Brad Mehldau is certainly one of the most influential pianists, and probably one of the most influential musicians on any instrument, of his generation. His solo piano and piano trio work is some of the most consistently mind-blowing stuff out there from any generation, and he’s also put together many interesting collaborations with other pianists, vocalists, guitarists, horns, strings, and electronics. In this column, I’ll look at some side-by-side comparisons of a few tunes by, or featuring, Brad Mehldau’s piano playing.
Much of the interest in Mehldau’s playing is rooted at least in part in his incredible interpretations of pop tunes, particularly those from Radiohead and The Beatles. It seems fitting, then, to start with a couple of versions of Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android” that were put together by Brad Mehldau. The first version that I’ll look at is from his Largo album, released in 2002. Largo found Mehldau trying out a lot of different rhythmic experiments and playing prepared piano on several of the tracks. This version of “Paranoid Android” features Mehldau on “piano with putty treatment in lower two octaves”, plus Derek Oleszkiewicz on bass, Matt Chamberlain and Jim Keltner on drums, Jon Brion on prepared piano percussion, Joseph Meyer and Jerry Folsom on French horns, William Reichenbach on trombone, and Kenneth Kugler on bass trombone. They start with some gamelan-like percussion before the tune’s melody comes in, led by Mehldau’s piano on the vocal line as well as some of the harmony from Radiohead’s original version of the tune. He plays the vocal lines pretty faithfully over shuffling jazz drums, adding a bit underneath the vocal, particularly during the second verse. Then at about 2:00, just after the second chorus, that gamelan-like percussion returns for the “ambition makes you look pretty ugly” section of the tune, during which Mehldau plays the vocal line and also puts together a really fine piano improvisation built from that vocal line. This improvisation continues until just after 4:30, when Mehldau’s piano brings it down to the “rain down, come on rain down on me” section of the tune. This gets a somber feeling from the French horns and trombones at first, and then Mehldau’s piano returns at about 5:20 or so to again play the vocal line. He gets a sensitive feel in here, complementing the somber horns behind him perfectly as the slow, patient build starts. The bass returns just before 6:00 and Mehldau adds some left hand parts underneath the vocal line, moving this forward. With each iteration of the “rain down” vocal line, his left hand gets a bit busier, building up something majestic here on the foundation laid by the horns. At about 8:30, after the “God loves his children” line, the gamelan percussion returns somewhat abruptly to close the tune. Some closing chords and we’re out. This tune, like the rest of the Largo album, is very different from the solo piano and piano trio work that Mehldau is known for (though he also hooked up with producer Jon Brion and drummer Matt Chamberlain again for Highway Rider and showed more of his groove-oriented side on the recent Mehliana album with Mark Guiliana), but definitely not a throwaway side project. It’s difficult to compare this version of the tune with Radiohead’s original or with other versions of the tune out there (including Mehldau’s solo piano arrangement, below), but taken on its own it is a pretty amazing piece of music. The gamelan percussion is great, and the “rain down” section of the tune gets a perfect, sensitive touch from Mehldau’s piano playing.
On his 2004 Live in Tokyo album, Mehldau re-visited “Paranoid Android” in a solo piano arrangement. This version starts completely differently from the Largo version above, with Mehldau improvising piano lines that gradually hint at the “Paranoid Android” melody (particularly starting around 2:10 or so), building patiently toward the start of the tune. As the shivers in your spine from this introduction dissipate, the tune starts in earnest around 3:30, with Mehldau absolutely nailing the emotion and feel of Radiohead’s original. The little chords at about 3:38, 3:55, 4:10, and 4:40 are absolutely perfect, despite the different instrumentation here (solo piano vs. Radiohead’s full band). The two opening verses and choruses are done relatively straight, leading to a big low note at about 5:15 or so for the “ambition makes you look pretty ugly” part of the tune, with an ominous repeated note in the lower register of the instrument. Mehldau really digs into and opens up this part of the tune, moving away from the Radiohead original by about 6:00 and playing with the sustained notes in this section, keeping that ominous feel very much intact. Around 7:05, some dissonance starts to creep in and the feel continues to change as Mehldau moves through different key changes here. At about 8:00, we’re in the middle of a pretty incredible improvisation that comes back to “Paranoid Android” with six descending notes, then spins out from there to Mehldau’s continued piano solo and exploration of this part of the tune. At 9:15 or so, there’s what could maybe qualify as a signature Mehldau lick, returning around 9:40 or so. At about 10:00, Mehldau hits on some of the motifs from the Largo version above as he continues to push the song forward. The churning low-end here is very reminiscent of the gamelan percussion on that version. At 11:35, he drops down into the somber “rain down, come on rain down on me” section of the tune, with spare left hand chords underneath the vocal melody. At 12:30, he moves that melody up to a higher register and it’s achingly beautiful… As on the Largo version, this section of the tune gets a patient build. At about 14:30, this version of the tune is opened up a bit more, with a new stuttering rhythmic motif underneath this and more explorations of the possibilities of Radiohead’s melody. The “From a great height” melody lines over this stuttering rhythm just keep that spine shivering in here throughout. At 17:45, he starts to move to the closing section of the tune, resolving this. At 18:15, “God loves his children”, and then one more romp through that ominous section from earlier in the tune, with Mehldau’s left hand effectively filling in for the gamelan percussion on Largo. Those six descending notes at about 19:00 and we’re done. Absolutely incredible. The arrangement is actually fairly similar to the Largo version, with the exception of the introduction, but (as great as the Largo version is), this makes that early version seem like a rough draft. Of course the instrumentation is different, but this… Necessary stuff, soul-filling stuff. Wow.
