Conversation: Musician Brad Mehldau
On his latest album, pianist Brad Mehldau takes listeners on a journey where each track is like a stop on a road trip. A mix of jazz, classical and pop, the double-disc release, “Highway Rider,” was a collaboration with producer Jon Brion and is Mehldau’s first album compiled entirely of his own compositions.
I talked to him by phone while he was on tour in Los Angeles:
Listen to an excerpt from “We’ll Cross The River Together”, a track off the new album:
A full transcript is after the jump.
JEFFREY BROWN: Brad Mehldau’s new album is called “Highway Rider,” and he joins us from Los Angeles. Welcome.
BRAD MEHLDAU: Thanks.
JEFFREY BROWN: I was thinking as I listened to this of some short story collections I’ve read where the writer writes linked stories, you know, but it adds up to a whole picture. Is that a fair way of thinking of what you’ve done? What did you set out to do here?
BRAD MEHLDAU: That’s a nice kind of analogy. That would work for me. I guess I was thinking of some sort story but pretty vague. I’ve never yet had the experience of having a very specific storyline in my head, but this is about as specific as I’ve gotten. And it’s kind of not even much of a plot there, but the idea of travel and sort of cyclical journey of starting out from home, leaving home, some of the feelings of homesickness that come from being away from home, and then also the feeling of being alone traveling, meeting other people and eventually coming home again and the way that feels to come home. And beyond that, you know, the protagonist might be myself, it might be someone else — and again pretty open ended. You don’t necessarily have to have that narrative in your head, but that’s one that I did start to think about as I wrote the music. I’d say about half way in I thought, this feels like journey.
JEFFREY BROWN: So you have a narrative, you have a theme, you have variations as in all jazz, I guess, and in this case part of the variation has to do with the different instruments and instrumentation, especially the use of a chamber orchestra.
BRAD MEHLDAU: That’s right. So had this one theme that kind of sticks through the whole thing and that’s the unifying factor, I guess, that hopefully you’d hear after a few listens or maybe right away there is this idea that’s winding through the whole thing. And then within that, like you say, a lot of variety of texture in terms of the orchestration. From all the way down to just saxophone and piano duo, even some piano solo. Another kind of cool texture that I’m pretty excited about on this record is piano and saxophone and percussion with no bass. That’s kind of a unique thing that you hear on “Capriccio” and “The Falcon Will Fly Again.” And then in more traditional, which I think of as a jazz ensemble with Joshua [Redman] and Jeff Ballard and Larry Grenadier and myself, and then all the way up to, like you mentioned, with the full orchestra and everyone playing. So yeah, there is a pretty big variety of texture there.
JEFFREY BROWN: Tell me a little more about working with a chamber orchestra. What do you try to achieve or what does it allow you do and how difficult is it? How do avoid making it sound, you know you put an orchestra there it can sound a little bit like just background, they are not really used the way a classical composer would use an orchestra.
BRAD MEHLDAU: Right, right for sure. It’s true. There’s a lot of pop records, even really cool pop records, that I like that nevertheless the orchestra was added on later. And right away that’s a big thing that I was able to avoid just in practical terms by recording everyone at the same time and not overdubbing the orchestra. That’s a big reason why I chose John Brion to produce it, because he’s done a lot of that himself in some of his film work. He knows how to have a huge amount of tracks going on at the same time, tons of microphones, tons of people in a couple different rooms, recording at the same time. What I like about this record is that you can listen to it and you can get the feeling of a bunch of people in a big room playing and the space and the molecules flying around in the air, but you can also with a pretty nice degree of specificity and say that’s a bassoon there, or that’s a French horn there, and there’s Brad playing something in his left hand there and there’s Josh, you can hear everything real, real clear on the record.
JEFFREY BROWN: Including things like handclapping.
BRAD MEHLDAU: Yeah, yeah. That’s right.
JEFFREY BROWN: So it was recorded live.
BRAD MEHLDAU: So we recorded everything live. There’s a couple things I overdubbed myself, like I played some orchestra bells because, you know, we didn’t have enough money to get a percussionist to do that. So one or two things like that. I overdubbed a little pump organ on one track, but the big thing was that we got to play with the orchestra live, and I wrote the music with that idea of the orchestra more merging with the jazz players and everybody being intertwined, rather than what you mentioned, you know, the sort of orchestra as a sweetener to enhance what’s already there. I really wanted it to be an integral part of the musical fabric, I guess you could say.
JEFFREY BROWN: You’ve talked a lot and written a lot in the past about your eclectic tastes. You did study classical music as a kid right?
BRAD MEHLDAU: Right.
JEFFREY BROWN: Have you written for orchestra before? Do you go back and listen to composers that you like to think about how to use an orchestra?
BRAD MEHLDAU: Exactly. You know, I’d say the main things I’ve listened for years and years since I’ve been listening to music are classical music, jazz and pop music, and sort of all those things at once are what keep my attention and what I listen to purely just for pleasure. And so with a lot of classical scores I’ve been listening to for years I go out and buy the score, and then when I’m on the road I like to read a score like other people read a book. I just sit there and read it and it’s a great way to pass the time and it’s also even kind of form of escapism. When you’re reading a Braham’s symphony, you’re sort of in this perfect world of order and righteousness of that music. And it’s a great way to pass the time and also a great way to get inside those composers’ heads and find out how they put all that together. So all of my knowledge as an orchestrator and in that vein, what I’ve tried to do here comes from that, just kind of doing it on my own.
JEFFREY BROWN: You’re on the road now, you can’t take the orchestra with you but you are planning to do this with an orchestra several times?
BRAD MEHLDAU: Yeah, we have a concert organized in New York City and I think hopefully one here in Los Angeles and a few in Europe that we’re working on, too, so hopefully a handful of concerts where we can do actually something I’ve never really done, which is more less play the record and then just play the music in that order with the orchestra and with the guys on the record.
JEFFREY BROWN: The theme you started with, I just want to come back to because that theme of travel, of being on the road, you do live a lot of your life on the road right?
BRAD MEHLDAU: Yeah, that’s for sure.
JEFFREY BROWN: And does that get old? Or how do you manage that?
BRAD MEHLDAU: Well, you know, I’m so used to it that actually if I’m off the road, I get a little stir-crazy after a couple months, but if I’m on the road I get a little sick of it after a couple months. I’ve got a wife and three kids who are all very dear to me now. That’s the toughest part of being on the road and I didn’t have that before, it didn’t matter as much, but now I go away and I really start to miss them after a while.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right. The new album is called “Highway Rider.” Brad Mehldau, thanks for talking to us.
BRAD MEHLDAU: Thanks, I appreciate it.