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Brad Mehldau Writing

Table of Contents:

> House on Hill

> Love Sublime

> Love Sublime (poem text)

> Elegiac Cycle (excerpt)

> Back at the Vanguard: The Art of the Trio, Volume 4 (excerpt)

> Progression: Art of the Trio, Volume 5

> Places (excerpt)

> Peter Bernstein: Heart’s Content

> Joel Frahm: Don’t Explain

> Mark Turner: In This World

> Sam Yahel: Truth and Beauty

(Click on a title to read the article)

Brad Mehldau Writing

Brad Mehldau
House On Hill

I wrote the music on this record for the trio that I led for roughly a decade, from 1994 to 2004, with Larry Grenadier and
Jorge Rossy. Seven of the tracks come from a two-day session in 2002, where we recorded eighteen songs. We decided
to split that material into originals of mine and interpretations of existing songs, and the latter group became Anything
Goes, released in 2004. The originals are presented here with two songs from a more recent recording session, “August
Ending” and “Fear and Trembling.” All of the songs were written between 2000 and 2002, and they form a time capsule
of my writing then, and of the way the trio was playing together. To the extent that the music was conceived specifically
for the three of us, the writing and playing are tied into each other.

Since the record is all original material, I thought I’d share my personal experience with jazz composition. The advan-
tages of the idiom are the same things that make it problematic for me as a composer. The very condition that allows for
expressivity implies its own limitation. The successful integration of composed and improvised material has always been
a challenge for me. It warrants a discussion of form, or more specifically, the dialectic between the fixed form of the com-
posed music and the (ideally) unfixed content of the improvised music.

In a strictly formal sense, the music on this record sits well within the “theme and variations” model that has long been
the dominant approach of small ensembles in jazz. Defined succinctly, it goes as follows: The theme is stated first, often
referred to as the “head.” Improvisation follows, often in the form of a solo, using the opening thematic material, whose
structure is repeated indefinitely—like in a classical theme and variations setting—until the soloing is concluded. Gener-
ally, the theme is reprised at the end of the composition. Period.

That is an admittedly provisional definition of what takes place very often in jazz, but the approach itself has a provisional
logic. In one sense, the beginning thematic material has a merely temporary role because it doesn’t develop further. The
improvisation that ensues will usually constitute the bulk of the performance. On the other hand, the improvisation is
bound to the initial thematic structure for its duration, repeating it over and over again. Within the bounds of functional
harmony, two or more people cannot improvise the large-scale development of a theme, like we find in the exposition of
a classical sonata’s allegro movement, because they cannot read each other’s mind. The bass player cannot know, for
example, that the piano player wishes to modulate to another key; the piano player cannot know that the bass player
wishes to stay a bit longer in the original key.

So, the theme and variations approach allows the soloist to correspond with the rest of the band. The efficacy of the ap-
proach lies in its expediency: It provides a quick and clear way for the soloist to improvise with a high degree of spon-
taneity. The harmonic material that underpins the solo, though, with its tension and resolution, will provide a narrative
backdrop—a place of origin and a destination. A balance is reached between something fixed and something open-end-
ed. For me, this technique has always been rewarding as an improviser, but can be confining as a composer.

It strongly implies a specific relationship between harmony and melody. In much of tonal music, the union of those two
elements is an ideal. Harmony—simply two or more tones sounding in unison—is not so much an end in itself; rather, it
is the outcome of two or more melodies taking place simultaneously. Melody has primacy always, and the relationship
between two or more melodies creates harmony, which is secondary. In a Bach fugue, we can see this clearly: Page 1
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House On Hill

Fig. 1 J.S. Bach, The Art of the Fugue, Contrapunctus 1, excerpt

Looking at the score horizontally—examining the music of each part as it moves across the page—we can see how the
bass part, in gray, has a dual role. It harmonically underpins all four voices, providing the foundation that we associ-
ate with the bass, yet it also stands alone as a melody. Furthermore, the phrase of the bass voice is in fact the opening
theme of the fugue.

The entire piece is made from the same stuff. To the extent that each part constantly reasserts the identity of the whole,
the musical content, in the moment of utterance, immediately fulfills a formal role as well. Every note is ripe with implica-
tion; each voice has a multidimensional character, achieving several functions at once—melodic, harmonic, and formal.
The texture of the fugue is appealingly plastic. With its four simultaneous melodies, the piece is constantly in motion. No
voice is ever delegated to a mere static accompanying role. Yet within all that flux, a stringent formal economy is never

When music became less contrapuntal, the model of polyphony that reached its apex in the music of Bach came to be
seen by some in prelapsarian terms, as an idealized state of grace from which composition had fallen. The viewpoint still
persists. Glenn Gould, for instance, championed Bach’s keyboard works, but did not hide his disregard for whole chunks
of the classical piano canon, especially composers like Mozart or Chopin, whose piano music often divided melody and
harmony into a single melodic line and a chordal accompaniment. This division may contribute to the pejorative “parlor
music” tag that is sometimes attached to Chopin’s piano works. The assignation of melody to the right hand and har-
mony to the left hand that we find in a big portion of his piano music gives it a certain stylistic homogeneity. Mainstream
jazz piano playing has for the most part followed this model of melody and chordal accompaniment in the right hand and
left hand respectively. Of course, this division is not in itself a bad thing, but to the extent that it becomes a fixed stylistic
procedure, it at least implies an expressive limitation.

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This passage of Brahms is less overtly polyphonic than the Bach:

Fig. 2 Johannes Brahms, Clarinet Quintet in B Minor, Opus 115, 2nd Movement, excerpt

We hear the clarinet soaring above the other instruments; the division of melody and underlying harmony seems pro-
nounced. Nevertheless, each voice below the clarinet has melodic integrity. The second violin and viola, both in gray,
both use a three-beat rhythmic motif that ties together eighth-note triplets and eighth notes. This figure is played in
tandem, canon-like.

How do we hear this music? The second violin and viola make a strong case to be heard as distinctive voices. But the
rhythmic motif they both use, with its alternating tied triplets and eighth notes, is destabilizing, even more so because the
two voices are set in overlapping tandem. We begin to hear them as an impressionistic blur of harmony. Brahms hides
the melodies of the violin and viola; they are like an undercurrent in a stream that is not visible from the surface. It’s a
kind of stealth polyphony.

One reason that Brahms is such a model for me is the way he straddles two epochs. He was a master of counterpoint,
with its strict rules, yet his music expresses ardent, immediate emotion that we associate with the free flights of ro-
manticism. The Sturm und Drang in his music is tempered by the rigor of its structure. He is fully a child of his time, yet
reached back to an earlier epoch for inspiration. Bach’s music was the apotheosis of that epoch. Page 3
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The expression of self-conscious irony in the music of Beethoven, Brahms’s more immediate predecessor, heralded
more than just the Romantic period of classical music that ensued. It was nothing less than a musical response to the
onset of modernity itself. Irony, taken here simply as the condition that arises when an object is placed in an opposing
context, has no place in Bach’s great fugues, where there is never any question of context in each single voice. Each
voice in the fugue can stand alone, yet is always in the service of the greater whole. To follow Hegel, the particular is
subsumed in the universal. By the time Brahms came along, this relationship had already been fractured. The rupture
had taken place at least two musical generations earlier. One could argue that it began before Romanticism in the High
Classicism of a composer like Haydn. If Haydn’s greatest works epitomized symmetry and order, they often contained
ironic comments on that order, in the form of musical practical jokes.

Brahms reached back one generation further past this worldly conceit of Classicism, to the music of Bach. Bach’s music
did not pale in comparison to his predecessors because it lacked an ironic stance; on the contrary, he is like Shake-
speare in that one can listen to his music and say, this whole genre could have stopped here and would seem complete;
nothing need follow. Some of Brahms’s critics saw the way in which he incorporated Baroque gestures—sometimes
more overtly, as in the final passacaglia movement of his last symphony, or the fugal sections of his German Requiem—
as stylistic backpedaling.

Yet it gives Brahms’s music its multidimensional character: The Clarinet Quintet is one of his most unapologetically
romantic works, rife with soaring melodies, gypsy-spirited cadenzas from the clarinet, and almost Wagnerian harmony
at times. At the same time, in its formal coherency, compositional economy, and attention to contrapuntal detail, it
speaks to us with an arresting austerity. Temperance, in this quintet as in so much of Brahms’s music, is still seen as a
virtue. Amidst the emotional abandon of the musical content, its very structure points to an order that is immutable. The
structure doesn’t take away from the emotional impact; it boosts it. The musical representation of structure and order is
necessarily viewed from a distance, the distance of time between Brahms’s own epoch and Bach’s.

The felt distance gives Brahms’s music a two-tiered aspect. Often, the emotional effect—for me at least—is a cathartic
feeling of tragedy and grace: the tragic impossibility of meeting with that non-ironic orderliness again, as a condition of
modernity; and grace in the evidence that order nevertheless prevails even if it has distanced itself from us, as a salve for
the meaninglessness that surrounds us. The teleological argument put forth in Bach’s music in his own time was a given:
it posited an ultimate order to everything and answered with its own order; it was a manifestation of God’s perfection
and was easily understood as such in Bach’s own time, especially in the church where the music was often presented.
Brahms’s music, written around the time that Nietzsche pronounced the Death of God, was no mere nostalgic Rückblick;
it was an act of defiance, a bold gambit in which he raised the stakes for himself. With all its romantic outpouring, his
music still conveys its own kind of teleology in its very architecture.

If Brahms is a hero of mine because he straddles different epochs, how could one straddle two different epochs in
the context of jazz composition and improvisation? What could a jazz musician, for example, take from someone like

If we go back to that same passage of the Clarinet Quintet, it is also instructive to look at it vertically—to look at the har-
mony more as chords that sit under the melody—here reduced to a piano score: Page 4
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Fig. 3 Piano reduction of fig. 2

The chord symbols above the staff are the kinds that are used in jazz. They are all a soloist would need to improvise
on the music here. Or are they? In this piano reduction, the rich inner voice movement of the viola and second violin—
Brahms’s stealth polyphony—has been swabbed away, and what’s left are the tones that act as “pivot points” within the
figuration. These notes are pivots because of their strong triadic harmonic implication. With the exception of indicating a
mode, which is less common, jazz chord symbols generally designate chords that begin as triads and then expand from
there; thus the necessity of a reduction.

