You have to start somewhere, even when you’ve started a few times before. Let’s start with the latest Brad Mehldau album, which is called, as if he knew what I was thinking, Where Do You Start.
Playlist: Mehldau and beyond...
Playlist: Mehldau meets classical
Playlist: Solo piano connections
Playlist: Piano trio connections
The Full Monty playlist: Where do you start 001
Mehldau is a good place to start in general, if you are interested in: a) where jazz might be right now; b) solo piano playing; c) piano as a part of an acoustic improvising trio with double bass and drums; d) the evolution of the idea of the standard; e) Nick Drake; f) The Bad Plus; g) record labels, such as Nonesuch, Mehldau’s open-minded, still-functioning record label, which specialises in music that can’t quite be classified; h) musical history in general (particularly including a few hundred years of serious, exploratory composing for a variety of instruments); i) the enigmatic history of improvisation in classical composing (Bach, when he was alive, obscure as a composer, was known as the greatest improviser on the organ in Europe; Mozart was known in his day first as an improviser, then as a composer, then as a pianist; Chopin generated his compositions through improvising and developing themes in real time, his finished pieces reportedly losing some of their initial improvised radiance; Liszt would close his performances with topical virtuoso improvisations, and Debussy viewed improvisation as a central creative motivation) and j) ultimately, the fantastic, constantly accumulating and deepening history of Brad Mehldau, and the albums he’s recorded since his debut in 1996.
There are over 40 albums featuring Mehldau: solo, as leader, collaborator, accomplice, curator or guest, most of which are a good place to start, even if you just want to hear some bold, fluent and dramatic piano playing in, relatively speaking, a jazz setting where, within reason, anything goes. He is as fascinated by Radiohead, Elvis Costello and the Beatles as he is by Schumann, Chopin, Cole Porter, George and Ira Gershwin, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Red Garland, Thelonius Monk, Burt Bacharach – with all that means. Where Do You Start is the latest of his trio albums, ones that were branded between 1996 and 2001 with a marketing department’s hopeful obviousness as The Art of the Trio. It’s the follow-up and companion to a charged, celebratory album of original compositions, Ode, released earlier this year, and his trio – which in a rock sense is really his band, and in a classical sense is really his ensemble – typically mixes sensual, analytical versions of pop songs and standards with his own ethereal and energetic pieces.
One way of classifying Mehldau would be as a cerebral yet visceral classical musician struck by Satie and Brahms, who just happens to have taken a 20-year detour into other areas, into other imagined histories, including one where John Coltrane leads to Soundgarden, or where Tin Pan Alley leads to Spotify, where an obscure, whispered blues becomes an explicit, irresistible rock anthem, curious about what that detour would do to his mind and playing. He plays/recasts the music of Nick Drake, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Elliott Smith, Sufjan Stevens, Stone Temple Pilots and Pink Floyd, without sounding gimmicky, stunty or schticky, without sounding merely nostalgic or horribly clumsy. He conceives of a destabilised musical context where Ravel comes after Mingus, Reich, Eno, Sonic Youth and Autechre, without sounding like he’s straining for effect, attention or sympathy. And in his trio, with his rhythm section empathetically locking and loading him like they could have done the same for Hendrix, he’s a performer, interpreter and explorer who sees the logic of placing Bach with bop, Miles with ‘Moon River’ and Nat King Cole with Pearl Jam on the way to rescuing the word 'romantic' from whimsical sentimentalists.
Just hear him peel open Radiohead’s majestically crestfallen ‘Exit Music (For A Film)’, which itself materialises from Chopin’s Prelude in E minor, Op.28, No.4 (nicknamed ‘Suffocation’, with ‘dying away’ being Chopin’s final marking on the score) of Mehldau’s many takes, solo and trio, hear it perhaps best on Art of the Trio, Vol.4 – Back at the Vanguard – so that it reveals a seething core of late Beethoven, and then it rises in tension, as though Mehldau is contemplating as he plays, listening carefully, but not too carefully, to his own ideas unfold, like the comment Robert Schumann made about Chopin, that his music is ‘like guns buried in flowers’.
