Brad Mehldau

A complex emotion

How did you come to jazz? To this question, I often find myself scratching my head and typically settle on a vague answer only made more vague by an impulsively apologetic shrug. “Well, you know, it just happened”. There was never any kind of jazz-related music playing around the house and even my childhood piano lessons didn’t put the genre on my radar the whole time I took them. It wasn’t exactly frowned upon or disregarded by my circle of friends and relatives. It simply didn’t exist. The closest I ever got to an awareness of the music growing up was a scuffed compilation CD of Glenn Miller my parents had left sitting on a dusty bookshelf in the living room. How did it get there in the first place? I will never know. As I moved into my late teens, I picked out a Coltrane retrospective CD while shopping with my parents at a grocery store in my hometown in France. I remember it had the song Russian Lullaby on it, the last track. I had never heard anything played with so much intensity and fire, at that breakneck speed. And no amp or savvy production to give it a boost. What the heck is this, I thought. This beat is infectiously fast! Is this humanly possible? From here on out, I went on a Coltrane binge – mostly the late and supposedly less accessible recordings – that didn’t leave much room for any other jazz artist or other music style for a while. After wearing out Stellar Regions and the Live at the Village Vanguard sessions – which ripped apart any sense of metronomic stability – I worked my way back through the earlier records and slowly gravitated toward the more straight-up swinging jazz I had only had a glimpse of before at the time. That’s when Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue caught my attention. Low and behold, it had my new hero on it, blowing his heart out on every tune. So, it is possible to make a truly distinctive and individual statement  in the most collective setting one can think of, I mused. Thus began my sinuous initiation to this thing called jazz. Twenty years down the road and a new instrument to practice – the double bass – I’m still struggling to define the contours of the art form. There are times when I just can’t take the polyphonic quality of some of the music and  go into a jazz-free regimen for days, only playing rap, classical and what not,  or no music at all.  Jazz can be overwhelming as complex emotions are.

I guess that’s where I’m getting at with his post.

As much as I have denied it defensively for years, I came to realize that yes, jazz is complex.  But complexity is not a sanctuary for intellectuals or an elitist class of the Enlightened. Human emotions are complex. To me, when played sincerely, jazz is the epitome of a complex human emotion, one that ties the cerebral to the elemental seamlessly. At the risk of overstating the point, we all have something jazz inside us. Sure, the term originated under unfavorable auspices. As the BAM (Black American Movement) controversy made abundantly clear, the word jazz itself is morally problematic when we look at its racist and derogatory beginnings. It’s no wonder, then, that most jazz lovers and haters are still fairly opinionated about where to draw the line between jazz and non jazz, not realizing that this line has never been and will never be scored in indelible ink.

To me, the difficulty of defining the genre is a testament to its cultural importance, enduring appeal and vital energy. It will not be pigeonholed because it has change, difference and human interaction at its core. I’ve always been struck by the fact that in the early days of the nascent jazz idiom – predominantly in the music of New Orleans – performers often played over each other and rarely got a solo spot to shine. They all soloed together simultaneously,  so to speak. Yet it was the combination of individual talents that shaped and guided the overall sound of the band. In that way, people like Louis Armstrong  or Duke Ellington clearly deserve the jazz originators label that they usually get credit for. Their music served as a catalyst of the marriage of Black folk culture and European classical-inspired white America.

Ask your friends if they listen to any jazz and the handful of those who do will likely mention a couple of classics from the 60s but probably nothing past this golden age of the music. I understand that, that’s what I started listening to when I was first turned on to it. It’s probably harder to know where to look for jazz artists today as the music is stylistically more varied than it was sixty years ago, and paradoxically a lot more accessible, just a click away on social media or the Internet in general. Yet, in this day and age of hip hop, pop or other-infused jazz, even today’s up and coming artists always have some kind of connection to these foundational roots, however unconsciously buried they may seem to be. 

Since this is a place where I should recommend things, I’d like to share some of the relatively recent releases that I have been listening to over the last year or so. Inevitably, they reflect my personal inclination but hopefully also the diverse range of music that today’s  “jazz” artists are creating. Jazz alert: the styles range from the post-post-post (are there more?) bop vernacular to plain esoteric stuff. As guitarist Bill Frisell simply puts it on his recent solo album, Music Is, “music IS”.

If any of you out there reading this wants to share their story of how they encountered jazz and how they look upon the music, I’d be very happy to feature their story as a guest post on wellyouneedit. So, fire away.

