The Pissed Pianist

At a certain point in his career, wanting the music to speak for itself, John Coltrane preferred to issue his albums without liner notes. Pianist Brad Mehldau writes his own.

Mehldau, arguably the most expressive pianist to emerge from this commercially confused decade of jazz, has included long, self-penned tomes in his past two releases that address everything from romantic temperament to the fallacy of a jazz renaissance. His strongest words are reserved for critics. “The constant comparison of this trio with the Bill Evans trio by critics has been a thorn in my side,” begin the more than eight pages of notes included with Mehldau's most recent release, Art of the Trio 4: Back at the Vanguard.

Now he's talking—on the phone from Chicago, where his trio (with bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jorge Rossy) recently appeared. “Yes, of course, you could listen to the music, and it wouldn't need explanation,” Mehldau explains. “But there were things that I felt needed to be said. Hopefully, [the notes] don't alienate the general listener or the journalist. That was my fear.”

Rather than alienate, the notes to Trio 4and Mehldau's other 1999 release, the solo recording Elegiac Cycle, provide insight into the intellect behind the music. At times, they seem preachy, even pompous. Nietzsche, Thomas Mann, John Locke, William Burroughs and others pop up at different times. Musicians from Brahms to Chet Baker are referenced. Weighty lines like “The Romantic spirit presupposes that we'll leave morality to the moralists” fall here and there. What we want to know is how did Mehldau get so damn literate?

“I always loved literature,” says Mehldau, who grew up in Connecticut and later attended New York's New School for Social Research, where he studied with pianists Fred Hersch, Kenny Werner and Junior Mance before gaining prominence in the combo of saxophonist Joshua Redman. “In the past four or five years, I've been picking at the Western tradition of thought for my own interest because I love literature and philosophy. If I could do it all over again, I'd go to a liberal-arts college and get a good grounding in the humanities.”

Sometimes the notes read more angry than literate (“If all this sounds defensive, it is,” he writes). But angry or not, they bring up valid points regarding criticism and culture, not all of which speak specifically to Mehldau's music.

“Hegel prophesied a death of art; in his old-school terms, Coltrane and the Spice Girls start afterthat, in open-ended regions that have come to be called postmodern,” he writes. “They don't aspire to a lineage that will play itself out. Lineage as an ideaplayed itselfout and willed its own critical death.”

Mehldau's place in the jazz lineage, or at least the place critics consistently grant him, gives rise to his most strident writing. The almost universal comparisons to pianist Bill Evans, the nerdy-looking but much revered keyboardist who was noted for his sensitivity, particularly prick him (the All Music Guide to Jazz calls Mehldau “another of the plethora of young jazz pianists in the '90s who have adopted Bill Evans as their role model”).

“I remember listening to his music only a little, when I was 13 or 14 years old, for several months,” he says, and not defensively. “I'm not saying I grew out of him. Nor am I denying Bill Evans' stature in jazz. But along with those of Lennie Tristano and Paul Bley—both of whom I never listened to—the nonstop claims of their influence on me are not about musical content.

“Making comparisons can be valid,” he adds. “But what concerns me is when comparisons are made and they don't go anywhere. It's not explained. It doesn't tell anything about the music. To say I sound like Bill Evans is a self-congratulatory thing for journalists. It shows they've listened to Bill Evans and know the music. [The comparisons] are so confusing to me. Harmonically, there's no resemblance.”

Proof of the difference can be found on Mehldau's recording of Miles Davis' “Solar” from Trio 4. The unexpected harmonic blends, rhythmic abandon and constant surge of counterpoints among piano, bass and drums stand in sharp contrast to the more disciplined and considered version of the same tune that Evans recorded, also at New York's Village Vanguard, with doomed bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian in 1961 (heard on the Riverside recording Sunday at the Village Vanguard,reissued by JVC).

In his case, Mehldau believes, the Evans comparisons have less to do with music and more to do with appearances and circumstance. Like Evans (who, like Mehldau, was white), Mehldau has a habit of lowering his head to the keyboard as he plays. Also like Evans, Mehldau has faced problems with heroin addiction. “How a player crooks his head into the piano or battles with substance abuse is not comparative criticism,” he writes. “The problem with a big portion of writing on jazz is that it lags behind the music. More like rock journalism, it draws on biographical hearsay about the artist, but with an added pretense: it uses these speculations to make general, sweeping musical judgments. That's a form of sophistry with the worst aspects of classical and pop writing.”

“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 N 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.

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