The primary limitation of this triad-based system of harmonic nomenclature is that it does not effectively account for
inner voice movement—for all that great stuff between each chord. In figure three, the beautiful figuration in the inner
voices is gone, and with it, much of the character of the composition. For example, we’ve forfeited the chromatic de-
scent of the viola as it dips down to an F natural on its second note, seen in the original score in figure two. That mere
stepwise motion in the first moments of the movement adds piquancy and color to the first two bars; take it away and
we’re left with a rather pedestrian series of plagal cadences that sound more like a Lutheran hymn. Would we not want to
go back and make a more detailed account of the passage in its original form, one that addresses the incompleteness of
the chord symbols in the above reduction? It would offer the improviser more material to solo on, and it would be more

It would not make for a richer improvising experience, though; in fact, it would hinder a jazz soloist, and this is the rub:
The more specified the inner voice movement becomes, the less room the soloist has to truly improvise. With each chord
symbol, his actions become more dictated, his musical choices become more spelled out, and his freedom to make
spontaneous musical decisions is increasingly usurped. As a hypothetical example, we need only illustrate the first bar of
the Brahms in unreduced form, with chord symbols that attempt to address the melodic voice-leading in the score. We
quickly see why it doesn’t work:

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Fig. 4 Jazz notation of fig. 2, m. 1

It looks like a nightmare on the page—I’ve added arrows to show which symbol corresponds with which chord—and it is
not possible to address all that information in real time. Furthermore, consider the harmonic implication of the sixth chord
symbol, and the accompanying sounding notes that form its chord, both highlighted. This symbol for the E diminished
triad, suspended over the cello’s tonic pedal point on the B, does not account for the clarinet’s melody note of D sharp
that so beautifully suspends the tonic major mode over the other voices. The three middle voices do convey an E dimin-
ished triad, yet there is also an E minor chord when we pair two of them with the low B of the cello. There are several
different ways to spell this with our chord symbols, yet none of them will be completely accurate, and all of them will be
extraneous, because the music at this moment supersedes this kind of strictly triadic design.

As a jazz composer then, when we make a “chart” or “lead sheet,” we try to not fill up the page with those symbols in
such a way that the chart is too dense, if it is to remain viable as a vehicle for improvisation. That is all well and good for
the soloist, but by implication, it restricts the composer, most notably by discouraging the kind of melodic inner voice
movement we see in the Brahms. The upshot of that is a form of composition with several potential limitations.

In general terms, the ideally open-ended quality of this kind of harmonic indication used in jazz paradoxically contributes
to a certain stylistic homogeneity: namely, we hear the harmony that works most effectively with these chord symbols.
Secondly, another phenomenon in jazz is the existence of a homogenized set of voicings that musicians playing chordal
instruments use behind the soloist, or during their own solo. Finally, the necessarily vertical nature of the harmony in this
system has led, through the years, to a whole school of piano playing that does not address voice leading—the melodic
implication of each chord tone, from one to the next. Again, I don’t wish to say that these observations point to a poverty
in the music itself per se, but to a tendency inherent in the method of expression.

In this appraisal, then, a preexisting fugal texture, as seen in the Bach, which prizes the simultaneous melodic activity of
all the voices, offers the antithesis of harmonic freedom for an improviser to the extent that everything is already mapped Page 6
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out. It is redundant and ineffective to write out jazz chord symbols for such music. This is why classical music often does
not lend itself to jazz improvisation. Trying to use a preexisting contrapuntal format as a vehicle for improvisation is like
serving a steak with a big scoop of ice cream on top of it; it is adding to something that is already effectively complete.

Jazz improvisation that involves harmony, then, often favors a chordal texture, and the chords that are provided have a
shorthand nature. The harmony is thought of vertically: In the jazz vernacular, a soloist is said to be “blowing over” or
“on” the chords, and it’s a useful visual metaphor in seeing how the melodic content of the solo sits apart from those
chords, on its own platform. The more shorthand those chord symbols are, the more freedom the soloist and the ac-
companying rhythm section have to fill them out and collectively improvise together. Songs that everyone knows and
that form a loose canon of readily available vehicles for improvisation in a variety of contexts become standards because
they lend themselves to this format most readily. They are, more often than not, simple in design.

To say that a jazz composition is simple is by no means pejorative; on the contrary, simplicity is treasured, but it is sim-
plicity of a specific nature: the simplicity of the material that is used for improvisation. Write all the idiosyncratic melody
you want for your initial melody, but if the harmony that lies under it is simple enough, you’ll never alienate the other
people who play your tune when it comes time to improvise.

One of the greatest examples of this phenomenon, and one of my compositional heroes in jazz music, is Thelonious
Monk. The melody on Monk’s “Evidence,” for example, is a profound study in rhythmic displacement. Here are the first
eight bars:

Fig. 5 Thelonious Monk, “Evidence,” excerpt

Indeed, we almost need another name than melody here; it is more like the remaining broken shards of a melody that
once existed. They are sparse, and land in what seem to be random, wrong-sounding places within the rhythmic me-
ter. But after hearing the melody a few times, we realize that the melody has its own internal logic: it’s as if it’s set to a
different meter than that of the existing 4/4, and the notes fall across the bar line on a separate tier that is nevertheless
conjoined with the actual meter, albeit in an extremely syncopated manner.

Monk wrote some of the most ingeniously idiosyncratic melodies that were ever written in any genre of music, and within
the jazz canon, they are also some of the more challenging ones to execute convincingly. “Evidence” is a particularly
tricky head in terms of its rhythm; another example is “Trinkle Trinkle,” which might be the most supremely difficult essay
of Monk’s. Yet his melodies are often grounded in simple harmony. (This is not always the case, of course, but Monk
the harmonist, on tunes like “Pannonica” or “Monk’s Mood,” is a whole other subject.) The harmony of “Evidence,” for Page 7
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instance, is derived from “Just You, Just Me,” a popular song with facile harmony, written by Jesse Greer in the 1930s.
Although the melody is unique to Monk, once we get to the improvisation, the chords that are blown over are well within
the normative range of jazz—any musician with an understanding of functional harmony will be able to play something
that corresponds with them; whether or not it sounds good does not rest on the chords themselves.

So we’re on common ground once the improvisation starts. Or are we? Let’s say that “Evidence” is played at a jam ses-
sion, for instance. After everyone gets through the tricky head and breathes a collective sigh of relief, the trumpet player
takes the first solo and does a Miles Davis-circa-1958 approach. The tenor saxophonist follows with a Wayne Shorter-
circa-1963 thing. The pianist follows with a mix of Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner. It all works, but Monk’s music
brings up a common dilemma in jazz: How much should the improviser address the tune? Is it okay to just get through
the melody and then start playing your own grab bag of licks once the soloing starts? That approach may work well
enough on a jazz standard like “Autumn Leaves,” but a Monk tune seems to ask more of the soloist, because what has
just taken place on the head is so striking and full of meaning.

Here we’ve come back to the question of irony again, played out in a typical problematic scenario in jazz. The various
styles that the soloists call on in that hypothetical Monk situation seem to step outside of the context of the composition.
The question is whether this might constitute an aesthetic flaw. It would be troubling if it did, because you could argue
that there is an ironic aspect to the whole phenomenon of normative jazz improvisation: When a player blows on a tune,
he or she is commenting on that tune, removing himself from the original object, and, to varying extents, looking at it
from a distance.
To me, the success of an improvisation depends not on how well it fits into the given context of the composition—after
all, we don’t necessarily want to hear someone try to imitate Monk when playing a Monk tune. The success depends
more on how much the solo transcends the context of the tune, making us forget about the whole question of context
in the first place. That will rest ultimately on the fantasy and originality of the individual soloist. The aesthetic poverty of
many jam sessions rests on a kind of weak irony: The players are completely out of context with each other, each playing
his or her own bag, but that’s not by design; it’s just because they’re all playing what they already know, and what they
know comes from an arbitrary variety of musical sources. That shouldn’t suggest that one should address a given style
in jazz in one’s solos—that you should play like Johnny Hodges if you’re an alto saxophonist playing a Duke Ellington
composition. To hold such a strategy up as a rule is to essentially give up improvising.

So the way to escape the problem of context is to create your own context. But how? It’s hard to be original as a com-
poser in jazz; maybe it’s even harder to be an original soloist. It’s instructive to look at the way Monk fused his writing
and his improvising together. The content of his melodies became fodder for his own solos; his solo vocabulary was
not derived from fundamentally different stuff than that of his compositions. This might seem obvious and not worthy of
mention; after all, riffing on the melody is one way in which jazz improvisation began to flower in its early stages. Monk
was onto something else, though, and it involves the actual development of themes during his solo. By development,
I mean that the musical content unfolds with a narrative logic; each idea springs from the previous one. This is already
taking place in the initial written melody before Monk even solos, like in the first eight bars of the melody in “I Mean You”:

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Fig. 6 Thelonious Monk, “I Mean You,” excerpt

The last three notes of the opening phrase are immediately developed before Monk goes any further. They act like a tail
that has been cut off and changes its shape. In bar three, the order of the three notes is changed, and one interval is di-
minished. In bar four, continuing the thread of chromatic alteration, the whole “tail” shifts upward a half step, the rhythm
is changed, and a note is added. Whenever something is added, it always expands directly from what has preceded it. In
fact, this three-note motif that seems to spring from the last part of the opening phrase already has an earlier origin: the
very first three notes of the tune—F, D, and C—respectively, from which so much intervallic material is derived through-
out the course of the melody.

The way in which this organic development continues during Monk’s solo suggests that when a song has a deeply em-
bedded architecture like that of “I Mean You,” it will lend itself to formally richer solos, but only if the soloist is aware of
the architecture and wishes to comment on it. When the composer is also the improviser, as is the case here, it’s a done
deal. In this way, Monk has created his own context and there is no discrepancy between the composition and the im-
provisation. I make a lot out of this because Monk pointed a way for me through the challenge I mentioned at the begin-
ning of these notes—the integration of composed and improvised material, as a jazz musician playing your own tunes.
I take my cue from his method throughout this record to varying degrees, by incorporating the thematic material of my
tunes into my solos in a variety of ways. Monk, like Bach in his time, managed to break through that dialectic of musical
form and content. The two become one fused entity: The musical content of the initial melody becomes formal when it is
used throughout the duration of the solo. It is no mere performative utterance; it is more architectural in nature. Monk set
the bar for an approach to improvisation in which form itself becomes an expressive means.