Matt Brewer  Mythology

Brad Mehldau   Gabriel

Flash Pig Year of the Pig

Andrew Cyrille Quartet  The Declaration of Musical Independence

Bill Frisell  Thomas Morgan  Small Town

Craig Taborn   Daylight Ghosts

Eric Revis  Sing Me Some Cry

Glenn Zaleski    My Ideal

Mary Halvorson   Code Girl

The Bad Plus  Never Stop II

Mark Guiliana  Quartet   Jersey

Etc…

In steady rotation

2013-12-15 12.11.16

As 2013 draws to a close, wellyouneedit celebrates its one-year anniversary. How did that happen? It’s been a bumpy road and I’m still not sure why I bother to put these thoughts out there. Oh well, for writing’s sake, I guess, which is a pretty good reason, isn’t it? Here, I want to thank my handful of faithful readers scattered around France and the globe. You know who you are.

The year-end lists are flooding the Internet. With a jazz-heavy listening and playing schedule to handle, I simply don’t have the time to check out the plethora of good “non-jazz” music released in this day and age. As a music fan, though, I like to think that this thing called jazz is not as insular and monolithic as the naysayers would have you believe. Today’s prominent improvisers tap into all kinds of music and extramusical sources to shape their path in the continuum. The result of that blending process doesn’t always work but it is integral to this art. As the aggressive debates raging on the Internet and the blogosphere show, the term jazz is very restrictive and contentious in many ways. Specifically, it doesn’t acknowledge the shape-shifting qualities at work in spontaneous collective improvisation, and it doesn’t do justice to the musicians who have continuously pushed the envelope to move the music forward. But for lack of a better and all-embracing term, we’re just going to have to stick with it for a while! If there’s anything to change about the presentation of jazz to the neophyte, it might involve defining it not so much as a music style per se as an approach to addressing and appropriating musical content – Duke Ellington or Bjork, it doesn’t matter.  The purists will take issue with that view, but the purists are wrong. Get real, purists! Trying to dictate what an art is and what it is not is a pointless struggle. The following list is a random and unrated selection of albums that played on a regular basis or caught my ear, here at wellyouneedit, in 2013. Inevitably, a lot of it is jazz, but in my book good music transcends category. Enjoy.

Dave King, I’ll Be Ringing you (2012)

With fellow Minnesotans Bill Carrothers and Billy Preston, the drummer revisits the standards with haunting introspection.  A well-tended fire smolders through this quiet record.  Huddle up, make some tea and kill the lights. And swing by the wynit archive for the short album review.

Brad Mehldau Trio, House on Hill (2006)

I finally decided which of Brad Mehldau’s albums I would take on a desert island. Right down to the enlightening liner notes (on Bach, Brahms and Monk), this one is a stellar document of the early trio (with bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jorge Rossy). Strong compositions and high-caliber playing for all involved.

Orrin Evans, Flip the script (2012); Blessed ones (2001)

The ability of these tight trios (bassists Eric Revis and Ben Wolfe and drummers Nasheet Waits and Donald Edwards) to bend the swing tradition and honor it at the same time keeps astounding me. The demotion job on Autumn Leaves will have you scratching your head first time around but sound magically obvious after a few listens.

Matana Roberts,  Mississippi Moonchile (2013)

A powerful artistic statement from the great alto saxophonist and multidisciplinary artist. This beautiful suite is Roberts’ personal take on Black American history, specifically through her female lineage. The music is a seamless collage/conflation of the various strands of African-American music. The fascinating story continues.

The Bad Plus, Made Possible (2012)

Epic melancholia, joyful abandon, frantic energy and telepathic cohesion. The trio does make anything possible. In the words of drummer Dave King « this band contains some of the most punk energy I’ve ever seen or heard as a musician ». But make no mistake, this is unquestionably as tight and honest a modern jazz trio as it gets. Watch the EPK for their 2012 record and check out the amazing discography.

Vijay Iver Trio, Accelerando (2012)

The award-winning pianist has the critics divided. Undaunted, I listen to the staccato rhythms of bassist Stephen Crump and Marcus Gilmore and nod to the vibe.

Glenn Gould,  Bach English Suites , Inventions & Sinfonias (1982)

To think that all of Bach’s keyboard music was conceived for the harpsichord is confounding, especially when played by Glenn Gould on piano. Timeless.

