"This is something that I'm feeling in the entire culture," he says later, "an attachment to what has gone on before, an unwillingness to inquire what is new about something. It almost seems that the expectation is that there isn't anything new. In the past 10 years, both in politics and pop culture, it seems that everything is derivative."
But that doesn't mean Mehldau looks down on the jazz repertory movement, represented by Wynton Marsalis' Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and the other ensembles that preserve the music of Duke Ellington, Fats Waller and Fletcher Henderson in much the same way classical ensembles perpetuate the music of Brahms, Beethoven and Schubert. "In the sense that what they're doing is making jazz canonical, part of a canon, it's super," Mehldau says. "But my taste leans toward the improvisers and moving the music forward, and I don't see much of that in their programming.
"I'm not listening to much jazz now," he says, while admitting he's still learning from two influences on the opposite side of the scale from Evans: pianists McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock. "The last time I tried to cop someone else's style, I was in high school. Now that's a real no-no. What's great in jazz is looking ahead, not looking back and getting caught up with history."
Part of that forward look is the inclusion of pop tunes on his recordings, whether from the Beatles or Radiohead. "Contemporary material gives a slightly different challenge," he says. "The chords aren't typical in the jazz sense; they don't follow the same progressions. But, like standards, they're just the forms you use. They provide different openings to go different places."
Another opening for Mehldau is solo performance, something he'll do for the final show on the second night of his two-night trio stand in OC. Earlier this year, Warner Bros. released Elegiac Cycle, a solo outing of originals subtitled—in case you didn't think he was serious—Vita Brevis Ars Longa.
"For me, music has a healing power," Mehldau says. "The whole idea of the elegy is to see the sadness and heal—not just to focus on the sadness but also to have that mixture of resignation and hope. [The elegies] give an accurate representation of me; prone to dark experience, but with the will to get through the experiences and make them into positive things."
The Brad Mehldau Trio performs at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, Founders Hall, 600 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 556-2787. Fri.-Sat., 7:30 & 9:30 p.m. (Saturday's 9:30 p.m. show is a solo performance). $30 for 7:30 p.m. shows; $28 for 9:30 p.m. shows.