If you know one thing about jazz pianist Brad Mehldau it’s that he is partial to Radiohead. Four Grammy nominations and a succession of paradigm-redefining albums have made him an icon to jazz fans; nonetheless among general audiences it’s his penchant for covering arena rock’s grumpiest pin-ups that has gained him renown.
Jazz players can be sniffy about being co-opted by the mainstream – so you might expect Mehldau (44) to be unhappy about his association with a mere rock band. In fact he’s pleased to be known for performing the music of Radiohead, Massive Attack and others – albeit in extensively reshaped and heavily improvised form. Whatever gets the word out is fine by him.
“I think a lot of folks really like Radiohead, so that’s not so hard to explain – myself included,” he says of the attention focused on his rock reworkings. “It’s interesting when influences come from other genres. I don’t even really know what that word ‘genre’ means, exactly.”
Spend time with Mehldau and his music and the truth of that last statement becomes clear. Really, it is reductive and misleading to describe him as a jazz artist. On record and especially on stage, he veers all over the map, drawing not only on his passion for rock and roll but for classical music, acoustic pop … well, most everything really. He doesn’t consider this strange in the least: almost from the beginning jazz has located itself at the crossroads between widely flung influences. Mehldau is simply upholding a proud tradition.
“What does a strict jazz fan look like – you mean someone who only listens to jazz?” he wonders. “Does that exist anymore, or did it ever? It was never the case for me, or just about anyone I know. There’s too much great music out there.”
He acknowledges not everyone shares his open views. Some hardcore aficionados think jazz should, well, sound like “jazz”. He shrugs. That’s okay by him: to each their own.
“A woman in Toulouse two days ago walked right up to the sound man at my concert and said to him while I was playing, ‘Is this it? Just this solo piano? This isn’t jazz! I’ve been listening to jazz for 40 years! This sucks!’ And then she walked out. I loved it. I mean, God bless her. I love being a jazz musician and please call me that; that’s great. It might be disappointing for someone, though, if they have a fixed idea about what I’m supposed to do as a jazz musician.”
It tends to be the same kind of individual who looks at what Mehldau is doing – his cross pollination and playfulness – and proclaims the demise of jazz imminent. He finds such opinions frustrating. Music doesn’t die: it evolves, it morphs, it shape-shifts. His wish is to take jazz somewhere new, not leave it to moulder.
“When people talk about how something has died in those terms, they have what I call, ‘the problem of their own irony’ – they are trying to step out of history to diagnose something they perceive has been lost, and are missing everything right in front of their nose. ‘You’re bored because you’re boring.’ That’s what I say, with all respect, to the Rome Is Burning crowd.
“People do that with rock’n’roll as well all the time – ‘it all ended after the Beatles’ – or opera, or just about anything – food, you name it. There’s probably some Freudian fear of one’s own death being expressed obliquely in the complaint that a certain cultural artifact is in decline. I dunno. Or it’s like a way for the complaining party to assert his or her superiority. I probably do it too with my kids, though, so I can’t get judgmental about that impulse.”
Mehldau was born in Jacksonville, Florida and grew up in Hartford, Connecticut. He studied jazz at the New School in New York. By graduation, he was already known as an exciting up-and-comer. By the early 2000s he’d relocated to Los Angeles and was working with pop producer Jon Brion – a surprise on both counts, given LA’s peripheral standing in modern jazz.
“I went to LA with no plans to stay there and then wound up staying there for five years,” he remembers.” I know other people who had the same experience – like Jon Brion, who came from Boston, which is about as different from LA as you could get – and he never left. It’s a special city. You have to crack it open or all you’ll see is the surface silliness. If you get under that though, it has an old, sad soul. Tom Waits is a good way in. Lots of beautiful broken dreams in Hollywood – lots of stories to tell.”
From there his career has ebbed and flowed – and always stayed interesting. He’s recorded with guitarist Pat Metheny and classical vocalist Renée Fleming. His latest project, Mehliana: Taming The Dragon is a hook-up with experimental percussionist Mark Guiliana (Mehliana being a portmanteau of their names).
“The way Mark breathes with me all the time when we play together makes me feel like we’re playing jazz, if someone were to ask, but what informs his rhythms is something very here and now that has to do with sequenced electronic music.”
Mehldau is currently touring with Chris Thile, the banjo player known for his bands The Punch Brothers and Nickel Creek. You can see them at Dublin’s National Concert Hall at the weekend. Though their music is wildly different, the musicians consider one another kindred spirits.
“Chris is an incredibly inspiring musician to play with every night, and really keeps me on my toes – I can’t just settle into a comfort zone with him or he’ll play me into irrelevance.”