The most immediate method of resolving the vagaries of context that I’ve discussed above is to have your own band,
and I’d like to close with a few comments about that. Playing with Larry Grenadier and Jorge Rossy gave me a strong
yet malleable context in which to write this music, and was an incredibly rewarding experience. I imagined them playing
the music here as I was writing it, and the character of this music is determined to a large extent by their approach. For
instance, “August Ending” or “Backyard” were viable for me because of a way that Jorge had, completely unique to him,
of playing on them. On these tunes, I state the harmony under my melody as a constant stream of eighth notes, instead
of the more typical approach of using punctuated chords. This thick texture of the piano part runs the risk of usurping
the role of the drums. It is traditionally the drums that will provide a constant stream of rhythm within a band, yet there I
am already playing eighth notes all the time. Jorge found a way of merging with what I was doing that gave these kind of
tunes their particular shape and buoyancy. His drumming gave a flow to the music and kept the piano part from sound-
ing too much like an opaque blanket that covered the whole sound by locking it into a fixed schema, and the looseness
of his feel kept the whole thing from sounding fusion-like in a bad way. Jorge always managed to play free from a fixed Page 9
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repeated pattern, yet still with a deeply felt sense of the architecture of whatever tune we were playing.

This relates to one of the big challenges in jazz composition for me that I mentioned earlier: to not write too much, or
not write in such a way that there is no longer room to improvise fluently. This became less of an issue from playing with
Larry and Jorge for a long period of time: They both found ways to express themselves fully in the music, in part because
the music was written with them in mind, and this allowed me to write more than I would in a comparatively generic jazz
format. Another example of this “over-writing” is in the piano part of “Boomer.” The head of the tune was written out
fairly explicitly; here are the first few bars:

Fig. 7 Brad Mehldau, “Boomer,” excerpt

This kind of figuration in the left hand, that also appears at the ending coda section of “Waiting for Eden,” is my attempt
at that stealth polyphony of Brahms in a jazz improvisational context: it supplies the harmonic information that underpins
the melodic content of the right hand, yet has a melodic flow in the stepwise movement of the sixteenth notes. As we
played this tune and it developed in performance, I opted to keep the written left-hand figure as part of the solo section
for roughly the first six or seven bars, blowing over it, before moving to a more chordal approach in the left hand for the
remainder of the chorus; that’s the approach we take here. Throughout the record, there are compromises of this sort,
where a provisional balance between the written material and the improvised sections is reached. It calls for a different
strategy on each tune—on “Bealtine” or “Fear and Trembling,” for example, there is less actual written material than in
“August Ending” or “Boomer”; consequently, the approach that the three of us collectively take is less idiosyncratic. The
more that is written out, as a rule, the more idiosyncratic the approach becomes.

In these notes, I’ve tried to demonstrate some of the currents of thought that shaped the music here, informed by jazz
heroes of mine like Thelonious Monk, Western classical music, and, of course, the most immediately felt presence of
Larry and Jorge as we played together for several years. I hope that the listener enjoys this record as a time capsule
of sorts. In my view, it represents a point that I reached with regard to composition, where several streams of influence
coalesced into a broadly identifiable style that I would cautiously call my own. Finally, it also represents for me the apex
of what Larry, Jorge, and I achieved together as a band.

– Brad Mehldau, March 2006 Page 10
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Brad Mehldau Reneé Fleming

A Love Sublime

The Book of Hours: Love Poems to God is a set of early poems written by Rainer Maria Rilke in his early twenties that,
fittingly, speak with a younger voice than does his mature work. In a later set of poems like The Duino Elegies, there is,
at times, a majestic resignation or a sense of having overcome some great struggle. In contrast, The Book of Hours can
impart a feeling of inner strife and unresolved conflict.

The original title of The Book of Hours was simply Gebete—prayers. Rilke struggles to reconcile two strong, opposing
impulses in these poems. On the one hand, there is a deep desire for an authentic religious experience, and on the other
hand, there is a profound enmity toward the dogmatic, patriarchal entity that is often bound with that same experience.
Rilke is seeking out a relationship with God, but that word, “God,” signifies anguish and folly—manmade folly—for him at
the same time.

The seven poems that I have selected hone in on the questioning, difficult nature of Rilke’s meditation, and the striving
intensity of his experience, with its extremes of ecstasy and turmoil. These poems are the testament of a young person’s
evolving spirituality, and they speak to the ambivalence that many of us experience as we question and formulate our be-
liefs. But this particular young person eventually wrote poems that in all their wisdom and grace impart an almost sacred
authority. So we listen closely to Rilke’s youthful voice.

Rilke expresses his ambiguity by varying the way he addresses God throughout these poems. At times, he speaks
directly to Him as one would to another person, as in, “Your first word was light,” which I chose to begin the set. In that
poem, the familiarity with which the poet addresses his omnipotent Creator is striking, as is the sense of foreboding he
conveys. Rilke doesn’t trust the “Word” of God, and he chides God for it, but is he in fact speaking to a deity, or is he
addressing man, who has used that Word to justify all sorts of folly?

In “His caring is a nightmare to us,” by contrast, God is spoken about in the third person. He is hopelessly far away,
and Rilke cannot reach Him at all. Again, the problem is people and what they do with God’s words: they “only half hear
them.” God’s third-person status here, and the distance and misunderstanding between Him and us that Rilke conveys,
suggest Gnosticism, with its idea that our judging, fatherly God is in fact an impostor, and that our prayers to him are in
vain. A Gnostic strain can be felt throughout The Book of Hours.

These poems came shortly after Rilke’s return from a Russian monastery, where he had been for some weeks. He clearly
cherished the solitude, and we feel his aloneness in these poems. He is not afraid of confronting his own pain in that
solitude; in fact, he welcomes it. “I love the dark hours of my being,” he explains, because of what that dark period yields
when he surrenders to it: “Then the knowing comes: I can open / to another life that’s wide and timeless.” There, Rilke
alludes to a kind of gnosis—a grasping of some deeper truth that is not available to us in everyday reality, a knowledge
that he is granted by simply being ready and unafraid.

Throughout these poems, Rilke sometimes hovers around the periphery of that experience, sketching its contours for us.
In “The hour is striking so close above me,” the mere potentiality of gnosis is the subject. The gnosis itself becomes the
Godhead for the poet at these points: a moment of grace, maybe only fleeting. In that holy moment, for Rilke, “…there’s
a power in me / to grasp and give shape to my world.” God is viewed in yet another light here. Rilke has abandoned the
dualism of himself and a God that stands apart from him; rather, he suggests, we form God within ourselves in a
perpetual act of creativity. Page 1
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A Love Sublime

In spite of his deep humanism and his palpable distrust of organized religion and its accompanying dogma, Rilke never
shies away from a genuinely religious experience, that is, one in which he will lose himself completely. In “Extinguish my
eyes, I’ll go on seeing you,” there’s no trace of ambivalence in Rilke’s devotion; he is ready for anything, even if it means
his own immolation. I chose this poem to come last because it directly expresses the passion that lies within all of these
poems. That passion is nothing less than a thirst for God.

Renée Fleming introduced me to the 20th-century American poet Louise Bogan. The three poems from Bogan that I
have set come from The Blue Estuaries, a collection she compiled herself toward the end of her life as a retrospective of
her strongest work from 1923 to 1968. Even on its own, her poetry seems musical to me: simply reading the lilting iambic
tetrameter of “A Tale,” for example, suggests song. Often, Bogan favors words with only one syllable, giving the rhyth-
mic placement of the individual syllabic sounds greater significance. The strict economy of Bogan’s language is sharply
contrasted by the dense amount of actual content that is communicated. The poems are full of finely wrought ideas and
emotions that may be multilayered and full of contradictions, but the austere beauty of the meter and the word choice
make the complexity poignant. “Tears in Sleep” in particular illustrates this constant divergence in sound and sentiment
that marks her style.

The subjective immediacy and emotional ambivalence of the narrator in a poem like “Tears in Sleep” are unmistakably
modern, yet Bogan’s mastery of meter and rhyme and the formal economy of her poems reveal a deep grasp of tradition.
Likewise, my musical settings are unified by traditional formal gestures. Each has a short piano introduction before the
vocal entrance, and brief piano interludes comment on each stanza; or, in the case of “Tears in Sleep,” I split the poem
into three-line sections. This gives the songs a strophic aspect—“Memory” being the most literally strophic with three
verses and a coda. “A Tale” alters and develops the material of the opening stanza throughout the song and is the most
expansive of the three, following the contours of the heroic sonnet form of the poem, with its “break” between the third
and fourth stanzas.

One starting point for finding the rhythm of the vocal phrases in both sets of songs was to imagine them being spoken.
In particular, the free verse of Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy’s simply rendered Rilke translations has a conversational
aspect. I “talked out” all the poems before and during the composition, speaking them myself, applying the rhythms of
natural speech to the vocal line.

Often in these pieces, I have made the piano part dense, favoring the lower register of the instrument. Writing in the
lower register of the piano appealed to me sonically because of the way the high soprano voice and the piano then cover
such a broad range: for example, the distance between voice and piano is exploited on “Extinguish My Eyes” to convey
the extremity of Rilke’s words.

My deep love of the genre of art song informs everything I wrote here. Other sources of inspiration, specifically for the
rhythmic phrasing of the vocal line, came from singers that I admire who are not beholden to a literal interpretation of a
music text. In their partially improvised performances, much of their style is determined by rhythmic displacement—by
the way a particular singer’s phrases begin, unfold, and end ahead or behind the expected, metrically “correct” place
in time. Translating an improvisatory style of singing to paper was appealing to me, precisely because I’ve left nothing
to chance and there is no improvisation involved. I was able to take advantage of the written-out aspect of a full-scale
composition to elaborate with a fair degree of specificity on some of the vocal styles I grew up listening to, performances
where the melody was never so specifically written out. Page 2
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A Love Sublime

“Love Sublime,” is the one exception, and we used a chart, or lead sheet, more commonly found in jazz or pop music,
where the melody, lyrics and chord symbols are given, and the rest is fleshed out in the performance. (It would be disin-
genuous, though, to say that my piano part here was simply off the cuff: particularly in my solo passage that restates the
melody, I’m roughly following an arrangement that has been under my fingers for a few years now.) This song originally
had no words and appeared on a record of mine called Places, under the original title of “Paris.” My wife, the singer and
lyricist Fleurine, wrote the lyrics here and gave the song new meaning for me. Here, the rhythmic looseness of Renée’s
phrasing is all her own; her ease in this kind of setting is a testament to her experience with jazz singing. Having said
that, “Love Sublime” takes its cue more from 19th-century music, and out of all the songs here, wears its influences
most overtly. It is my tribute of sorts to art song as a genre, and to everything that I’ve absorbed and love about that
mode of musical expression.

