jarrett’s forays into classical music aside). Both attracted young audiences, Jarrett in the ‘70s with his extended solo excursions, Mehldau with his renditions of alt-rock music and a certain rumpled hipster cachet which comes to him without him really trying. This is just the kind of fan recruitment that the so-called jazz world needs to maintain its audience, especially now. That Mehldau seems to do this without compromise—and what he makes of “pop” tunes isn’t a compromise—is all the more to his credit.

Brad Mehldau Trio Live makes Mehldau’s familiar case for opening up the jazz canon to worthy contemporary music even as it establishes a new level of greatness for the trio. (No, those cover photos aren’t of The Village Vanguard where the discs were recorded in October of 2006.) Who else could follow a Soundgarden tune with one by 1930s-era swing band leader Ray Noble and get away with it? Mehldau’s trio is able to pull this kind of thing off by finding a rhythmic core to the music and relating it directly to its mood. They get straight to the heart of a melody and then mess mightily with it (unlike the bits-and-pieces technique Jarrett uses). That they develop all this during the variation part of their theme-and-variation approach makes listening to the trio something akin to reading a good novel. This is one of improvisational music’s great pleasures: it’s as if you can follow what’s going on in their minds as you listen to what’s coming from their hands.

Trio Live gets right into this modus with Oasis’s “Wonderwall,” a rhythmically accessible way to enter the recording. Mehldau’s harmonically kinky assertions stretched across Larry Grenadier’s pin-point bass groove. Mehldau compiles lines on a descending left-hand line and his improv strengthens as it goes along, winding tighter and tighter on Ballard’s irresistible groove. Mehldau’s a master of resolution, able to find his way out of a tight spot as coolly as some action character in a spy thriller. Here it happens so seamlessly that you don’t see the bridge coming until he’s crossing it.

The rest of this two-disc set mixes jazz standards—“More Than You Know”, the John Coltrane vehicle “Countdown”—with Mehldau originals. Unlike Jarrett’s often droning originals, Mehldau pushes his own compositions all over the room, taking them to unexpected corners, stirring up dust and diamonds. Moods vary. There’s the quick and insistent “Ruby’s Rub,” the swing and grace of “B-Flat Waltz,” the romance and intimacy of “Secret Beach.” Mehldau’s sharp reading of Jimmy Heath’s “C.T.A.” cuts new meat from its bop-bones. If Mehldau’s solos seem to go on too long (see liner notes above), one must remember that the same thing was said of John Coltrane, especially in live performance. Like Coltrane, Mehldau has things to get off his chest.

The other comparison Mehldau has garnered, especially early in his career, was to Bill Evans. This came from his audible sensitivity, a quality lacking in the work of many emerging pianists, rather than any stylistic comparisons to Evans. That Mehldau is sensitive, thoughtful and melodically inventive is old news. Here, he finds beauty in a soft touch, melodic sense in even the roughest handling. His approach to “The Very Thought Of You” convinces one, true or not, that this guy knows the depths of love. No you wouldn’t and shouldn’t confuse Brad Meldau’s work with Jarrett’s (guilty) or anyone else’s. We wouldn’t be the first to say there’s no one like him. Highly recommended. –Cabbage Rabbit

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