Pianist and composer Brad Mehldau is talking about the late French philosopher Jacques Derrida, whose deconstructionist theories have revolutionized ideas about making and understanding art.
“Form becomes interesting (only) when you break it,” says Mehldau, 33, in a recent email exchange. “I want something to break in the first place; chaos in itself is not compelling to me if it didn’t (first) become chaotic somehow.”
We don’t usually associate jazz players with that sort of thinking, but it’s not unusual for Mehldau. He’s written magazine articles on aesthetics and, in liner notes he writes himself, Mehldau often frames his work in philosophical terms. The broad context he brings to music helps explain why he has become one of America’s greatest young jazz pianists since his 1995 debut. A classically-trained player, he’s won numerous awards, been compared to Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett, and has created a body of work both melodic and harmonically complex, freely improvised and carefully constructed.
His range, touch and rhythmic dexterity allow Mehldau to make pop tunes by the likes of Nick Drake or Radiohead sound like Beethoven, to open up standards to new possibilities, and to weave original compositions into suite-like concept albums. Deep but accessible, all 11 of his CDs evoke mystery and beauty. His solo concert on Sunday will serve as a kick-off for the 2005 Portland Jazz Festival.
People say that younger artists tend to play a lot of notes, but as they mature, they become more selective. True for you?
Not to toot my own horn, but I think an economy of material has always been one of my strong points . One doesn’t want to limit him or herself to fewer notes simply because it’s supposed to be more musical. Sometimes an effusion of non-stop notes for minutes on end is totally appropriate and compelling as a musical statement. It’s all about the context. In this sense, music can draw a nice parallel to language again: musical and uttered statements can change meaning — and therefore have a different effect — as they change context. The last presidential debate illustrated that at its most banal: The two candidates (really Bush mostly) simply tried to take the other person’s words out of context to discredit him.
When I compare your solo pieces from “Places”(2001) with your recent “Live in Toyko,” I hear playing that is more spare and operating more tightly within a melody.
I might agree with you that I’m operating more tightly within the melody, although I don’t know if it’s a trend. I was aware of it, though, on this collection of songs, and I thought it was a nice connecting aspect — this never straying too far from the melody in the improvisation.
I hear Charles Lloyd making a similar kind of move on the CDs you recorded with him.
Yes, Charles has a direct emotional impact because he’s being who he is; he’s absolutely sincere. That’s actually quite rare in musicians: I don’t always feel that I’m sincere. Of course even the striving towards sincerity can become vapid. It’s very hard to be real — or it’s the easiest thing in the world. It’s elusive. Charles has that real-ness.
You’ve said that the improviser plays only for himself, yet you’ve written a lot about the connection between audience and performer.
This is one of those tricky truisms with jazz — that the improviser plays only for him or herself. There’s a truth there in as far as he or she absolutely has the breadth and space to not stray from a completely personal musical vision, and not compromise that one bit. But I’ve always looked at jazz as a music that hovers comfortably between proletariat and highbrow as concerns the relationship between musician and audience. You can have your cake and eat it too: If the music is deeply profound, the musician can play only for himself, and simultaneously communicate something deeply personal to an audience without making a single concession.
What similarities have you discovered between the act of writing words and composing music?
I probably would have done something with writing if I didn’t fall into music. It was always the only other thing I was particularly passionate about. Music and writing both have the potential to create another world removed from immediate reality, yet very connected with it.
I like the way writing tries to explain everything by fixing things down to an object, by specifying everything. And the common understanding is that music is great because it doesn’t do that. But — maybe I’m reflecting on the recent passing of Jaques Derrida — I love the way you can turn that binary logic on its head: Words also can make everything incredibly hazy and unclear sometimes, and music can explain and specify things in a quick, visceral way that words can’t.
How do you spend your days while on the road in, say, Buenos Aires or Toyko?
I don’t get much done on the road except do the gig as well as I can. I go into this weird kind of hibernating state most of the time. I really get my musical work done at home — and everything else as well, practical, personal, physical.