– Brad Mehldau Page 3
Brad Mehldau Writing

Brad Mehldau Reneé Fleming

Love Sublime

Seven Songs from Rainer Maria Rilke’s

“The Book of Hours: Love Poems to God”

English translation by Anita Barrows and Joanna R. Macy

I, 44

Your first word was light,

and time began. Then for long you were silent.

Your second word was man, and fear began,

which grips us still.

Are you about to speak again?

I don’t want your third word.

Sometimes I pray: Please don’t talk.

Let all your doing be by gesture only.
Go on writing in faces and stone
what your silence means.

You be our refuge from the wrath

that drove us out of Paradise.

Be our Shepard, but never call us ─

We can’t bear to know what’s ahead.

I, 1

The hour is striking so close above me,

so clear and sharp,
that all my senses ring with it.
I feel it now: there’s a power in me
to grasp and give shape to my world.

I know that nothing has ever been real

without my beholding it.
All becoming has needed me.
My looking ripens things
And they come toward me, to meet and be met. Page 1
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Love Sublime

I, 5

I love the dark hours of my being.

My mind deepens into them.
There I can find, as in old letters,
the days of my life, already lived,
and held like a legend, and understood.

Then the knowing comes: I can open

to another life that’s wide and timeless.

So I am sometimes like a tree

rustling over a gravesite
and making real the dream
of the one its living roots

a dream once lost

among sorrows and songs.

I, 25

I love you, gentlest of Ways

who ripened us as we wrestled with you.

You, the great homesickness we could never shake

you, the forest that always surrounded us,

you, the song we sang in every silence,

you dark net threading through us,

on the day you made us you created yourself,

and we grew sturdy in your sunlight…

Let your hand rest on the rim of Heaven now

And mutely bear the darkness we bring over you.

II, 11

No one lives his life.

Disguised since childhood,

Haphazardly assembled Page 2
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Love Sublime

From voices and fears and little pleasures,

We come of age as masks.

Our true face never speaks.

Somewhere there must be storehouses

where all these lives are laid away
like suits of armor or old carriages
or clothes hanging limply on the walls.

Maybe all paths lead there,

to the repository of unlived things.

II, 6

His caring is a nightmare to us,

and his voice a stone.

We would like to heed his words,

but we only half hear them.
The big drama between us
Makes too much noise
for us to understand each other.

We watch his lips moving,

shaping sounds that die away.
We feel endlessly distant,
though we are endlessly bound by love.
Only when we notice that he is dying
do we know he lived.

II, 7

Extinguish my eyes, I’ll go on seeing you.

Seal my ears, I’ll go on hearing you.
And without feet I can make my way to you,
without a mouth I can swear your name.
Break off my arms, I’ll take hold of you
with my heart as with a hand.
Stop my heart, and my brain will start to beat.
And if you consume my brain with fire,

I’ll feel you burn in every drop of my blood. Page 3
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Love Sublime

Three Songs from Louise Bogan’s “The Blue Estuaries”

Tears in Sleep

All night the cocks crew, under a moon like day,

And I, in the cage of sleep, on a stranger’s breast,
Shed tears, like a task not to be put away –
In the false light, false grief in my happy bed,
A labor of tears, set against joy’s undoing.
I would not wake at your word, I had tears to say.
I clung to the bars of the dream and they were said,
And pain’s derisive hand had given me rest
From the night giving off flames, and the dark renewing.


Do not guard this as rich stuff without mark

Closed in a cedarn dark,
Nor lay it down with tragic masks and greaves,
Licked by the tongues of leaves.

Nor let it be as eggs under the wings

Of helpless, startled things,
Nor encompassed by songs, nor any glory
Perverse and transitory.

Rather, like shards and straw upon coarse ground,

Of little worth when found,–
Rubble in gardens, it and stones alike,
That any spade may strike.

A Tale

This youth too long has heard the break

Of waters in a land of change.
He goes to see what suns can make
From soil more indurate and strange.

He cuts what holds his days together

And shuts him in, as lock on lock:
The arrowed vane announcing weather,
The tripping racket of a clock; Page 4
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Love Sublime

Seeking, I think, a light that waits

Still as a lamp upon a shelf,–
A land with hills like rocky gates
Where no sea leaps upon itself.

But he will find that nothing dares

To be enduring, save where, south
Of hidden deserts, torn fire glares
On beautry with a rusted mouth,–

Where something dreadful and another

Look quietly upon each other.

Love Sublime - Words by Fleurine

Take me by the hand, we’ll go –

into dreamlike space.
No one else will find us there,
We’re in our secret place…
Weightlessly I’ll dance with you
the oldest dance –
Love sublime.

You will find no tomorrow there

nor a yesterday.
Free from time we’ll spread our wings
and lit with love, I’ll fly with you...
Die close to you.

Words by FleurineII, 11 Page 5
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Elegiac Cylce

Vita Brevis Ars Longa

One of the qualities of art that attracted me initially was its seemingly mystical ability to raise up the everyday experience
of life and transfigure it, give it beauty. Being exposed to new music, literature, and the like was never a discovery for me.
On the contrary, it was always a confirmation of something shared between myself and its creator, an overlap of senti-
ments, if you will. But a novel, a piece of music, a painting, would go one step further, a crucial step: It would nurture and
embrace this sentiment, no matter how unappealing it might be, and give it a facelift or two, using all the trickery and
witchcraft of its medium. This process is explained by Thomas Mann’s character, Tonio Kröger, who gives us a rather
fatalistic dictum: “The artist must be unhuman, extra-human; he must stand in a queer aloof relationship to our human-
ity; only so is he in a represent it, to present it, to portray it to good effect. The very gift of style, of form and
expression is nothing more than this cool and fastidious attitude towards humanity ... For sound natural feeling, say what
you like, has no taste.”

Art seems to say to its recipient, “This is what you are, I understand.” Thus an acknowledgment, and kinship. Because of
this commonality, a breaking of bread takes place between artist and beholder - at once a sacrament and a celebration.
Again, from a tender age, there was a mystical feeling to all of this for me: I got to partake in a communion with some-
one who might have been dead for centuries! To use a vague catch-word, art was the first evidence I had of something
spiritual, in the sense that its essence is invisible, ungraspable, non-perishable: eternal. Another Thomas, the historian
Carlyle, said: “Nothing that was worthy in the past departs; no truth or goodness realized by man ever dies, or can die.”
Evidence of the indestructible quality of “truth or goodness” in art is more than a matter of posterity. It’s a comforting
knowledge, one that I carry in a world where nothing around me seems permanent.

Human Condition 101. Perhaps the most commonplace everyday experience of life is: death, in all its manifestations. On
a deep, inner level, there is a fear of our own end, that paradoxically drives us to live and create. There are the deaths
of loved ones, taken away without our consent. Death is a metaphor - end of a relationship, leaving a city you lived in
for years, losing a job, giving a garage sale, throwing away your favorite shoes that have had it. Or, willful deaths - when
you’ve got to part with something you love because it’s the very thing that’s killing you. Worst of all, maybe, is the death
of hope: resignation.

I’ve always been attracted to elegiac works of art, that mourn so many kinds of loss, from the most profound to the most
prosaic death of them all - what the French aptly call “la petite mort.” There are concrete examples that clearly mourn the
loss of a person or people: Musical compositions like Charles Mingus’ “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” or John Coltrane’s
“Alabama.” But there are so many works that aren’t elegies proper, yet are elegiac in character. Much of Brahms’ late
music, for example. Often, we find an elegiac strain in the late period of any artist’s output: the poignancy of Bill Evans’
1977 rendition of “You Must Believe in Spring” or Chet Baker’s achingly ironic late take on “Blame It On My Youth.”
Laments-lamenting the loss of springtime and youth.

In literature as well, an elegiac strain is often apparent, objectified, lamenting the death of a cultural epoch: Thomas
Mann’s Gustav Aschenbach symbolically mourns the death of romanticism in ‘Death In Venice’, and in his ‘Doctor
Faustus’, the protagonist/composer Adrian Leverkühn loses his soul to the devil in order to create modern music – Page 1
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Elegiac Cylce

a metaphoric elegy on Germany’s loss of innocence as a nation after the second World War. In post-war America, writers
like Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs discerned that America had sold her soul as well
- to a corporate Mephistopheles, ruler of an icy Cold-War hell. And they mourned - at times ecstatically - America’s loss
of naiveté.

Sick Of Irony
Elegies...Romanticism...bygone days...obsession on the past, throwbackism? If that’s the case, I’m not alone. To be sure,
I’m a child of my time - us Gen-Xers glom onto the cheddary residue of our recent past with a glee that’s more than
a little suspect. “Gone but not forgotten,” we say with irony (alas, always with irony), “are the days of disco....” Andy
Warhol is our Oscar Wilde, our trickster-moralist who told us that it’s all about 15 minutes of fame. Did we catch his
irony? What arises often is a kind of phony immortality, a parody on the very idea. All well and good as long as we don’t
miss the joke in all that. Parody, pastiche, self-conscious irony layered on top of irony in a movie that knows it’s a movie
that knows it’s a movie...these are the tools we use to represent the world around us. Often, there’s a defeatist ring to all
this - “What’s left? Why bother? Who cares?” In Mann’s Doctor Faustus, with grim humor, the devil gives the composer
Leverkühn these words of sarcastic wisdom: “Convince yourself that the tedious has become interesting because the
interesting has become tedious.” This potentially defeatist outlook on any current creative enterprise is to me nothing
more than the legacy of Romanticism. When folks became enlightened, art followed suit. No longer at the service of
church or state, Beethoven created Wilde’s “Art for Art’s Sake.” Observing this autonomy, Beethoven’s contemporaries
Frederich Schlegel and Novalis noted that now art had the ability to comment on itself, and called this phenomenon
Romantic Irony. Whatever Postmodernism may be, in artistic matters it seems to be just this: a kind of sickness of our
endless commentary within the work, on the work. We’ve grown weary of our ironies...”Enough!”

Has music “suffered”? By my definition, music itself can’t “suffer”; that’s a false personification of something which is
truly immortal. But our perception of it has perhaps been blurred by all the commodities at our disposal. We’ve seen the
advent of sampling: Take a funky beat from a ‘70s LP, blow some licks over it, and you’ve got Acid Jazz. Why bother to
get a real drummer who can lay down a groove? Every groove is at our disposal already.... The problem with all these
hybrids is that they’re so impermanent: Like the technology that spawns them, they’re gone with the blink of an eye.
We always return to the original. It didn’t take long to figure out that Acid Jazz was just bad Funk. The ever shorter and
shorter life span of each trend perpetuates a sentiment that’s characteristic of some of our jazz critics these days: a
fetishistic obsession with “Masters.” To be a Master you must do one or more of the following: A.) Imply, with the help
of Yes-Men, that you are nothing short of a Messiah; B.) Rise from prolonged, unexplainable obscurity; C.) Have a good
portion of your work recorded before 1965; D.) Die.

