Jazz pianist/composer Brad Mehldau had vastly different plans for 2020, but he responded to the pandemic’s challenges by shifting his approach. He had planned to tour with Joshua Redman, Christian McBride, and Brian Blade upon the July 2020 release of RoundAgain, the long-awaited follow-up album to the group’s lauded 1994 release, MoodSwing, but canceled due to COVID. Sidelined from the road, the groundbreaking Mehldau recorded another album in solitude, Suite: April 2020, at the onset of the pandemic, and has another album coming out this summer, Variations on a Melancholy Theme, which he’s described “as if Brahms woke up one day and had the blues.”
Mehldau has been performing in front of audiences since he was a teenager and studied jazz and contemporary music at The New School, where he frequently gigged around New York City, quickly making a name in the jazz scene. He has played in a wide variety of bands and projects over the past 30 years, most frequently in a trio format, and has also toured as a solo pianist. BMI caught up with Mehldau, who just finished his latest project, Jacob’s Ladder, roughly a year in the making and recorded entirely remotely.
Your most recent release, RoundAgain, which you recorded with Joshua Redman, Christian McBride, and Brian Blade in late 2019, was a reunion of sorts — this is only the second album the four of you released as a quartet, nearly 25 years after MoodSwing. How was the creative process different this time around now that each of you have built lauded careers and gained years of experience and perspective?
The experience of getting back together with Joshua, Christian and Brian was much like what I have with a few close friends I’ve known since my youth. You may not have seen each other for a long stretch of time, but when you reconnect, there is no segue needed to jump back where you left off in the friendship— with all the nice things about it — and then you can immediately continue and share your present experiences with each other.
Last year, you also released Suite: April 2020, which you wrote while sheltering at home during the beginning of the pandemic. It’s quite a juxtaposition from RoundAgain – rather than a collaborative reunion, this is more of a solitary “musical snapshot,” as you explained it. Why did you feel compelled to make this album, and how did it help you navigate the early stages of the pandemic?
In one way, it was along the lines of what I always try to do with music: make sense of, and hopefully discover, beauty in life experience. In this case, though, that really felt like a directive, and had a concrete corollary in the real world — the initial lockdown as it unfolded in the first few months of COVID [in] March and April of 2020. Each short piece in the April 2020 suite telegraphed a particular experience that went with that. These were new kinds of experiences, for myself and I imagine many others. There was the idea to find common ground — that maybe other people would connect with the musical descriptions.
Proceeds from Suite: April 2020 supported the Jazz Foundation of America. Can you explain what this organization does, and why you wanted to help them?
Jazz Foundation of America supplies direct assistance to musicians in a number of ways. Two big ones are paying for health care costs pro bono, and assistance with rent and housing. I’ve been admiring their work for a while now, but it became more valuable and urgent as COVID began to wipe away the steady income of jazz musicians (not to mention musicians of all stripes, and a variety of other people, like those who work in the venues, vendors, etc.), to the point where they had, literally, no money for rent. The impetus to give proceeds from April 2020 to them made sense, as a way of giving back to the jazz community what was given to me when I was coming up. The kind of generosity I experienced then seems more important than ever now.
You started playing piano at a young age. When did you realize you wanted to make music for a living, and how did you find your voice as a composer and performer?
I didn’t have a clear moment where I thought, “I want to do this for a living,” but that’s probably because I really didn’t have any other ideas. I was not interested in pursuing any other career, specifically. I was already making money from gigs in high school — playing at weddings, parties, and the like — so it just kind of went from there. Finding my voice as a performer came first. I think I had something like my own style when I was 23 or so, or the beginning of it. Finding my compositional voice started around age 25 or 26. Why that happens when it does is a bit of a mystery; it probably had to do with a confluence of everything going on in my life then, not just musical.
The majority of your albums were made with a trio, and you’ve also collaborated with a wide variety of artists spanning genres – Wayne Shorter, Joe Henry, Pat Metheny, Renee Fleming, Chris Thile, to name just a few. Is there anything you’d like to try, musically, that you haven’t done yet? Or an artist or group you’d like to collaborate with?
