In the latest of our series in which musicians do a deep dive into the music of their idols and inspirations, pianist/ organist Scott Flanigan from Belfast (*) chooses just ten tracks by Brad Mehldau. Scott writes:
The first time I heard Mehldau’s music was in the mid-2000s when someone gave me Largo as a present. I’ll admit I didn’t understand it and put it away for a while. Only later did I return to Mehldau’s work with a sense of perspective: this was an outstanding pianist whose classical, pop, and rock influences were on display for everyone to see. Since then I’ve been not only a fan but dug into his work on an analytical level for my PhD. His work encompasses solo piano, piano trio, classical collaborations and large-scale ensembles both in electronic and acoustic formats, and everything in between.
- All The Things You Are from Art Of The Trio, Vol. 4
This track perhaps represents the peak of Mehldau’s first trio featuring Larry Grenadier and Jorge Rossy. Mehldau’s introduction represents a masterclass in playing solo piano in 7/4, but his solo with the ensemble achieves some of the greatest heights I’ve heard in improvised music. This solo has been transcribed numerous times by jazz players across the world for good reason: Mehldau weaves his way through the harmony, building tension with every passing phrase. At the point where it seems the solo can’t get any higher, Mehldau breaks it down completely, destroying everything that has come before it, digging into the blues and almost ignoring the harmony of the piece. A spectacular solo reaching heights not seen again in Mehldau’s trio. Random oddity: Mehldau plays this tune in A major rather than the usual Ab major.
2. Public Domain from Peter Bernstein + 3
Some of my favourite Mehldau solos are hearing him with other musicians, and his collaborations with Peter Bernstein have undoubtedly stood the test of time. Mehldau digs into Wynton Kelly on this one: the tempo, key, and even some of the lines are reminiscent of Kelly’s recording of Char’s Blues from Someday My Prince Will Come, but Mehldau innovates on Kelly’s bluesy lines by deploying all the harmonic tricks he has to create a solo well worth repeated listens.
3. Not You Again from John Scofield’s Works For Me (2000)
Mehldau is no stranger to appearing as a sideman on someone else’s record, and this tune is a great example of what he brings to the table. The piece is a contrafact of There Will Never Be Another You, and Mehldau takes a short three-chorus solo, but packs so much into the solo: an entire chorus right-hand only, innovative harmony that gives the whole solo a sense of freshness, and some great rhythmic playing.
4. Anthropology from Brad Mehldau and Rossy Trio’s When I Fall in Love (1994)
Aged 23 and fresh out of The New School in New York, Mehldau floated around Europe for a while and made a name for himself as an outstanding pianist at a young age. This recording of Anthropology, taken from a live concert in Barcelona in 1993, showcases Mehldau’s fearsome technique combined with his complete command of rhythm and harmony. Mehldau and the ensemble set up contrasting rhythmic narratives at the beginning of the solo which coalesce as the solo evolves at breakneck speeds. Mehldau gets the left hand involved in playing melodies, as if there wasn’t enough going on all the way through the solo. An incredible display of talent at a young age which would set the scene for a glittering career. Outstanding, ballsy and rock solid performances from Mario and Jorge Rossy really drive this trio and this performance.
5. The More I See You from Portrait of Bill Evans
A relatively obscure one, but one of my favourites. Mehldau’s understated solo piano telling of the theme effectively blends classical piano and stride techniques, but rather than improvising over the form, Mehldau improvises a cadenza using the pulsating chords which would later form an important part of his solo piano work, and treats the opening few notes as a motif on which to build it before heading back to the blues.
6. Hungry Ghost from Mehliana
Mehldau’s electric collaboration with Mark Giuliana is a masterpiece to listen to, and sounds considerably larger than just two instrumentalists. This live version of Hungry Ghost from Mehliana mixes Mehldau’s penchant for minimalist-influenced repeated chords with bluesy and harmonically inquisitive lines on Fender Rhodes, all the while urged on by Giuliana’s driving, insistent drumming.
7. She’s Leaving Home from Day is Done
Every track from Day Is Done represents some of the finest Mehldau on record, but this arrangement of The Beatles’ She’s Leaving Home captures Mehldau and the trio particularly well. The band play a sensitive and compelling version of McCartney’s classic, but this version really stands out with a gripping final section, where Mehldau and the ensemble let loose over a compelling vamp.
8. Lost Chords from Ten Years Solo Live (2005)
In recent years Mehldau’s output has focused heavily on solo piano, and the record Ten Years Solo Live represents just a fraction of this. Lost Chords is a Mehldau original recorded in 2005 and captures the beginnings of Mehldau’s repeated chords with shifting harmony. Mehldau describes this as “more of a rock musical” in the liner notes – but perhaps one co-composed by Rick Wakeman and Brahms.
9. Larry Goldings and Brad Mehldau: Silent Night from Warner Bros. Jazz Christmas Party (1997)
An unusual collaboration of pianist and organist on a Warner Bros Christmas jazz record from 1997, but the two deliver with a hard-swinging and appealing arrangement of Silent Night. Mehldau’s sensitive and swinging solo perfectly complements Goldings’ comping, and each gives the other space to deliver a solo which captures each of their personalities as keyboard improvisers: Mehldau the classical-influenced jazz player unafraid to play the blues, Goldings the master of the Hammond organ showing the lineage of Jimmy Smith and Larry Young.
10. Ron’s Place from Art Of The Trio, Vol. 1
One of the standout tracks from Mehldau’s Art Of The Trio, Vol. 1. The beautifully crafted melody floats above a descending bass line, a frequent Mehldau compositional tool. However, it’s Mehldau’s opening gambit on his solo which is most compelling. Mehldau shows his fondness for a compositional approach to improvisation, using a descending motif on which to build the opening part of his solo. This grows organically both across the solo and across the instrument to create a captivating and inviting improvisation.
(*) Scott Flanigan (WEBSITE) is a pianist and organist from Belfast, who recently completed his PhD in jazz piano looking at the music of Brad Mehldau and Aaron Parks. Flanigan’s upcoming record, Clouded Lines, features London guitarist Ant Law, and will be released in late 2021.