To speak of creating anything “timeless” today has a whiff of ludicrous naiveté. Bad faith like that is easy to understand.
The phony immortality that the media presents us with is impermanent in the worst sense. It hard-sells us a bill of goods
and cynically pre-writes our emotional response, giving an illusory sense of closure. This dupes us into buying the next
flavor of the week. A typically frightening example of this kind of tyranny is soundtrack music on real-world news events
being reported. Used for the hard sell like this, Romantic Irony becomes a twisted off-spring of itself. It says, “We’ll do
the commenting for you, just stay nice and dumbed-down.” And the comment is interchangeable whether it’s Desert
Storm or flavored coffee. When our experiences become commodified, in a profound sense we’re no longer experiencing
anything at all. “Experience” implies that the event will stay in our memory, and the sum of these events will shape our
understanding of the world. But this is all about forgetting, denying. So count me out of “The Information Age.” To deify
information is to pray to a legless stump - fetishism, nothing more. Page 2
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Elegiac Cylce

The media has manufactured a demented cult of youth, staging festivals of bad faith that culminate in sacrificial killings.
It clings to an image of the young while at the same time leaving a trap-door close by. Everything has an expiration date
and the spin doctors have us channel-surfing in a bleary haze of memory loss. All this can have a sad, tragic effect: It
distracts us from our mortality.

Alas - life is short, art is long. Great music packs a primordial punch. And when the wind is knocked out of you, some-
thing great takes place: You get to feel your own mortality. The role of time is crucial. Music doesn’t just represent time,
it moves through time, and the listener experiences that passing. What’s the feeling? That tingling in your stomach, that
sweet ache in your gut, that tickly weakness that creeps over the body when you’re pulled into the music? It’s a kind of
death-feeling, in a place where ecstasy and mortality-fear overlap. Rilke told us in one of his elegies that our perception
of beauty is just the beginning of terror.... The process of improvisation is a kind of affirmation of mortality: Even in the
moment you’re creating something, it’s already gone forever, and that’s precisely its strength. Improvisation would seem
to solve the problem of death by constantly dying as it’s being born. It scoffs at loss, and revels in its own transience.

Whether music is improvised or written, it has the ability, in its time-bound fashion, to play on our memory. In matters
of form, the closest models for my elegiac effort are the memory-music of late Beethoven and Schumann, works that
are cyclical. A theme that appears in the beginning is referred to and developed through time, until it comes back to us,
transfigured. What we gain is two-fold: the experience that time grants us, and the comfort of something ineluctable that
always returns despite our own transience. Amidst all its fractured ironies, art can still mirror the part of life that’s about
hope, faith. It says: Whatever feeling you may have that something’s ending forever is illusory. Everything cycles around
again and again - within a single day, within a cultural epoch, within a millennium. And what we gain each time through
propels us towards the Manifestation of God.

Dying, being remembered, music sings an elegy to itself, beautifying the “everyday” loss around us, showing us how
intimate we can be with death. So an elegy can have this purpose: To celebrate those very things that make us mortal.

– Brad Mehldau, 1999 Page 3
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Brad Mehldau Trio

Back At The Vanguard: Art Of The Trio (Volume 4)

I have a built in wariness towards the term ‘Renaissance’ applied to jazz music being played and recorded in recent
years. A resurgence of interest, perhaps took place, and a ‘renaissance’ of record sales. But should we really paste on
a normative historical term to a music that evades the burden of history? The act of improvisation is a perpetual birthing,
making a rebirth unnecessary. ‘America’s classical music’ doesn’t work either. I identify an American ethos in the
inception of jazz, if not in its present state (which hardly matters), but it has everything to do with not being classical.

Classical wasn’t called classical when it was being created. Someone came along after a point in time and lumped it all
under one term, implying as well that an ending had taken place. This in turn implied that anything after that wasn’t valid.
‘Classical’ is a term ripe for deconstruction: It defines itself by a symbiotic Other that belatedly doesn’t rise to its stature.
Its shaky legitimacy depends on a dreary nostaliga for a time when distinctions between the high arts and everything
else were more clear. A person with this kind of backward longing is blind to their own irony. They feel that they missed
an event that’s no longer possible, and with their head in these gray clouds, miss the present event. This lover of classics
will always miss his art object in frustration, because art can’t achieve high or classical sainthood until at least a couple
generations of posterity-testing. A dubious claim to jazz’s legitimacy is its own watery-eyed parody of this species: the
drunk at the bar who talks through the set, whining about how jazz will never be like it was in the days when Coltrane
played here, oblivious to the music taking place in front of him.

The American artistic ethos I would identify in jazz was, as a precondition, always quite removed from all that historical
gloom, and still is. It involves a perpetual newness, and freedom from a history, that, with all its old-age authority, tells
you that you’ll never be as great as it was, that you’re already defeated. America’s anti-legacy is pop. A seemingly in-
nocent term, ‘pop’ implies a disposable aspect, an unableness to reveal any timeless truths. The highbrow tells us that
pop’s non-profundity comes from a lack of autonomy in the criteria for its creationintegrity is sacrificed to make a buck.
If we look under that assertion just a bit, there’s a darker suggestion: That classical music, as high art, has a moral
authority over its subject. Many of us buy into this trope in spite of ourselves, and it can initially alienate the listener from
the work. Much of what we call classical was conceived in a subversive spirit. It wasn’t as much concerned with autono-
my from less noble interests of money and fame as it was freedom from the idea of any moral function in art at all. It’s an
irony of history, with its shifting perspectives, that classical music so often denotes a dominating, rule-making presence.

Classical music, pragmatically speaking, was often the pop music of its own day. Pop, since it earned its own term, has
often proved to be capable of staying power, not so disposable. Classical and pop as terms tell us nothing definitive
about the aesthetic success or failure of the music they refer to. It’s nobody’s fault. Words have a peculiar penchant for
deflating the sentiment out of any cognition, especially that of music. Language’s precondition is its own hierarchic
relation to whatever it’s attempting to name. It wins a phony victory in the very act of its failure, serving us a metaphor
that’s limited at best, arriving too late. Music is often understood as a way of speaking in the abstract, having the best
of both worlds as it were. Understanding music as a kind of utopian language is, alas, another trope of language,
contingent on its very rules. ‘Classical’ and ‘pop’ refer more to the supposed life expectancy, and less to the content, of
the actual music. They are often failed prophecies: What was initially called classic reveals itself as a pop anachronism;
what was conceived as pop cheats its origins and wins the bid for immortality.

I suspect that the attraction of jazz is that it ideally seeks to inhabit the best part of both of these worlds, and, brazenely,
moves beyond their limitations. Jazz inherits the Grand Narrative gestures of the classical legacy, in its commitment to Page 1
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Back At The Vanguard: Art Of The Trio (Volume 4)

giving the listener an experience that will enrich their lives permanently through the rigour of its craft, the organic integrity
of its shape and form. Yet it out-pops pop in its quick-willed active creation, which takes place in the improvisation. Jazz
musicians want to make the earth move now, they don’t want to interpret how someone else did it, and be told they’re
wrong. Again, there’s something initially American in that project: After a thorough ransacking, a gleeful egg-tossing at
the entire rule-list of Occidental music, in favor of a hit or miss attempt at a kind of quick-fix transcendance, to be felt
here and now, for the first (and maybe last) time.This is what I love about jazz more than anythingthe spirit in which it’s

A Renaissance means we already have to go to the museum to witness jazz’s ‘Antiquity,’ which is what so much con-
cert programming feels like these days. The listener is treated like a tourist, while curator-musicians guide them through
specific corridors of jazz history. To me, that smells of bad faith. Perhaps it’s an American self-conscious attempt to
ascribe a European legitimacy on jazz, the legitimacy of something already dead and enshrined under glass. If we’re in a
Renaissance, when exactly were the Dark Ages? The unspoken implication, of course, is the seventies, a time when jazz
succumbed to ‘lower’ influences like rock’n’roll, and infected itself with electric instruments. What jazz in fact was doing
was what it always had done: Taking leads from the pop music of its day, and re-animating the stylistic garment into
something transfigured, by the force of its composition and improvisation. This dark ages subtext perpetuates another
misreading of jazz’s short-lived history in the making: That acoustic music simply stopped until its supposed renais-
sance. Nothing could be less true, but this falsehood created a sort of lost generation of musicians, and again revealed
the essentially media-hyped nature of jazz’s phony renaissance. One could easily have had the impression that jazz was
a music played exclusively by the very young and very old. Thankfully, it seems like we’re emerging from this condition,
less indicative of musical quality, than of the general fetishistic feeding frenzy of the media on Youth, the commodity. As
a jazz musician of my generation , I have no pretense that the music presented here is part of some ‘return’ to the real
shit, because it’s piano trio, because it’s acoustic music. The Renaissance misconception is limiting to jazz because it
suggests that it already played itself out. It gives rise to a tired question like, “Can anything still be done with piano trio?”
False hope leads to its flipside, a backlash of cynicism, and I wouldn’t ever attempt to answer to either sentiment. An
endgame attitude towards jazz gives us a premature, peanut-sized parody of the entire western tradition in art. There’s
the familiar defeatist implication that the music degenerates over time, with a kind of Faustian inevitability, until it can be
redeemed, which presumably is taking place now. Jazz never lost itself, so a redemption isn’t necessary. The prelapsar-
ian myth of art as a fallen thing from some earlier grace-state is a vestige of high art criticism that jazz need not willfully
inherit. The Fall myth is usually less about art than it is a stapled on projection, a misplaced anxiety about the mortality of
the culture in which that art is created, which is in itself another evasion, fear of one’s own mortality.

