Listening to Brad Mehldau play a solo piano concert in l’Eglise Saint-Germain des Pres earlier this month, hearing such refined acoustic new music in that magnificent old church, it struck me that it can no longer be said, even in jest (RIP Frank Zappa), that “jazz isn’t dead, it just smells funny."
The feeling is reinforced listening to Mehldau’s most recent trio CD, “Day Is Done" (Nonesuch). His deep explorations based on songs by Lennon and McCartney, Radiohead, Paul Simon, and Thelonious Monk – an extension of the sort of thing that jazz musicians have been doing for Cole Porter, Rogers and Hart, Johnny Mercer, and so on for generations – turn the popular musical culture of the second half of the 20th century into art.
The Eagles’s Don Henley once defined “art" to me as “Neil Young’s dog. Neil has a dog named Art. He wrote a song about him." Henley meant that it’s a word to be avoided, like “culture." If you do not believe that the Beatles are part of our “serious" musical culture, then you won’t consider Mehldau’s music “cultured" either.
Old-fashioned definitions still thrive. Many Western classical musicians continue to believe that they are the only people who play “serious music." “Serious" musicians think that while Duke Ellington may have been right when he said that there are only two kinds of music, good and bad, jazz musicians deal with a simple short form, and they make it up as they go along. “Serious" musicians consider a musician playing on the sad side of the note to be out of tune.
Either way, Mehldau is taking the interpretation of other people’s melodies to a new level of creativity and sophistication. He is not alone. Others include Lee Konitz, who has been doing it for years, and, more recently, Branford Marsalis. Author and jazz journalist Rafi Zabor says the saxophonist Marsalis’s current work is “one illustration of the sophisticated sensibility brewing out there; for example his use of Coltrane, not to duplicate Trane, but to take all that information elsewhere and find new uses for it. It sounds like new territory to me."
In Mehldau’s case, there is also his obvious 19th century influence, his generous use of the sustain pedal, his tumbling Lisztian arpeggios, and the romanticism of his improvisations. He is obviously influenced by Bill Evans, but the way he holds on to the original theme by recalling certain unusual intervals and memorable phrases rather than being tied to the harmonies, or to the original 4/4 time signature, take Evans’s implications further.
It is indeed new territory. It can no longer be said that the “golden age" of jazz is over, that there are no more real innovators. The new melodic, rhythmic, and stylistic freedom in the air smells pretty good to me.