Mehldau is known in large part for his versions of pop tunes, but of course he’s a jazz pianist. In 2000, he joined saxophonist Chris Cheek for his album Vine, along with Kurt Rosenwinkel on guitar, Matt Penman on bass, and Jorge Rossy on drums. Among other original tunes by Chris Cheek for this session, they recorded “Granada”. Here, Mehldau is on a Rhodes piano. Cheek’s sax takes the melody over some loose drums, bass, and Rhodes chords. Just after 1:00, Rosenwinkel’s guitar joins the sax to play the melody in unison (great headphone listening here, with Mehldau hard left, Rosenwinkel hard right, and Cheek’s sax in the middle). At 1:50, Rosenwinkel plays a few guitar chords with a bit of edge to them just before Mehldau’s Rhodes solo begins. The loose, airy feel from the drums and bass continues for the solo, and the keyboard solo also has a loose feel to it (partly from the tone of the Rhodes itself and partly from Mehldau’s style here). At about 3:30, the solo picks up a bit of steam and Rossy’s drums are a bit more emphatic while keeping the overall vibe intact. Shortly afterwards, the keyboard solo comes to a close and Cheek’s sax comes in for a solo around 4:00. Rosenwinkel’s guitar re-joins after laying out for Mehldau’s solo and there’s a really nice rhythmic interplay between Mehldau and Rosenwinkel behind Cheek’s solo here. Fine sax solo from Cheek, with a nice build, similar to Mehldau’s solo that started fairly light and airy and moved to more intensity before closing. Cheek’s sax solo ends at around 6:20 and is followed by a guitar solo. Mehldau lays out briefly, but then re-joins to comp behind Rosenwinkel’s guitar. Rosenwinkel’s guitar solo seems to my ears to have a bit darker mood than the keyboard or sax solo that came before it, but still in keeping with the loose feel of the tune that the drums and bass are holding down. Just before 8:30, Rosenwinkel’s guitar solo comes to a close and the tune’s head returns with Cheek and Rosenwinkel playing the melody in unison. At about 9:25, there’s some nice group improvisation with Cheek, Rosenwinkel, and Mehldau all playing some Spanish-tinged phrases over this two-chord vamp. The drums and bass start to dissolve away underneath this improvisation, and the song comes to a close with a sustained chord from Rosenwinkel’s guitar. A cool tune – catchy melody, nice floating rhythm section, and the vamp at the end was particularly good, with the sax, guitar, and Rhodes interacting with each other.
For Mehldau’s Day is Done album, released in 2005, he re-visited “Granada”. The trio here is Mehldau on piano, Larry Grenadier on bass, and Jeff Ballard on drums. This was the first album with Ballard on drums after Jorge Rossy moved on from the band. On Day is Done, this tune is sandwiched between a Beatles tune (“She’s Leaving Home”) and a Paul Simon tune (“50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”), giving an idea of the Mehldau trio’s aesthetic here. Anyway, Mehldau takes the tune’s melody here on piano. Ballard’s drums also have a loose, airy feel to them, but seem a bit more forward-moving, if that’s the right term, than on the version above from Vine. Very cool piano work from Mehldau here, particularly around 1:25-1:35 or so, with a sustained note playing an important role and some great interplay between his two hands. This version builds up some more momentum underneath it than the original on Vine, with Mehldau’s solo pushing harder and the drums and bass definitely driving harder at this point. Ah… at 3:10 or so things are getting into that space, and then at 3:45 or so there’s a real mind-blowing line from Mehldau… though it’s not just a single line, that line of thought continues as the solo moves forward and again at 4:15 or so is just incredible. Phew… at 4:45, the head returns, again with some really impressive playing from Mehldau. At around 6:00, there’s that two-chord vamp, with more great improvisation. Ballard has built some subtly incredible rhythms underneath this – check that drum-roll just after 6:30! They end it with a big sustained piano chord. Wow… “Granada” started as an excellent tune on Vine, but here, the Mehldau trio transformed the tune into something else entirely. Incredible playing from everyone on this – I didn’t mention Grenadier’s bass playing on this, but the whole trio is playing together so incredibly and seamlessly. The spotlight is on Mehldau’s piano, but this version of the tune absolutely could not have come together like this without Ballard and Grenadier. Like the rest of Day is Done, absolutely incredible piano trio playing.
