Book reviews

Brad Mehldau – ‘Formation – Building a Personal Canon, Part One’

Brad Mehldau – Formation – Building a Personal Canon, Part One

(Equinox Books. 300pp. Publication date 14 March 2023. Book review by Scott Flanigan)

One might imagine that pianist Brad Mehldau, one of this generation’s outstanding musicians, has dedicated his entire life and being to furthering his musical abilities and many-faceted output. Indeed, the serious nature he portrays on the bandstand would support this. However, Mehldau’s new book – the first part of a larger biographical series – paints an altogether different picture of a life interwoven with struggles with sex, drugs, music and philosophy. 

The book itself, entitled Formation – Building a Personal Canon, Part I – is presented as a Bildungsroman; a German “formation-novel” which tells the story of a young person and how they grow into maturity. This first volume, then, details Mehldau’s early years, through high school, early life in New York and on the road, and culminating in considering suicide and moving to LA for rehab in the late 1990s after a record company intervention. 

Rather than an exhaustive biography or list of musical highlights, Mehldau tells the compelling tale of his life through numerous – and largely negative and destructive – encounters, which provide the context to his music. From an adopted upbringing where he largely feels like an outsider in most situations, Mehldau gradually finds his tribe with the jazz fraternity at high school and later at the New School in New York.

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Initial gigs in New York filled with self-doubt are recalled, occasionally with a recreation of Mehldau’s inner monologue on and off the bandstand. Through playing with peers such as Peter Bernstein, Leon Parker and Ugonna Okegwu, in clubs like the Village Gate and Augie’s (now Smoke), Mehldau describes how his influences – ‘the German Romanticism of Schubert, Schumann and Brahms and the Blacker influence of jazz, steeped in the blues feeling and swing’, as he puts it – gradually distil to become the influential pianist who released Introducing Brad Mehldau in 1994, to highly favourable reviews. 

Mehldau also provides the reader with a fascinating insight into the jazz scene in New York in the early 1990s, which in turn gives context to his early career. He writes of choosing which jazz greats to hear – Tommy Flanagan, Cedar Walton, Kenny Barron, Barry Harris, Hank Jones, Joe Henderson, Harry “Sweets” Edison and Mike Stern could regularly be heard around New York at the time, but also late-night burgers with the then up-and-comers Joe Farnsworth, Peter Bernstein and Sam Yahel, Eric Alexander and Bill Stewart, who were part of the wider jazz community. 

However, the music only forms part of Mehldau’s Bildungsroman. He opens up about intensely personal topics, including bullying and struggles with his sexuality from a young age, and being sexually groomed by his high school principal. These formative negative experiences are suggested as the catalyst which led to heavy use of marijuana, alcohol, hallucinogenics and, later, heroin. Each of these overlap with musical experiences, culminating with being fired from Joshua Redman’s quartet and deliberately not showing up to an important record date with saxophonist David Sanchez. 

Mehldau’s writing style reflects both his musical character and his persona; juxtaposing deep philosophical insight with intensely personal experiences described in straight-talking, graphic detail. He is equally eloquent writing about Harold Bloom’s and Terry Eagleton’s views on ideology in art as he is writing about shooting up heroin in a run-down building, needing to call an ambulance, and getting arrested. 

Throughout the book, Mehldau keeps the reader engaged in a compelling account of a twisted life which threatened to derail the music and the musician, but in which, thankfully, the music prevailed.

Brad Mehldau’s Formation – Building a Personal Canon, Part I is published on 14 March by Equinox Books.

LINKS: Pre-Order Formation – Building a Personal Canon, Part I from Presto Music

Your Mother Should Know – Brad Mehldau plays the Beatles (solo piano) is released on 10 February on Nonesuch

Scott Flanigan’s website

Scott Flanigan’s article for LJN, “Ten Tracks By Brad Mehldau I Can’t Do Without” was published in July 2021

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