The same American attitude made two radically different genres possible, that are certainly no longer exclusively Ameri-
can: really bad pop and really great jazz. It’s a flippping-the-bird at the whole notion of mortality. Maybe that’s partially
the no-fear attitude of a young culture. Hegel prophesized a death of art; in his old-school terms, Coltrane and the Spice
Girls start after that end in open-ended regions that have come to be called postmodern. They don’t aspire to a lineage
that will play itself out. Lineage as an idea played itself out, and willed its own critical death. We’re now in a swamp of
relativism artwise,which is fine with me, because the critical focus can be placed on the aesthetic. Pop engages in a kind
of harmless nihilism when it offers up a reconstituted nothingness that dies as quickly as a mosquito (if it was ever alive).
Jazz, in its most inspired moments, makes a kind of exalted fuck you to mortality in the flux of its improvisations. Jazz
improvisation isn’t born out of any previous text, which differentiates it from the interperative art of classical erformance.
Music texts are the Prospero’s Books of classical music. They insure a certain immortality. Part of the brazen quality of a
music that puts improvisation at its center is that it simply did not care enough to write a text, and that not caring
became its strength. I locate my personal aesthetic for jazz in that strength: It basks in the human capability to grab at
the transcendental with immediacy, free of the usual trial and error of art. Page 2
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Often, one says of a work by Beethoven, “Not one note could be changed.” It’s a retrospective feeling, a comment on
the music’s rich formal power. It’s critically useless, because no one’s going to change it. Nevertheless, when I listen to
Miles on ‘Kind of Blue,’I say, “Not one note could be changed.” To figure out why a person feels that is a good project for
jazz criticism, but first we need to unpack a stigma from improvisation: that it won’t yield something as formally profound
as a written work. That’s born out of a simple ignorance, one that leads to a question often asked after the gig: “So like,
were you guys just more or less ‘jamming out’?” A listener doesn’t need to know what chords, what structure, we’re
blowing over, any more than they have to understand sonata-allegro form when they listen to a symphony, to dig the
music. But it does help to know that there is a form there. There are lead-sheets, purposely limited texts that tell how and
where to jump off. But jazz knew something from its beginning: Don’t depend on a text! I am quite sure that the precon-
dition of the Coltrane Quartet of the sixties is that they absolutely could not have written out as inspiring a performance,
note for note, ahead of time. This is an important distinction for an understanding of jazz. Improvisatory creation is not
a medium that half-heartedly tries, but won’t rise up to, a written composition; on the contrary, it gives jazz its grandeur,
which is a potential to eclipse written music in its preformance. One might point out that classical music originally had its
great improvisers. We know this from biographical accounts, for instance, of cutting contests between Beethoven and
Hummel. But what’s kept Beethoven’s music in circulation is the compositions he commited to pen, and not his impro-
visation. Jazz’s canon is its recorded legacy, so much of which is improvised. To close I offer a scenario: If all the written
music in the world suddenly burned up in a flash, who could do a gig the same night , regardless?

– Brad Mehldau, 1999 Page 3
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Music and Language

The truism that “The essence of music is unexplainable in words” is self‑contradictory. The speaker who utters these
words is, after all, giving a kind of explanation. The statement seems to acknowledge the irresolvable aspect that’s
always inherent in an understanding of music, but simultaneously forces a resolution. The task of this truism is often to
blow the whistle on a discussion that has grown futile, or to call one off ahead of time, admonishing us that it is

A basic tenet of a democracy is that no discussion should be deemed pointless ahead of time. There is a non‑stop pro‑
cess among its members, aimed at reaching a consensus on any given topic. The philosopher Michel Foucault spoke of
an “endless need for discourse” among members of a democratic society. If the truth‑value of a proposition is historically
contingent, as Foucault (following Nietzsche) maintained it was, then a consensus can never be reached with absolute
finality. Nor should it be. When someone claims to be having the last word on some matter, we had better take heed.
That last word might fossilize into something like dogma and remain on the scene long after it’s bereft of any positive
social utility. My claim at truth is posited into a yet unforeseeable future that never arrives, because there is always a
better future that can be imagined. As an (ideally) emancipative politics, democracy operates on a paradox in the sense
that it thrives on endlessly unresolved problems. They are its fodder, and insure that its process will continue.

Music is cherished in part because it supersedes the need for discourse ahead of time. The consensus that people often
reach is that they can’t reach a consensus — in words at least — on what they just experienced. Our very muteness
towards music, though, is often the precondition of a deep solidarity that its listeners experience amongst each other.
It involves a preternatural kind of group knowledge, a resounding “I know that you know.” I don’t know what you know,
but that’s not important. I’m satisfied by the mere knowledge that music pushes your buttons like it does mine. There is
something in the world out there that correlates with both of us immediately, albeit in different ways.

That solidarity suggests that music gains a communicative advantage over words precisely because of its non‑linguistic
character. Speech‑language, by comparison, is crippled from the outset, a waterlogged form of communication. If we
spend a lot of time on back and forth discourse that never reaches its goal anyway, music seems to already be there,
wordlessly beckoning us. The implication is that there is indeed an “exit from language.” Discourse reaches the finish
line, and music waits on the other side.

In one sense we have a symbol of freedom. Music could be viewed as a model of complete self‑sufficiency, generating
itself out of itself, with no outside (linguistic) authority hovering around. The underlying desire for self‑sufficiency, like so
many kinds of desire, has an anti‑social aspect. It would be nice if I had no one to answer to, but then I couldn’t really
include myself in society. A shared musical experience denotes a very different kind of paradox than democratic
discourse: The solidarity that listeners experience together is a strangely anti‑social form of sociality.

If the “complete‑unto‑itself” aspect of music is a given, then likewise, all discussion about it is always already completed
— permanently. In this appraisal, music has a dead bolt lock built into its design, protecting its fortress against any future
linguistic predator. When I grasp my own desire for that kind of permanence and strip it down, it traces back to fear,
specifically, fear of endlessness. It’sunsettling to honestly ponder the idea of your own consciousness lasting for an eter‑ Page 1
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nity. Likewise, it’s disturbing to think that a democracy’s woes might never be resolved — that there might he
something built into society itself that keeps us forever short of a utopia. The subtext of a desire to exit from language,
then, is the more elemental desire to exit from temporality altogether, by finding some kind of permanent resolution.
Music, in its forever non‑discursive state, promises to answer that desire.

It is possible, somewhat darkly perhaps, to understand that initial “endless need for discourse” as being brought on by
fear as well. It would be the basic, deep fear of the final end — the flip side of a fear of endlessness. A permanent end to
one’s consciousness is at least as disturbing as no end, in its sheer incomprehensibility. Why is it so taboo to die in my
own dream? I don’t fear for the world that will lose me; the solipsistic nightmare is that my own consciousness will end.
Once it ends, I have no way of resuming it. Again, though, that fear can be politicized into a form of hope: One hopes in
a democracy that no voice is ever permanently silenced. That’s what keeps us talking, so to speak.

An unceasing impulse to talk things through runs contrary to an equally primal thirst for resolution. Each craving plays
on the other, and the way in which they normalize each other makes life bearable. Life, though, should be more than just
slinking between two cliffs, avoiding the infinite. Music promises something more emancipative. Being forever beyond
discourse, it supplies a preliminary, immediate resolution, but also points outward to something that (magnificently) never
finds an end. As long as that end is ungraspable, there will always be a conversation about music that sublimely never
gets off the ground.

There I am, happily mute and excited about what I’m going to tell you all at once. In this suspended, pre‑discursive state,
music can momentarily quell the need for that permanence that I also fear. Need and fear are the false apparatus of a
duality that has been temporarily dismantled. In the space that’s cleared, music offers what Freud called “repose” — a
momentary closure that mitigates that overwhelming aspect of temporality, a miniature end played out within the life‑pro‑
cess. We get a taste of something permanent far just a moment, and it’s strangely sweet. Music repeatedly suggests that
while we run from death, we also solicit it in a number of ways.

This musical model of autonomy is as dialectical as the desire it mirrors. For in order to really maintain a condition of
sublime, fearless permanence, nothing more can be said. Freedom abounds, but only within a necessarily speechless
realm. To speak of music is a folly, a futile attempt to break through its wordless fortress.

“Nothing can be said of music” is more accurately “Nothing is allowed to be said of music.” Speech becomes an act
of rebellion against an iron law that prohibits discourse. From a democratic point of view, to regard discourse itself with
such across‑the-board disdain is squarely fascist. The only way to really withold free speech is to repress it — possibly
with brutal farce. The door is closed to further inquiry or potential complaints from an oppressed party.

Freedom from discourse doesn’t hold up so well outside of its musical model, but does that matter? Presumably
whatever fascist tendencies one perceives at, for example, a rock concert, are largely neutered of any real destructive
potential, because they’ve been delegated to a purely aesthetic realm. Fascism takes its cue, though, from this very idea
of a “pure” aesthetics. The State itself fictively resembles a piece of music: It is there with music, beyond the finishing
line of discourse. What makes fascism such a potent, coercive form of domination is this picture of freedom it uses as
ideological bait: You are free from ever having to ask any more questions. All questions are permanently answered.

An idealistic view of music as “better” than language yields up an unsettling vision — a sort of fascist wet dream of
democracy. I am offered an inverse mirror image of democratic freedom when I go to a concert to listen to one of my
favorite performers: the freedom to relinquish that endless discourse, to cut all that back and forth talk in favor of a more Page 2
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visceral, immediate shared experience. Whether that experience has any analogue in the real world is unclear. Can music
fell me why, for example, my fellow music‑worshippers and I shouldn’t go and oppress some other people? What does
music look like to the fascist who stares bask at me from the other side of the mirror — the same?

The great essayist Isaiah Berlin explains how the rhetoric of Romanticism privileged art above politics for the first time.
“Morality,” he writes, “— and politics so far as it is a social morality — is a creative process: The new romantic model is
art.” Goethe’s Faust character sets the stage, scandalously altering the opening text of the Bible. Faust cannot accept
that “In the beginning was the Word.” For him, it is not the Word of God that has primacy. There was an act of creation
prior to that Word. So he proclaims: “In the beginning was the Deed.” We have had it backwards all along, says Faust.
The creative act is anterior to whatever text it may bring forth. Words that we perceive as having existed before us,
written in stone, can potentially become dogma ‑ we are not free to question them. At its worst, the dogmatic language
expresses itself tyrannically, and although Goethe had the Church in mind, he might have included its sister institution,
the State.

Placing Deed above the Word means privileging art above politics. Politics becomes just another whim of the fertile
imagination — a form of art. Like art, politics will celebrate its freedom to create, independently of any antecedent
linguistic authority. The danger in this new climate is that politics can lose its normalizing, regulating role as a “social
morality.” What is accepted as “moral” for a group of people must be established through some form of consensus.
Usually there will be an appeal to a discourse or text concerning morality that already exists. If that pre‑existing law is
ignored, however dogmatic it may be, there is now the potential for a whole other kind of tyranny. The criteria for a good
politics is now based solely on how aesthetically pleasing it is, how exciting and alluring it sounds and feels. Politicians
are not accountable for their actual policy, but are judged more as artists — judged on their rhetorical finesse, on their
ability to transport their listeners. In this environment, they can (literally) get away with murder.