Before Jeff Ballard joined as the Mehldau trio’s drummer, Jorge Rossy occupied that chair for about five years. This time included the recording of the essential Art of the Trio series of albums, with Mehldau on piano, Larry Grenadier on bass, and Jorge Rossy on drums. On Volume 3 of that series, released in 1998, a Mehldau original called “Convalescent” was included. This tune starts with Grenadier’s brief solo bass introduction, setting up a great low-end pulse from the bass as Mehldau’s piano plays a cool chromatic melody with what sounds like some classical and some Hebrew influences. At about 1:00, Mehldau moves into a piano solo based on a cool abstracted version of the tune’s head, keeping the time loose. Rossy’s drums are worth calling out here, with his snare cracking and cymbals driving hard behind the piano solo. At about 2:30 or 2:40, Mehldau’s right hand sets up a fantastic arpeggio while he improvises on the tune’s melody underneath this. A great close to the piano solo, moving to a bass solo from Grenadier that starts around 3:20. He digs into the melody, accompanied perfectly by Rossy’s drums. Just before 4:30, Grenadier sets up that bass pulse again and Mehldau’s piano re-joins to play through the tune’s head. At about 5:20, after playing the head, they move into a little improvisation tagged onto the end, and after this brief improvisation, close the tune with the bass and piano playing a pulse and then two notes from Mehldau to finish things up.
Anat Cohen brought “Convalescent” to Small’s Jazz Club for her February 18, 2009 show with Gilad Hekselman on guitar, Joe Martin on bass, and Obed Calvaire on drums. The quartet opened their second set with this tune. Like Mehldau’s original, the tune starts with a pulse, but in this arrangement, the guitar and bass set up the pulse together as Calvaire’s drums come in underneath. Just before 0:40, Cohen’s clarinet comes in with the melody. Hekselman’s guitar joins the clarinet to play the melody in unison as the bass continues the pulse. Nice drum work from Obed Calvaire behind this – a great snare pop just after 1:30, to name one. At about 2:20, Cohen starts her clarinet solo with a long, low note. Fantastic improvisation on the melody from the clarinet here, with subtle comping from the guitar and Calvaire’s impressive drums along with Martin’s pulsing bass. At about 3:50, Cohen has moved into a higher register and some nice interplay between herself and Hekselman’s guitar. Joe Martin’s bass behind all of this is excellent, too – mostly playing off of the pulse that started the tune, but with enough variation to keep the low-end interesting. At about 5:00, Cohen returns her solo to the “Convalescent” melody and hands the reins to Hekselman. He jumps right in, keeping the momentum flowing from the end of the clarinet solo and Calvaire’s impressive drums. Hekselman touches back on the “Convalescent” melody nicely starting at about 6:30, then continues pushing forward with some input from Cohen here. At about 7:30, Hekselman is winding his guitar solo down, returning to play through the “Convalescent” melody outright. Nice improvisation from around 8:10-8:30 before Cohen’s clarinet returns to play through the tune’s head. At about 9:20, Cohen’s clarinet joins Martin’s bass for the pulse while Hekselman and Calvaire improvise over this. Really fantastic group improvisation here at the end of this version of the tune – this feels like a spontaneous discovery, but the way this came together is perfect… a dissolve and fade out to the end of the tune.
Although Brad Mehldau is known mostly for his piano trio and his solo piano work, he has worked in lots of different contexts. The songs here are just a small selection, including the rhythmic experiments of Largo, the solo piano work from Live in Tokyo, different trios from Day is Done and Art of the Trio, and one example of Mehldau working as a sideman with Chris Cheek. It’s probably a measure of Mehldau’s influence on contemporary players that Anat Cohen played Mehldau’s original tune “Convalescent” during a live set. I’m not aware of any other examples of Cohen or anyone else doing “Convalescent” in any other concerts, but that version alone sounds like it could be a standard tune. Mehldau’s work ranges widely – a good place to start is the Brad Mehldau page at nextbop, but there’s plenty more places to dig in, including his work as a sideman with Chris Cheek, John Scofield, Joe Martin, Jimmy Cobb, and Joshua Redman, to name a few. Mehldau’s recent trio albums (Ode and Where Do You Start?) show that he clearly hasn’t exhausted the creativity in that realm, and he has continued to put together fantastic solo piano arrangements, including the Live in Marciac album and many live concerts. And in the space between his solo piano and piano trio work, Mehldau has put together some very interesting duets with drummer Mark Guiliana (Mehliana: Taming the Dragon), pianist Kevin Hays (Modern Music), vocalist Renee Fleming (Love Sublime), and mandolinist Chris Thile (no album, but a number of live shows). The music here is just the tip of a very large and varied iceberg, well worth digging into – keep listening.