Where his music goes, where his hands go, in constant dialogue with each other, with his feet on the pedals – inheriting Liszt-influenced writer/pianist Ferruccio Busoni’s early 20th-century view that the pedal is ‘a photograph of the sky, a ray of moonlight’ – is throughout the history of music. Whether solo, at the centre or at the edge of his trio, supporting, alerting and encouraging others, he’s merging jazz adventure, classical recital, avant-garde activism, ambient gentleness, pop energy, performance bravado, intellectual rigour, transcendent swing, emotional concentration, easy-listening poise with a spirited, innocent belief in the subversive power of music to oppose and even outwit cynicism and insipid cultural narrow-mindedness.
He roams through all music with such an open-minded attitude that whether he lands at Grieg, Rachmaninov, Art Tatum, Hoagy Carmichael, Mal Waldron, Hendrix or Kurt Cobain, he is concerned only with their thinking and their turning of that thinking into sound, structure and space – he is not limited by chronology, genre, reputation, canon, periods, and in that sense doesn’t view his classical musical interest as being separate, somehow a distortion, of his overall concerns.
When he comes, as he often does, to dwelling on a beautiful, tender Nick Drake song – deviant, sensitive English folk music hovering nervily at the dissolving edge of reality – he extends and unwraps the tune and atmosphere by placing it in worlds Drake never imagined. Worlds that for Mehldau can contain Cobain’s desperate, damaged need to impress, Ravel’s spread-out textures, hypnotic repetitions and mad crescendos, Messiaen’s serene timelessness and propulsive gusts and eddies, and a general, generous and glamorous exploitation of the piano’s sonorous possibilities.
On Where Do You Start, Mehldau’s trio performs a troubled, aching and sometimes bravely broken version of Nick Drake’s ‘Time Has Told Me,’ the tentative, uncanny opening song on then 21-year-old Drake’s debut album Five Years Left, released in 1969, the year before Meldhau was born. Sometimes, the whole, wounded arrangement is left in the sure hands of drummer Jeff Ballard, while Brad worries where the hell bass player Larry Grenadier has wandered, losing track of his own mind as he tries to pull a dazed Larry back from the abyss. Sometimes the three of them almost come to some sort of conclusion about how and why the song works so beautifully while apparently doing so little, and then they lose track, and then they hit their soft-shell shuffle stride, finding a little space, and then the ghost of Nick Drake leaves the room, as though he was never there in the first place, quickly followed by the trio, quietly shutting the door.
The stunned, thoughtful ‘Time Has Told Me’, which isn’t classical, but then isn’t jazz, or folk, or pop, suggests in its focused spirit and spatial intention that any continuing development of classical music comes not with any hybrid of old music with dumb rock beats. It doesn’t come through fixing the music down into a series of defensive, mean-spirited commercial zones linked only to arbitrary historical periods, nor from sweetening the melodic end of the music so that it becomes bloodless, ugly easy-listening, nor from sinking into such obscurity it almost becomes merely the sharing of breath and the feeling of pulse between an increasingly small, reclusive minority.
It comes through a thorough awareness of a number of music traditions and intelligent new methods of reorganising them, new ways of exploring how the history of classical music at its most exciting has actually always been about finding ways to express an unruly era, hone the senses, project a hunger for the future, and articulate expectation and anticipation.
Mehldau’s merging of the jazz trio and their spellbinding, spontaneous and intimate thirty-fingered trust of each other, with a firm moral discipline and an unshakeable emotional logic, with the playing of the piano as if it is a time-machine, with the ineffable song written about a moment in time by someone who could actually see a way that the song could stop and start time, leaving you with a feeling of endlessness and possibility, with an unabashed faith in the idea of music as the language of poetic ideas, with a conception of musical history that actively confronts and resolves how in the internet age music across time can all happen at once, with an intense fascination with the architecture of music, playing music like he knows what the listener is thinking – this, for the sake of argument, even though it is not classical, as such, is where to start, leading, if you want, to…
Paul has selected 64 albums as further listening. You can explore his recommendations on each of the playlist pages, or jump straight to the Full Monty playlist.