Wholesale rebellion against linguistic dogma can mean rebellion against the specificity of language: rebellion against the
notion that the speaker should specify his or her actual intentions. If the speaker is longer accountable for his intentions,
thenhe is not responsible for their consequences. As an artist he merely creates. As previously mentioned, the desire for
this artistic autonomy includes the fictive dream of something temporally closed, but the permanent end to discourse
that music provisionally supplies spells out fascism in the realm of politics. “Art for art’s sake,” or any such jargon of
autonomy, is no longer viable. It becomes difficult be separate the wordless appeal of music from the linguistic rhetoric
of politics, because the very desire for that separation implies, if not a political stance, then at least a precondition for
politics that are solely aesthetically driven.

Bracketing out politics from music is not just foolish idealism, then, but potentially an act of complicity. I now face the
disconcerting prospect that my very enjoyment of music is always charged with political implications, whether I like it or
not. My immediate reaction is, “No way!” If I’m somehow politically accountable when I listen to music, than it instantly
loses it emancipative thrust for me, i.e., its temporary freedom from the specificity of language. That desire for music to
remain autonomous from political discourse, though, inadvertently implies a political stance — a kind of leave‑me‑alone,
lazy libertarianism: “I don’t care what they’re marching about on the streets. I just want to listen to Coltrane!”

Music is an ideological whore. She will play for any team, as Burgess/Kubrick showed so well in A Clockwork Orange:
The famous “Ode to Joy” theme from the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony — that paragon of
Enlightenment ideals, with text from Schiller — is the soundtrack that accompanies the sociopath protagonist of the
story, Alex, as he rapes and murders. When Pavlovian therapy is administered in the second part of the film, he cannot Page 3
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listen to the Beethoven without becoming violently ill. Disturbingly, I always feel pity for Alex at this point. However evil
his actions, we share one thing in common — the simple, unfettered joy that comes from listening to that Beethoven.
Despite my own horror of this character, I enter into complicity with him.

Alex is the dictator, and his mates are his army, mindlessly following him and assisting him on his rampages. Kubrick’s
vision grimly parodies the characteristic pageantry of fascism — the campish sadomasochism of their repressive military
outfits, the brutal pornographic images, and the strange matriarchal symbolism. So there I am, staring at the fascist in
the mirror. The mirror is Beethoven’s music. Such a beautiful piece of music, one that celebrates so much that is good
for me, can be used to celebrate death and destruction for someone else, instantaneously. But we both celebrate,
regardless. I must concede that Beethoven’s music has no fixed moral stance in and of itself, and “art for art’s sake”
becomes appropriate again: Art seems to win a victory here, reclaiming its autonomy.

But music made it possible for me to enter into that wordless complicity with Alex for just a moment. Perhaps I’ve been
taking the wrong approach all along. For in order to begin speculating on the relative autonomy of music, I’m already
viewing music as some kind of object, an object that could possess or lack that autonomy — like an eggshell or a sealed
envelope, an object with something inside of if that is shut but might have an opening somewhere. Maybe music can be
construed as an opening only, nothing more. If I understand it this way, it is not an object at all.

As an opening, music is the clear space that I cross over to achieve that solidarity with someone else. The opening is not
fixable to any particular locus that I can map with language, so in a sense one fails by assigning the quality of “space”
to music. Once one starts using spacio‑temporal terms to describe music, it collapses into an object again. This is the
pickle that Kant got himself into: How can we begin to talk about any object at all, without taking space and time into
account? Surely one reason why language always seems to fail in an account of music is that, as an idealized kind of
non‑object, there is nothing I can predicate about it. So a non‑object necessarily becomes a kind of object, or else I will
never be able to finish a sentence about it.

Language wants to have it both ways: It wants to posit judgments on music, yet keep it in a transcendent realm where
these judgments are useless. This whole idealistic picture of music paradoxically hinges on the language that it’s “free”
from. No one really cares about music’s unexplainable aspect until they start trying to explain it. Only then does it take
on a numinous aura of otherness. That otherness is twofold: If language privileges music in one sense by assigning it
a transcendental status above and beyond itself, it also suggests its own failure as a mode of communication. Without
language to describe it, music simply is — it exists independently of whatever propositions are made about it.

Thus the elitist subtext behind the jargon of autonomy: Music does not need languagein order for us to comprehend it.
Does language “need” music? “Music,” as an uttered word, is a particularly strong trope existing
within language that speaks of language’s never-ending failure to meet its object directly. It is a kind of über‑
metaphor that symbolizes our very need to create metaphors in the first place. “The essence of music is
unexplainable in words” avoids a more disturbing question: Truly, how well can words explain the essence
of anything? Theupshot is that in trying to talk about music one winds up talking about language.

One could argue, then, that music and language share a distinctive characteristic with each other, and one is not
particularly privileged over the other. If language reaches a descriptive wall when confronted with music, then music
likewise cannot appeal to language to vindicate itself. Yet they both try, nonetheless. This is the case with my
complicity with the character of Alex. That complicity cannot step out of the musical locus it inhabits. There is only Page 4
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Beethoven’s music, mutely referring back to itself. It is this failure of music to cross over into language that makes my
complicity with Alex possible. Our joyful solidarity in the Beethoven cannot fix itself to any reasoned statement; it reaches
a dead‑end paradox. The paradox takes the form of an unanswerable question:How can he and I share this joy together,
when he is a fascist, and I am not?

Music and language thus share a certain idealism: They both posit exactly beyond what they can master, but in that
failed attempt, reveal something obliquely. It is not a grounded object that’s revealed — nothing is predicated, nothing is
fixed, certain, or completed: “Idealism” here addresses the whole realm of possibility, in itself. Music, precisely in its lack
of identify, throwsthat possibility into relief — that aforementioned incomprehensible duality of finality and endlessness.
Language does that as well, but when language diagnoses a non‑identity, it addresses it negatively. It finds a paradox,
something that must be resolvedbut cannot. For Kant, this kind of paradox was inherent in the act of reasoning itself.
How could we conceive, for example, that time has no beginning or end, and at the same time, conceive that all things
must begin at some point? One lesson from him is that even though we cannot grasp endlessness or finality in a direct,
head‑on sort of way, we should not dogmatically deny their possibility. We posited them in the first place.

An idealistic form of communication, then, involves isolating possibility from the specificity of its outcome. Then I am
allowed to look at something more directly for a moment. In this case I look at Alex directly through the music. We are
communicating with each other, he and I.If there is this solidarity in the music, there is the possibility of some other form
of solidarity. The Beethoven will point to infinite possibilities between us: Maybe we’ll just sit and listen, maybe we’ll go
beat someone to a pulp, maybe we’ll fight for democracy together. But in and of itself, that opening that is the music
carries no force, no gravitational pull. The force, if there is one, will come from us. We will decide where we go together,
what we do, if we do anything. Page 5
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Brad Mehldau Trio: Places

Oh, it is the same with the distance as with the future! A vast, twilit whole lies before our soul; our emotions lose them-
selves in it as do our eyes, and we long to surrender our entire being and let ourselves sink into one great well of blissful
feeling. Alas, when we approach, when There has become Here, everything is as it was before, and we are left with our
poverty, our narrowness, while our soul thirsts for the comfort that slipped away.”
– from The Sorrows of Young Werther, Goethe

It seems like the grandeur of a place only reveals itself after you’ve left it. Memory can make the place more ‘real’ than
it ever was in reality. For instance, there’s the scent of an object that’s been brought home from somewhere far away.
(It doesn’t have to be a beautiful scent. Examples for me have been bug spray or deodorant.) When you smell it again
at home, after some time has passed, it brings up a feeling that’s profound and unique — something like nostalgia and
acute yearning all at once. You’re dislocated from your surroundings, but only in order to receive a different kind of clar-
ity. You are allowed a glimpse of something essential to that place. It’s a temporary unveiling. After half a minute or less it
passes and you’re back in the everyday world that now seems more banal than ever. The feeling is dreamlike: It’s like the
heavenly music you dream that fades from your memory as soon as you wake up. You can not recollect the nature of this
feeling or recreate it. It becomes a mystery, and you can only wait until the next time that you’re granted that experience.

To say, “This smell reminds me of that place,” doesn’t tell anything. The strangeness is that you never had the dreamlike
feeling when you were there. In fact you couldn’t have. Two events must happen to have this experience: spatial distance
and the passage of time. A place can only reveal itself in your consciousness with such allure when you’re far from it.
That’s disturbing, because it suggests that some of our most authentic experiences have very little to do with the appar-
ent reality that surrounds us, spatially and temporally. For me, those experiences aren’t just brain farts.

What seems to be a dislocation or disorientation is also a kind of recognition-of-being, or maybe the possibility of being,
its potentiality. It comes in different ways - through the senses, but also in dreams, poetry, and music. I understand it as
‘sublime’ in the Romantic sense. Schopenhauer mentioned fear in association with the Sublime, following Kant before
him. As he speculated, the fear comes about when a person observes an object that is incomprehensible or immeasur-
able in its greatness. But if the person is able to break free from her will, a will that is hostile to the threatening object,
she can experience the Sublime: an elevated form of consciousness that quietly stares into the abyss. Something usually
hidden is shown to me, and fear comes from a loss of what I’m familiar with, and confrontation with strangeness. But is
it some object ‘out there’ that I’m being shown? Or, if you don’t like that language, is it God? Then why the recognition?
Those experiences that Freud called unheimlich or uncanny, the ones we refer to as ‘Kafkaesque,’ touch upon a para-
dox: The uncanny is so disturbing and weird because of its unexplainable familiarity. Perhaps a part of myself is being
revealed a part that’s always there, waiting. I feel the totality of my being, non-constricted, because I’ve been cut loose
from the usual trap of time and space. A place thousands of miles away can be felt with immediacy. My past events and
future potential are tangible and real. This kind of consciousness is usually reserved for an all-seeing, immortal divin-
ity. When we experience the Sublime, we’re cheating, and we always get caught, thrown back into a time-bound world.
But we can cheat again, because the potential is always within us. If there is a deity out there, it’s probably the one who
always snatches the infinite away from us. If that’s true, though, then who did He steal the keys from? Whoever or what- Page 1
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ever it was, we have a trace of it, even now.

“Hold to the Now, the Here, through which all future plunges to the Past.”
- Joyce, Ulysses

“Be in the moment.” — What a crock! How can I be in something like that? How long is this moment? Is it one millisec-
ond, one minute? And then what do I do — be in the next moment? That’s a hell of a lot of moments to be in! Perhaps
this is a Western misreading of an Eastern idea, that the past and future are illusions. All I know is that for myself, it’s
quite the opposite: The notion of a present moment that I could somehow be ‘in’ is pure fiction. Maybe both sentiments
are just two ways of expressing the same thing: our inability to catch time, to grab a hold of it.