It’s been my experience that collaborations sort of hatch by themselves — I don’t actively pursue them ahead of time, and all of the sudden find myself collaborating with someone, and then talking about recording and touring with them, etc. So as strange as it might sound, I don’t have anyone in particular at this point. I’ve never been a bucket-list type.
What’s the most challenging project you’ve tackled?
Good question. Funny, no one has ever asked me that. It would probably have been either Highway Rider or After Bach. Highway Rider was a project with some orchestral writing and a variety of different instrumentations, and After Bach had the double task of composing commissioned music for Carnegie Hall and recording Bach’s music.
You’ve recorded more than 20 albums as a leader or solo, at least 15 as a co-leader, and dozens more as a sideman or guest artist. Can you share a little about how you approach a project, depending on which role you’re in?
The most important thing as a sideman is to not impose my view. I really want to support the leader’s vision as much as possible. Likewise, as a leader, I want to let the other musicians feel relaxed and confident enough that they will express their individual voices with freedom. In a solo format, perhaps the most important thing is to let go of expectations. I’ve done the work ahead of time, so in the recording process, I can just trust the process and leave the outcome to God/[the] universe.
You’ve experienced a lot of change in the music industry since you started your career nearly 30 years ago. What advice would you give to a young artist starting out?
This is a difficult question for me. In one way, I feel like I don’t have much concrete advice to offer, because the variables, in my view, are more difficult for a young artist starting out now than they were in my time. The revenue model that I benefitted from is rarely there anymore — a record advance, a budget to make the record and then be recouped, perhaps even tour support. When I look at what younger musicians are doing through social media, etc., to promote themselves, I am struck by their savvy and, frankly, glad that I was grandfathered in, so to speak, and now have a catalogue of records that are out there, ones that people know about and listen to. I am not discounting my own achievement but do feel grateful for my position. The only advice I can give young musicians is to always stay true to their artistic vision.
Can you explain your creative process behind covering a song, whether it’s a well-known standard like Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes” or a deeper cut like Nick Drake’s “Day is Done,” both of which you released on different albums on Nonesuch Records?
There is always a negotiation between the original and what I’m bringing to it. It varies; in some cases, I hue closer to the original, not straying too much from it. And in other cases, I change things about it — often the rhythmic meter/feel, like in “Anything Goes.” I never mess with the melody. The common link is the great love I have for the song in its original version, and a desire to express it on my own terms.
What are you working on now?
I’ve just finished a big project. It was started at the beginning of COVID more or less, so it’s really been a year long. Originally, I had written out a bunch of music for all of us to record together, but COVID made it a very different record in many ways — everything was recorded remotely. It was a real growing experience and while I was often frustrated by things we couldn’t do in terms of interacting in a room together, I have no regrets now that the record is done. It yielded something different.
I’ve used some of the same colleagues as on my recent record, Finding Gabriel: drummer Mark Guiliana, vocalist Becca Stevens and saxophonist Joel Frahm, among others. The theme and approach build on that record as well; I’ve turned to Biblical scripture again as a shaping force to the record in an effort to find answers through the music. It will be called Jacob’s Ladder, and I would imagine we’ll release it at the beginning of next year with some teaser tracks along the way.
In the meantime, next month, another record will be released of mine that I’m happy to share with listeners: A set of Variations for Piano and Orchestra that was commissioned by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, recorded with them and myself, called Variations on a Melancholy Theme.
How did you start working with BMI, and how has it impacted your career?
I’ve been with BMI for quite a while now, since when I began recording with Warner Brothers under my own name in 1995. It has been nothing but positive. BMI is not just a royalty collecting service for me; I have also experienced it as an organization that advocates for us musicians and songwriters, particularly in the last couple of decades when the whole paradigm of royalties has changed. I’m very grateful for its work; it’s helped for me to have a sustainable career and thus allowed me to continue focusing on making the kind of music I want to make.