Mark Turner, Yam Yam (1994), Dharma Days (2001)

Whether the album cover of Yam Yam was a wise marketing decision is a matter of personal aesthetics but the music shows off Turner’s tasteful lyricism and hugely influential voice on tenor. Dharma Days is the one to get. Features Kurt Rosenwinkel (guitar), Reid Anderson (bass), Nasheet Waits (drums).

Eric Revis, Parallax (2012)

The potent bassist delivers a fine inside/outside jazz offering. Serious chops and burning grooves across the board. Features Nasheet Waits (drums), Jason Moran (piano) and Ken Vandermark (tenor sax and clarinet)

J Dilla, Donuts (2006)

The legendary hip hop producer probably owned a sizable record collection. This album splices together a nice selection of soul and rap cuts from the 60s onward. I usually play the first song and find myself listening through the album.

Geri Allen, The Life of a Song (2004)

In the company of such heavyweights as Dave Holland and Jack de Johnette, Geri Allen found sympathetic support to deliver her groove-packed set of originals and rearranged standards. There isn’t a weak moment in this program. Highly recommended.

Darius Jones & Matthew Shipp, Cosmic Lieder (2010)

Smooth-flowing dialogue between two singular voices of free forms. Shipp’s dark low-end tones take on a welcome brightness against Jones’ honking enthusiasm.

Melanie De Biasio, No Deal (2013).

With the pared-down instrumentation of flute, drums and keyboard, Melanie De Biasio’s enveloping vocals push through the ether with grace and a sense of subdued drama.

Drew Gress, Black Butterflies  (2005)

Lush writing, infectious grooves and free blowing make up this alluring album.For Craig Taborn’s solo on the song Bright Idea alone, this one is worth a good listen. Features Tim Berne (alto sax), Ralph Alessi (Trumpet), Craig Taborn (piano), Tom Rainey (drums).

John Coltrane  The Classic Quartet – the complete Impulse studio recordings (1961-1965)

Immortal. What would jazz have sounded like if that quartet hadn’t existed? Eternally inspiring.

Thelonious Monk

Do I really have to drum the point home? You have to get with Monk. Period.

Craig Taborn Light Made Lighter (2001)

Taborn’s debut album amply demonstrates his versatility in the classic piano trio format. A good place to start.

Butcher Brown – A sides B sides

On their self-released and generously free (cop it on their website) debut, Butcher Brown make instrumental groove music that sounds oddly new despite the overt references to 70s funk. An ideal moodsetter that doesn’t sacrifice musicianship for chilling’s sake. Check it out.

Elmo Hope, Complete Studio Recordings

What a tragic life his was. It’s time to restore Hope’s profound contribution to modern jazz piano music. No less than Monk’s best friend and favorite player.

Julia Holter  Loud City Song (2013)

Wow. This one almost didn’t make my list. There is definitely more than ambient and pop to this music. But for now I’ll settle for uncategorizable.

And countless more to satisfy the music junkie’s appetite but that I’m too lazy to write a single word about.

All the things you’ve always wanted to know about modern jazz, but were afraid to ask

Photo by Ruth Cameron

Photo by Ruth Cameron

From left to right and top to bottom: Dave King, Joshua Redman, Jeff Ballard, Larry Grenadier, Brad Mehldau, Charlie Haden, Reid Anderson, Ethan Iverson

Talk about inspiration. What a lineup! I just lifted this photo from Ethan Iverson’s indispensable DTM blog. To think that this was taken backstage last Saturday at a concert featuring the double bill of The Bad Plus + Joshua Redman and The Brad Mehldau Trio, with Charlie Haden in attendance, can only make me want to do two things once the goose bumps on my skin have subsided and the frustration of missing the gig wears off:  play any record by these musicians over and over again, or pluck away at my bass strings until Haden’s voice agrees to rub off on me.

Sometimes words cannot match the evocative power of a simple picture. This coming-together of peers with Haden as elder statesman is a case in point of the jazz continuum. This art form has always been about cross-pollination, mentorship and a relentless quest for creativity. On the surface, The Bad Plus pairing with Joshua Redman feels like a revival band of Keith Jarrett’s so-called “American quartet” from the 70s, a modern jazz group consisting of Jarrett, Paul Motian, Charlie Haden and Dewer Redman (Joshua’s father). In fact, the band has proudly acknowledged their musical debt to these trailblazers and it’s striking to hear traces of that music reshaped into, well, Bad Plus music. I have yet to warm up to Joshua Redman’s albums but he sure picked up the Plus’ infectiously gnarly songs fast!  That’s enough for me to give him a good listen and recognize his awesomeness. As to Mehldau, Grenadier and Ballard, they fit right in there as well, having shared the bandstand with Haden, Redman and Motian in various settings and embodying a like-minded generation of seasoned improvisers. With that kind of apprenticeship on your resume, you’ve got some serious chops to look ahead and forget the meaning of unemployment. The late Paul Motian is sorely missing from this picture, though. So is Ornette Coleman. That might have been a little over the top.  Once again, Haden comes off as the unifying veteran of this continuum, a ubiquitous icon whose influence beyond sheer bass playing has yet to be adequately appreciated. The LA Times review will give you a snapshot sense of what he heard from his seat.  But what did he actually think? We’ll probably never know.

