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094: Brad Mehldau, ‘Martha, My Dear’ (“Live in Marciac”)

Posted by jeff on Apr 7, 2011 in Jazz, Song Of the week

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Brad Mehldau has just released a new solo double-CD, “Live in Marciac“, and that’s reason to prick up our ears and take a good listen, because he’s one of the most interesting young musicians around. To put it in full blasphemy, I find him more engaging than any of the Jarrett/Hancock/Corea triumvirate. To tell the truth, I listen to him more than to any pianist since Bill Evans.

I rarely listen to Brad Mehldau without thinking about Bill Evans, a habit I wish I could break, because it’s really unfair to the young Brad. It’s not his fault that the late Mr Evans is so monolithic, nor does it diminish his significant achievements. Brad Mehldau is no Bill Evans. No one is. For most of his career, Bill wasn’t himself.

What Brad Mehldau is is an extremely intelligent, sharp, focused, ballsy young artist who speaks with an individual voice. Not just an individual technique or a musical style (in fact, he has adopted more musical personae than your average schizophrenic), but a world view that’s uniquely his. He’s an artist whose works express an entire take on the universe around us, and a very interesting one at that.

He’s young (he’s got a big tattoo on his forearm). He’s eclectic, blending standards, newer pop and originals into one coherent voice (Beatles, Nick Drake, Radiohead, in addition to the Great American Songbook). He’s handsome and shy and spiritual and articulate and spooky intelligent. Some songs he’s composed: ‘Fear and Trembling‘ (a la Swedish Christian existentialist Søren Kierkegaard), ‘Trailer Park Ghost’, ‘The Falcon Will Fly Again‘. Oh, yeah, and he plays with two different hands. I mean, they’re independent of each other, connected by chance to one torso. His left hand alone can play what most fine jazz pianists can do with both. Leaving his right hand to explore another alternative tonal world. Check out this solo treatment of ‘Alone Together‘.

Brad Mehldau is 41, raised in Connecticut, and since 1994 he’s put about 25 albums. He’s best known as leader of his trio, but he’s made some successful CDs as co-leader (Pat Metheny, Renee Fleming and most notably with Lee Konitz and Charlie Haden) and recently a great one (“Highway Rider“) that defies genre-ization, where Mehldau did all the orchestration.

“Live in Marciac” is only his third solo CD, and it’s worth getting excited about, because that’s where Mehldau really opens up and struts his vision. I’m not the only person to notice how differently he plays in his trio compared to on his own.

Joseph Vella asked him in a recent interview about the ‘challenge and thrill’ of playing solo? “The challenge and the thrill are one and the same – there is no net; there is absolute freedom. When jazz musicians improvise in a group setting, they are often following some sort of schema – often it’s variations on the initial theme of whatever they are playing. When you are playing solo, you don’t have to correspond to what someone else is doing. So you might take that approach, but you might decide to chuck it out at a certain point and go off on a tangent that doesn’t formally adhere to what you’ve just been doing. That can be exciting and rewarding. The challenge there though is to make something with integrity – something that has a story to tell.”

Brad Mehldau makes so much intriguing music in so many contexts that it’s really quite impossible to single out any one exemplary style. I’d really like to cajole some of you non-jazzers into trying him out, so we’ll start with our SoTW selection, “Martha, My Dear” (a love song Paul McCartney wrote for his sheepdog). Give a listen. This isn’t some aging jazz musician pathetically attempting to be young and cool, pandering to a wider audience. It’s a wholly sincere, wholly hip guy who grew up on The Beatles, dissembling one of their great songs in a wholly new context, in an absolutely convincing treatment. Brad’s been playing ‘Martha’ for years (here’s one from about 10 years ago), as one of the lighter peaces in his program, what might be called an ‘entertainment’ or a ‘divertissement’. Give a listen, please. Betcha you’ll find it as witty and wise and charming as I do.

Here are a couple more treats from the DVD of “Live in Marciac” (2011):

  • A complete transcription of his original composition ‘Resignation’, note-for-note as he improvises it on stage. A treat, I promise, for those of you who read music.
  • And his completely improvised ‘My Favorite Things’
    I have several ideas before I go out on the stage, and I usually stick to around half of them. “My Favorite Things” was not something I had played before – the Coltrane version is sacred to me. But I was going out for an encore and thought of it at the last moment, and it turned out to be for me anyways, one of the more compelling performances in the set – it had that story to it; it just kind of unfolded. Sometimes you find that and sometimes you don’t; sometimes you find it with no preparation or context at all and those moments are always great for me. I suppose there is a broader context – there’s the context of the Coltrane version that I heard when I was 13 for the first time and really changed my life; there’s the context of the original from the movie, The Sound of Music, that I grew up watching as a kid. There’s probably some sort of harkening back to childhood going on in my performance.

And here are some samplings from the not-exactly-jazz “Highway Rider” (2010):

Some very, very exciting news for me about Brad Mehldau. In 1996, he was invited to join two jazz legends twice his age, Lee Konitz (alto sax) and Charlie Haden (bass). Two CDs of my favorite music in the whole world resulted from those two evenings. They took a free-jazz look at a number of standards, and the product is breathtaking—floating through the air with no net. I had the wonderful fortune to be able to discuss that session with Lee Konitz, which I wrote about here. Here’s ‘Round Midnight‘ from that meeting. So what’s the news? In 2009 the trio reunioned with the addition of no less than drummer Paul Motian, and the resulting CD will be released next month. Who’s excited, me?

All you ‘I really don’t like too much jazz’ folks out there, do yourselves a favor – youtube Brad Mehldau, listen to him playing anything at all–Jerome Kern, John Lennon, Cole Porter, Paul Simon, Radiohead, hell, Brad Mehldau!–betcha you’ll have a great listen.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:

037: Lee Konitz, ‘Alone Together’ (w. Charlie Haden & Brad Mehldau)
060: The Bill Evans Trio, ‘Gloria’s Step’ from “Live at The Village Vanguard”
026: Andy Bey, ‘River Man’

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