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Music from life's mess

Chaos and beauty compete on Brad Mehldau's 'Largo,' an album that defies labels. Is it still jazz? The pianist doesn't think it matters.

November 17, 2002|Lynell George | Times Staff Writer

But that is just what Mehldau's getting at: that life -- and jazz for that matter -- is as much about mess and chaos as beauty and symmetry. Although "Largo" might appear to be a far-flung departure from the intuitive three-way conversation of his trio, it still feels very much like a direct relation. Yes, he's got his "street creds" in order -- a stint at the New School studying with drummer Jimmy Cobb and pianist Junior Mance; spots on the bill with Redman, Christopher Holliday, Christian McBride -- and endured endless comparisons to Bill Evans (both pianists are white and have been chased by heroin addiction), but Mehldau has long been hinting at this more expansive inclination. His albums have always provided tasteful settings for Porter or Rodgers & Hart tunes, but Radiohead and Nick Drake have been comfortable there as well.

Going the way of his instincts, Mehldau demonstrates that one sound can dovetail into the next, that borders and labels, if not superfluous, are arbitrary.

A life-altering excursion

A WEEK or so after his Knitting Factory Hollywood gig, Mehldau's back in Manhattan. He's installed in a hip hotel, Le Parker Meridien and seems slightly weary, with a post-bronchitis cough. That doesn't stop him from sneaking a cigarette, then cranking up the AC to clear the lingering smoke.

He's been putting the finishing touches on a new album with just the trio. Fresh off a week at the Village Vanguard, playing with Grenadier and Rossy, he'll be heading off to Europe for a month or so of dates. But first he'll duck upstate to spend a few days at home with his wife, Fleurine, and his baby daughter, Eden.

The showcases at Knitting Factory were experimental forays to see just how "Largo's" on-disc setup might play out live. Playing with that revolving lineup in the city that incubated many of the compositions had plenty of resonance for Mehldau. Those sketches marked the end of years of hard living.

"To tell you the truth, I actually went out there [in 1996] and wound up in drug rehab," he says, settling into the suite's stiff-backed love seat. "Before that, everything was in kind of shambles in my life. I stayed in a place for three months in Pasadena and then I figured, 'I'll just stay out here for a while and see how it goes.' "

He played dates with the late Billy Higgins and got to know bassist Darek Oles. He also fell into a regular session with the guys who played "The Tonight Show" gig. But what arrested his attention was a weekly "happening" at a Fairfax district cabaret called Largo, where he met producer Brion.

Brion's Friday-night show became Mehldau's new habit.

He says he was struck as much by Brion's daring as his intuitiveness. "I think the first time I heard him he was playing electric guitar, with a real sort of rock sound. Just all alone [with] all these real sort of sonic things going on. And then he launched into a Cole Porter song, I think it was 'I Love You.' ... And it was startling the way he was sort of reconfiguring it.... Then [he did] some of his own original music too. These beautiful songs that just drew me in on an emotional level. It was kind of an experience that happens less and less as you get older because you get jaded. Where you really feel blown away." Encountering Brion reawakened something old and familiar about his connection to music. Not his classical training or his tour of New York's jazz clubs, but what was beaming out of the radio during his formative years -- Steely Dan; Fleetwood Mac; Earth, Wind & Fire; Frank Zappa; Rush. Album-oriented rock was difficult not to absorb.

He was curious about Brion -- who had produced Fiona Apple, Aimee Mann and Rufus Wainwright -- and where he might go next. But Brion admits he wasn't, at first, so curious about Mehldau.

When Largo's owner-booker, Mark Flanagan, attempted a bit of matchmaking, Brion was more than skeptical. "I think I literally groaned!" he recalls. " 'Oh great, this year's Great Young Jazz Musician.' " But Flanagan slipped him "Art of the Trio, Vol. 2," and Brion floated down Mehldau's interpretation of "Moon River." "It comes to a section where the band drops out and a gear gets shifted. And [Brad's] hand-idea coordination is completely in sync. Here's the sound I've heard in my head but can't play with my hands! I told Flanny, 'You just point me in his direction.' "

Indeed, "Largo" isn't a jazz album in a purist's sense. Like a classic jazz side, it was recorded live with everyone in one room and without overdubs. But, says Brion, "it's got the scope of an artsy-fartsy art-pop record, where each song has its own sound. So it's like, this instrument we're going to mike like they did '50s jazz instruments and this one, well, we're going to give a really cockamamie, modern sound."

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