I grew up with an unfortunate default reverence for jazz players, an across-the-board assumption that they all carried cards and knew something special, a high magic: part advanced and accredited science, part enlightenment and soul liberation, part secret handshake. In my household, Bill Evans was deified. Berklee was Hogwarts. So if a legendary player didn’t appeal, the problem was mine: I wasn’t up for it or ready for it (which actually was the case often enough).
And of course, post-swing jazz really is among the most grueling musical disciplines and apprenticeships – which may be why it moves closer and closer to the realm of grant-patronized serious music. Even to enter the conversation, the player needs not just technique but also a deep and actionable understanding of advanced harmony, at the ready in his ears and in his fingers. And the listener’s reward is commensurate with his own understanding of same.
It has taken me years of listening and of debunking my own most counterproductive personal mythologies to realize that…well, a lot of jazz dudes trot out their rote riffs like any ol’ rock guitarist, never straying far from comfortable modes, patterns and phrases, always sounding tight and hot but not risking much in the way of failures and lead balloons. You may call it “improvisation” because it’s not written and varies in details, but in fact the note-and-phrase matrix, the grammar from which these improvisations flow, is often finite – impoverished, even – and fail-safe.
Better to phrase it this way: Most jazz players, even great ones, have their fallbacks, shortcuts and comfort zones as well as their rare and genuine moments of out-on-a-limb, spontaneous composition. They want that special place all the time, but only get there on occasion – like Hawaii. So jazz, for me, is mostly a great repository of folk melody. The solos are overrated and overlong, and the forms too often templated and predictable. I enjoy this new understanding of mine not because it brings the average jazz player down in my esteem (nyah nyah!) but because it reserves a special echelon of awe for the true bottomless improvisers, the Brad Mehldaus of this world – as if there were that many.
Mehldau is not one of jazz’s best-kept secrets, a pianist’s pianist exercising his genius in obscurity. (And it is amazing how many bona fide jazz legends you can just walk up and say “Hi” to, and then they might ask you for a ride to the airport. They’re going to France, you know.) No, Mehldau is one of jazz’s handful of rock stars – a position that he may be accused of courting with his well-known readings of Radiohead and Oasis songs and his two records with the love-him-or-hate-him, superimaginative pop/rock producer and musician Jon Brion (put me in the love camp).
So he has a nice career, and those are always the guys you have to watch closely to make sure that they still mean it. Now, keep in mind that I am just flailing here from the rock side of the jazz gap, but it seems to me that improvisational genius can be measured, or at least appreciated, in several dimensions. One is macro: the audacity of what the player is willing to try, the trouble that she is willing to get herself into and – Muse willing – out of, and the sources from which she is willing to draw in this great act of invention and synthesis. The other is in the resolution, detail and acute musical realization of the ideas and paths that occur to the wild mind. In both of these dimensions – the breadth, the daring and the microscopic clarity of imagination – Brad Mehldau is kinda the king of the cats.
Pop covers and non-jazz records aside, the meat of Mehldau’s case for greatness as player and composer resides in his five-volume Art of the Trio recordings. And the genius therein is unassailable. Like Evans and Jarrett, the two pianists to whom he is most frequently compared (and, Brad, please understand that we don’t merely mean “in that Impressionistic school,” but also “at that iconoclastic level”), Mehldau proved his alchemy again and again in the trio format. Playing with the great bassist and Hudson Valley local Larry Grenadier and one of two diametrically different drummers – the dynamic and boisterous Jeff Ballard or the hypersensitive, china-fine Jorge Rossy – Mehldau expresses his most radical tendencies, his pop and serious classical influences, in this most structurally standard jazz context.
But the piano is the great beast of solo music, and the full richness of Mehldau’s insular musical planet may be most apparent in his solo sets, especially in 2005’s brilliant Elegiac Cycle. Freed from the obligation to swing – relieved, indeed, from the entire dialect of jazz cliché – the astonishing scope and particularity of Mehldau’s musicality blossoms in his solo playing. I prefer to think of it as improvisational music, not as jazz. And when his contrapuntal engine is really revving and he sounds like Bach improvising Debussy on Venus, “jazz” is not even a relevant term. We need another word for it.
I don’t write much about jazz here because that cowed and deferential impostorism remains in me no matter how I have tried to expel it (and that’s a subject for another essay). But take this from my heart of hearts: Brad Mehldau is one of the most beautiful, deep and devastating real-time composers you will ever encounter, ever. Please do not miss his solo show at the Falcon on Thursday, August 22.
Brad Mehldau, Thursday, August 22, 7 p.m., suggested donation, the Falcon, 1348 Route 9W Marlboro; (845) 236-7970, www.liveatthefalcon.com.