Brad Mehldau: “Playing written music, even my own, is completely not in my comfort zone, and might never be”

Formed in the mid-1990s, Brad Mehldau’s acoustic piano trio is among the most influential in jazz today. But the pianist-composer has also been acclaimed for his diversification into classical and rock/electronic-charged projects. He releases arguably his most provocative album to date, Finding Gabriel, where he sheds light on US politics with the aid of Biblical texts. Selwyn Harris speaks to Mehldau about the making of the album, his ongoing spiritual quest and its relation to the socio-political turmoil of our times

(Photo: Michael Wilson)
(Photo: Michael Wilson)

It could be said that Brad Mehldau has always been searching for meaning beyond the notes. Fans of his The Art of the Trio catalogue, which introduced us to one of the most compelling and influential new acoustic jazz piano voices to have emerged since the mid-1990s, might recall his lengthy essays in the CD liner booklets. The well-read, very articulate pianist-composer was pointing us towards his ideas drawn from philosophy, literature, politics and cultural studies as if making a request to the listener to attach more meaning to his music. If the text was pretty dense and heavy-going, it could also have been a sign of a young artist’s frustration about contemporary instrumental jazz being an ostensibly abstract mode of expression and a feeling of being remote from what was going on in the world.

At the cusp of the next decade Mehldau started to put that to the test. He began to explore more diverse formats and a few ‘concept’ albums emerged: Places, Elegiac Cycle and, more recently, the 2010 chamber epic Highway Rider, his Jon Brion-produced follow-up to the influential contemporary-retro pop culture-fuelled 2002 album Largo, which marked a departure from conventional acoustic piano trio/solo formats. They were only faintly programmatic, though; mostly it was a case of exploring thematic musical links within the narrative. Now, Mehldau has turned a corner on his recent release, Finding Gabriel on the Nonesuch label.


I find value in all the traditions I’ve delved into, and there are more I’d like to explore, like Islam

Brad Mehldau

The recording’s 10 thematically-related compositions are impregnated with meaning outside of any musical concerns. Revealing his hand on some of the most burning socio-political issues of the day, it’s his most direct response to the world through his music. In another twist, what’s usually expected of a figure from a devoutly religious way of life, an engagement with the era of Trump-ism is routed through his close readings of Biblical scripture; track titles are lifted from selected quotations from the Hebrew books of Writings and Prophets. Mehldau attempts to find a way into the divisive politics of ‘fake news’ and xenophobia by consulting the quiet wisdom of the books of visionaries Hosea and Daniel, the suffering Job as well as the sacred poetry of Ecclesiastes and King David’s Psalms. Finding Gabriel is the result of Mehldau’s profound interest, over several years, in Biblical literature. I’m curious to know whether his interest is a theological as well as an intellectual one.

“Definitely,” he affirms. “I’ve always been ‘in search of’ spiritual salvation. I have found it in music, nature, and other stuff – in a sense, I think even the hallucinogenic drugs I used in high school offered a kind of quick spiritual experience. I made a big journey through eastern philosophy and theology for quite some time, studying Vedanta and Buddhism, and getting into some of those practices. I have no specific orientation. I find value in all the traditions I’ve delved into, and there are more I’d like to explore, like Islam. I guess it was inevitable that I would end up ‘at home’, and finally delve into the Abrahamic religious tradition.”

Brad Mehldau (photo: Michael Wilson)

On the closing title-track, Mehldau’s voiceover can be heard asking the archangel Gabriel to give him a sign. He explains on his website that, “the archangel Gabriel appeared to Daniel, telling him: ‘At the beginning of your pleas for mercy a word went out, and I have come to tell you, for you are greatly loved. Therefore, consider the word and understand the vision.’ It seemed that the trick was to listen to Gabriel’s words through all the noise and find a way to explain the bedlam, not only to oneself, but to a young person with less of a reference as to what is right-side up – perhaps one’s own children.”

Mehldau’s request is left hanging in the musical ether. The message of Finding Gabriel is perhaps one that’s neither of hope or despair. “I think it’s more like Hosea, ‘bearing witness’ to what’s going on now,” he says. “Inherent in ‘bearing witness’ is a judgment. I found I couldn’t avoid that, even if it would put people off. This judgment: ‘You are fucking everything up. God is not happy and is going to rain down shit on all of you’ seems to be a distinct feature of the Abrahamic religions. Jesus goes there quite a bit as well: “My father up there is getting pissed [off].” It’s not one I’ve found as much in the Eastern religions, where karma has a more impersonal air of inevitability. Karma appeals to the rationalist in me more – it seems more fair and logical. What I realise about myself though, coming around to The Bible, is that the notion of sin, of crime and holy punishment, informs not just the culture I’ve been raised in, but also my very thinking, whether or not I am devout or atheist. The impulse is in me, and the only way I can think to be non-hypocritical and judgmental, is to accept judgment of oneself. I try.”

This perhaps leaves aside the monotheistic religions’ ‘get-out’ clause of repentance that sees God as a more merciful being. But, in terms of the wider implications today, ‘judgement’ isn’t something that’s being attributed to supernatural forces. It’s coming from a human voice, be it the populist politician, social media troll or representatives of tribalistic cultural identity groups. The spreading of ‘fake news’ and inflated forms of political correctness on new media are shutting down different ‘truths’, or ways of thinking outside the box. Some of it is in the firing line on Finding Gabriel.