Selected song recommendations:

The Bad Plus, 2.P.M. (Never Stop), one of Iverson’s signature angular songs, where the American Quartet/Ornette Coleman influence shines through.

Ornette Coleman, Street Woman (Science Fiction). Ornette’s “Lonely Woman”, a tad disoriented.  Also tastefully covered by The Bad Plus on Give.

The Bad Plus, Snowball (Never Stop). Kill the lights, get your warmest sweater and listen to Reid Anderson’s Hadenesque ode to slowness at 2:30. Time stands still and everything is slow, slow, slow.

Art of the trio

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Last night’s performance by the Brad Mehldau trio demonstrated beautifully the validity of improvised music in the bare-bones format of the jazz trio. Playing a well-balanced mix of new originals and pop covers, ranging from Charlie Parker’s Cheryl to The Beatles’ And I Love Her, the trio took on every song with unrelenting commitment, tasteful musicianship and a sense of drama that pulled me into the music and never let go. Helped by the impeccable acoustics of the Salle Pleyel the sound filled the house with so much presence that it felt like a full symphonic orchestra was playing. Mehldau has reiterated time and time again how grateful he is to his partners for their creative powers and how much his own playing is informed by theirs. Aside from the significant drums replacement of Jorge Rossy by Jeff Ballard in 2005, the trio has played together continuously, also forming the core sound of other major bands, notably those of luminaries Mark Turner and Kurt Rosenwinkel. It shows. A high level of cohesiveness permeated throughout the performance, be it in Grenadier’s contrapuntal bass figures constantly bouncing off Mehldau’s darkly lyrical lines or Ballard’s flexible and nuanced drumming. While Jazz has been shaped by such cornerstones as the jam sessions, the “sitting in” tradition and in-the-moment creativity, aesthetics and group sound have also been critical to the most groundbreaking artists of the music. How would Coltrane’s quartet have sounded without the dream team of Elvin Jones, Jimmy Garrison and McCoy Tyner? Mehldau is so deeply engaged with this tradition that when he lays out right after stating the melody of a song to push his band mates to the foreground, he’s not only paying tribute to them he’s also reaffirming that to be a sideman in his group is not to be an interchangeable gear in an immutable system.

The material selected for this concert reflects Mehldau’s penchant for relatively simple or short forms to improvise on. This may be his most exquisite gift: picking a memorable melody, laying out the contours by sparse painterly brushes and taking it as far as inspiration can take it, letting it build and build. Grenadier and Ballard are well attuned to this process, filling in when Mehldau seemed to ponder his next move in real time, or just pumping away with mind-blowing telepathy as he gained momentum. That night, the amount of activity from bass and drums was so intense that Brad’s lines were slightly muddled on occasion but the only thing to blame for this was the infectious groove the trio kept going.

Owning the tune seems to be the ultimate motive on Mehldau’s agenda, regardless of its composer. That he chooses to take on McCartney or Sam Rivers with equal passion is testimony to his dedication to the art of improvisation over any other stylistic concern. What boggles the mind is how long he is able to sustain interest, reconfiguring the parameters of the song, leaning hard into the piano to bring out the music and get comfortable with it. At one point through a 5/4 meter song, the band stopped and let Mehldau move into an introspective solo that exuded his more classical side. When they reentered to take the tune out, the intensity that had built up before the solo continued unabated.

Much ink has been spilled about how Jazz has shot itself in the foot by becoming too sophisticated for the masses. Sophistication and accessibility are not mutually exclusive notions. Thelonious Monk’s unique music was once dismissed as offbeat and dissonant and later castigated as simplistic. The argument misses the point. The kind of organic unity that these three fantastic musicians achieve in this particular trio has been a foundation of the most prominent jazz groups. To recognize the uniqueness of this music is to validate Mehldau’s contention that there is such a thing as an “art of the trio”.

Jean-Charles Ladurelle