“It strikes me that conservatives and liberals in our democracies spend a lot of time judging each other, and that there is not an immediate way to step out of that game if you still want to hang onto your viewpoint,” he says. “What I see a lot now is people trying to jump out of the judgment game, but then abdicating their convictions: ‘It’s all fake news. Fuck it.’ Stand around and watch Rome burn. The thing is, I can’t really judge that. I get it. But I think it’s dangerous. We can be apathetic and shut our eyes to racism and xenophobia, to cruelty and mendaciousness, for now. But eventually it will catch up with us and we’ll be on the shit end of the stick. The 20th century failure of socialism and fascism is a cautionary tale. Plus – and again I’m judging – I think we should open our eyes to suffering.”

Not by accident then, the human ‘voice’ plays a key role in Mehldau’s musical conception for the project. The most hard-hitting track on Finding Gabriel in this respect is ‘The Prophet is a Fool’. It’s an undisguised attack on Trump’s America. The chanting of ‘Build that Wall!’ and ominous noir-like voice-overs hauntingly capture a culture of fear, that’s enhanced, too, by an accompanying, hypnotic animation video by Dima Drjuchin.

“The quote from the Book of Hosea from the Old Testament is a bit confusing,” he says. “It says that the Prophet is a madman or fool, but what it means is he is not a fool, but people’s thinking is so upside down that they perceive him as a fool. I thought that this was an apt sentiment for today’s politico-social climate. Even if someone was speaking truly prophetically, it would be called ‘fake news’.

The instrumental music on the track also reveals a sense of foreboding with strikingly ominous improvisations by the highly admired US trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and saxophonist Joel Frahm, an under-appreciated tenor player who was at high school with Mehldau. “I heard both of them specifically for the solos on ‘The Garden’ and ‘The Prophet Is a Fool,’” he says. “I really heard everyone more generally, very specifically, maybe a bit in the Mingus/Duke tradition of needing a specific voice or instrumentalist, even if it is just for a part.”

But the dark undercurrents on the album are largely offset by the significant role played by vocals, mostly wordless and choir-like and featuring special guests, among them Becca Stevens and Kurt Elling. They come with a message that’s more redemptive and uplifting. “The music itself is trying to point to something outside of all the earthly suffering, while acknowledging it and I think the wordless voices worked well in that regard,” he says. “They hopefully express human pathos, at times, but don’t tell us explicitly about what to do about it – as if it would be that easy. It’s up to us, still, to find a way, but we have to listen closely – through the noise. That’s what Gabriel told Daniel essentially, which is the subject of the title-track. Not just seek and ye shall find, but, ‘Listen! You might miss what you’re seeking in all the noise. The music after Gabriel’s dialogue on that track points to something we might find. With Becca Stevens and Gabe Kahane’s wordless vocals, I wanted the breath that Becca can still get in her tone even when she’s high in her register. It’s breathtaking, and I wanted the burnished quality of Gabe’s baritone that I’ve dug since the first time I heard him. The record began with the synth and the drums, the way Taming the Dragon did, but unlike that one, I started layering stuff on it. I would go home and sit with it for months, which was a new process for me, and that ultimately shaped the record. The more I would listen to stuff, I would imagine more elements. That’s how the texture got so thick. The voices came about in that way. The wordless vocals are no doubt inspired by Pat Metheny’s music, as a fan of his since I was 13. On the other hand, the kind of thing that Kurt Elling is doing on ‘Deep Water’ has a very specific influence: the incomparable Clare Torry performance on Pink Floyd’s ‘The Great Gig in the Sky’.”

Mehldau also renews his association with innovative drummer, Mark Guiliana, following their duo Mehliana’s 2016 release Taming the Dragon. Though Mehldau prefers to think of the new recording as a cross between that collaborative album and Highway Rider: “Like Mehliana there’s electronic sounds, power from Mark, but this is quite different from Mehliana, which was not as compositional, and there’s a story with a larger ensemble, like on Highway Rider,” he says.

Mehldau also challenges his own ways of working with the introduction of a few first-time elements. One is his recently acquired OB-6 polyphonic analogue synthesizer, which features throughout. (“I was blown away by its capability a few years ago when the OB-6 had just hit the market.”) Another has him becoming a one-man band on three of the tracks. “That was a blast,” he says. “I’m really inspired by Louis Cole, Jacob Collier, and Kurt Rosenwinkel, to name some recent artists who have ‘done everything’ in their music. And, of course, legends Sly Stone on a record like Fresh, and Stevie Wonder. Playing and singing everything gives a different effect. Separate parts become more glued together, because you’re not trying to play this end-all performance on each part. You have a plan already for how a piece is going to work with the next thing you add on.”

L-R: Larry Grenadier, Brad Mehldau and Jeff Ballard (photo: Michael Wilson)

Something like Finding Gabriel doesn’t come along every day, but at the same time the element of surprise in his discography since the millennium has now become the norm. Looking back at his extensive catalogue to date, Mehldau can reflect on the contrasts between the more pop/rock/electronica-fuelled projects such as this one, his work outside the idiom in classical and country music for example, and his more ‘third-stream’ work such as last year’s After Bach reconstructions and his new piano concerto premiered at London’s Barbican with Britten Sinfonia earlier in the year. The work that provides the most consistency though is his acoustic piano trio work (still at the top of their game on last year’s Seymour Reads the Constitution) and there’s a good reason for that.

“Playing written music, even my own, is completely not in my comfort zone, and might never be,” he confesses. “I welcome it with some trepidation as a creative challenge at this point in my life. The trio at this point with Jeff [Ballard] and Larry [Grenadier] is the most immediately rewarding creative pursuit for me, not better or worse for me, but for the reason that we’ve been at it for quite some time and, this is said with no personal pride intended, but just gratitude. We don’t have to work to get in the zone. I’ve never had that on a level with anyone else, like I do with them.”

The Brad Mehldau Trio play the Barbican, London on 9 March 2020, Finding Gabriel is out now on Nonesuch

This article originally appeared in the August 2019 issue of Jazzwise. Never miss an issue - subscribe today!

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