That same person who tells me to be in the moment says I’m ‘romanticizing’ when I remember a place from the past with
longing. He’s right. ‘Romantic’ for me is always after, filled with lateness, whether it’s Wordsworth or Kurt Cobain. At one
point there was a unity to everything, a unity that was shattered. Arriving too late, the romantic finds everything in pieces.
Where there was oneness, now it’s all dualities. Nothing is ever clear-cut; there’s always paradox, irony. All you can do
is make music from the remains, and sing about the brokenness. Is that all a necessary fiction dreamed up by the hu-
man imagination to tell sad stories? If so, it’s a convincing one, because it tells about time. Our being is marked by what
Heidegger called Geworfenheit — ‘thrown-ness’. We’ve been thrown into a world of time with no choice. It’s a world full
of mortality — everything is dying, everywhere. The problem isn’t so much that reality in itself. The problem is that we

Near his own end, Freud drearily surmised that there was indeed a ‘death-drive,’ that so many of our activities were
aimed towards achieving “…the death-like repose of the organic world.” If I could truly be in the moment, it would mean
just that — death-like repose, death. Joyce’s ‘Hold to the Now…’ works better for me, because his ‘now’ acknowledges
its role. Now is only an open vessel, through which time is being siphoned, not some measurable moment one can sit in,
enclosed. That’s not just a semantic query. When I mistakenly believe that I can capture time, I’m into a kind of bad faith
that can be pure folly. It’s a folly that leads to heartbreak, disillusionment, and resignation — despair. On the other hand,
holding to the Now is the best game in town, the most honest one, albeit the most difficult at times.

“Irony: Don’t let yourself be controlled by it…Under the influence of serious Things it will either fall away from you, or
else it will grow strong, and become a serious tool and take its place among the instruments which you can form your art
– Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

It’s important to distinguish between two types of irony. One is the type in currency today that’s so familiar, it’s almost
omnipresent. It runs like this: If someone appears sincere, whether it’s a singer-songwriter, politician, or your partner, it
would be safe to assume they’re full of shit. The key words there are ‘safe’ and ‘assume’. Irony of this sort plays it safe,
and safely never gets off the ground, running on its own fumes in a self-reflexive spinning of wheels. It assumes that
sincerity is a posture to divert our attention from an ulterior motive, or worse yet, is a blanket used to cover up a hollow
nothingness, a vapid lack of real sentiment. Good old-fashioned irony involves the awareness that a truth or truism has a
hole or flaw in it, an awareness that opens up a whole other set of implications. But the rub (lest we forget) must include
an initial belief in that truth to some extent, or at least wanting to believe. If there’s no hope in the first place, irony is an
impotent affair, a catalogue of boredom with the world that quickly collapses into what it really is: the ironist’s boredom
with herself. That’s a cop-out, and the result is a dismaying reversal, one in which irony is deflated of its purpose. Where-
as in its original meaning, it would teach us never to assume, in this case it teaches us always to assume – and dismiss, Page 2
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without inquiry.

Where does that dismissal stem from? It’s in no small part due to a large case of information indigestion. Every single
sentiment, it seems, has already been used, manipulated, or co-opted – passion, integrity, and (argghh!!!) even irony
itself. So, often there’s an understandable reluctance to offer up anything with sincerity, for fear of being dismissed as
derivative, and having your heartfelt creation pissed on by other people, people as cripplingly ‘savvy’ as you are. Blam-
ing or condemning information in itself is pointless and potentially dangerous. Casting blame comes out of a nostalgia
that relies on a fiction, mainly that an authenticity has been sacrificed, snuffed out by the plethora of information that
names everything into a reduction, a one-dimensional Xerox of the original. This kind of dissatisfaction with the Now is
not uniquely postmodern, however much one may or may not buy into it. It’s the continuation of a romantic legacy – the
legacy of belatedness, of afterness. We still answer that call within ourselves, although the outside props have changed.
Nostalgia like that has and still can turn sour on a grand, horrific level when its fiction drives a political ideology – the evil
afterbirth of Romanticism. It’s not enough to sit on the rocking chair and muse over bygone days, smiling through tears
that cloud your vision of the world around you.

If a story or song is good enough, it will reach the Sublime, which means this: It transcends that state of pining for au-
thenticity, which is only a starting point, a kind of surface irony. We realize that the ‘Other’, or the Divine, or the longed
for prelapsarian grace, are all part of ourselves. Hell, we’re the ones who dreamed them up in the first place, right? Now,
irony is retrieved from banal finitude, and can be placed back where it belongs: at the core of our being. It prompts the
reader, the viewer, and the listener, to ask: “To what extent is my imaginative faculty, the one that dreams for the Divine,
in itself a divine attribute? If that’s a fiction played out in art, then what the hell is real? Where does art get off and life re-
sume?” Amidst those queries, a broader one starts to take shape: “How do I find meaning – or not find meaning – in my
life?” That hopelessly bandied question can’t be answered, and that’s exactly what the Sublime reveals. It doesn’t give
closure. It gives us contact (if not comfort) with infinitude. For me, art can still be thought of in those terms. It takes the
edge off mortality, which can be such a bitch sometimes. Along the same lines, it can teach that a dream of authenticity
is just that – a dream – and without dreams, we’re nothing. The trick is to remember that it’s only a dream.

A longing for lost authenticity, or a defeatist dismissal of the possibility of it, are two sides of the same coin. They both
grow out of a bad faith in information, bad faith meaning: a false belief in the power of information, and a denial of one’s
own cognizance of anything beyond or outside of it. Or, I should say, beneath it, behind it. Information can act as a kind
of matrix, a blocking device. It can block our ability to see and feel the Sublime. A text, or the ones and zeros on a C.D.,
or any information, is nothing in itself. The Sublime is experiential. It is not a self-conscious, willful attempt to ‘be in the
moment’, nor can it involve a self-conscious, willful attempt at ironic ‘objectivity’. The experience is a here-and-now af-
fair, which leaves an imprint on your memory precisely because of its ephemeral immediacy. The supposed importance
— or dangerous unreliability — of the text is an old, constant dialectic in western thought, from Socrates’ dialogues to
Derrida’s deconstructions. It led a Proto-Romantic like Goethe to turn Scripture on its head, and proclaim, “In the begin-
ning was the deed.” Information inherits the tendency to grip us that a text can, a grip that Goethe identified as poten-
tially tyrannical. The tyranny would come from the anteriority of the text. It came before us. Written in stone, the text has
an authoritative power. We submit to it, making a covenant, because it gives the comforting reassurance of constancy
amidst our own transience. (That includes music texts!) Goethe hit on something that’s at the heart of Romanticism. He
identified the human power of imagination as anterior to the text, switching the chicken and the egg. In this new formula-
tion, the active creation of the text takes primacy over the end result. That reversal is no less relevant today than it was
200 years ago. In a time when everything appears derivative, it’s important to remember what any creative act is: a leap,
a self-propelled thrust that steps out of history, escaping it for a flicker. When we look at the information matrix, we see Page 3
Brad Mehldau Writing

Brad Mehldau Trio


the outward form of textual anteriority. It’s all there, recorded already. But so much of it is filler, having none of the imagi-
native vigor or spiritual resonance that made a text like the Bible canonical in the first place. What we get appears as
parody. He has acted in bad faith though, because on some level he initially gave an authority to information. He didn’t
look any further. It’s the first thing he saw, and he thinks that’s all there is. When he repeatedly draws blanks from the
formulated mediocrity rampant in pop culture, his bad faith is confirmed and reinforced. (Or, paraphrased: The Nineties.)

“At home I dream that at Naples, at Rome, I can be intoxicated with beauty and lose my sadness. I pack my trunk, em-
brace my friends, embark on the sea and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self,
unrelenting, that I fled from…My giant goes with me wherever I go.”
– Emerson, Self-Reliance

What happens when you come back to a place that you’ve longed for, not just once, but several times? Such is the case
with Perugia for me. It’s an idyllic, ancient town sequestered in the mountains of the Umbria region of Italy. I’ve gone
there four summers now, for the annual jazz festival. The second time I was there, I experienced a longing for the feeling I
had on my first visit. During the next two trips, I identified this same kind of achy yen, but I realised that now, I was long-
ing for the longing itself. Longing for longing — it’s what the Germans call Sehnsucht. The first time I was there, I was
already yearning after something. We are born into a state of longing. It’s perpetually unrequited, asymptotically chasing
its own tail, forever just short of reaching what it dreams for. Once more, that seems to come about from our relation-
ship with time, contingent on our mortality. Thrown into time, you can only hold to the Now. You can’t save or grab on to
anything that’s flying through that funnel — least of all your own transient existence. If time is seen as movement, then
mortality is downward movement, a falling towards death. Is that something to despair over? Crying out at our mortality,
we long — for the infinite. But again, we recognized the infinite from within ourselves. Sehnsucht is a sublime recognition
of our own infinite longing.

The idea for this record started inadvertently. A collection of originals was building up, many of them written on the road
during some heavy touring the last year or so. Always at a loss for song titles, I started naming them after wherever they
were written. When four or five of them were done, I realized that they were thematically related, and continued to exploit
those melodic and harmonic relations, similar to the approach on a previous record, Elegiac Cycle. The tunes, therefore,
are not programmatic pictures of where they were written; on the contrary, they are more representative of something
constant throughout all that traveling — ‘My giant goes with me wherever I go.” Los Angeles is home for me and frames
the set, with a brief trip back in the middle. It’s telling that Freud’s unheimlich frames the word ‘heim’ as its root word —
home. Home is truly what we’re always longing for. As a place, for me, it often means the first place, the one that we’re
always trying to get back to in our state of afterness. But home only reveals itself sublimely when you’re far away from
it. Thus, the opening Los Angeles theme is heard throughout the set, but at a distance. It comes back once more at the
end. Returning home, There has become Here, and we’re still left with our longing.

– Brad Mehldau, 2000 Page 4
Brad Mehldau Writing

Peter Bernstein
Heart’s Content

Brad Mehldau: Peter Bernstein: Heart’s Content

I met Peter Bernstein soon after I arrived in New York City in 1988. Many people would have different ideas about what
might constitute a ‘New York’ sound, if anything. I would call it more of an ethos that Pete came to personify for me, one
that I still associate with my favorite players who reside in New York. That ethos doesn’t form one specific style of play-
ing; it’s more like a collection of deeply felt sentiments about jazz music that form the basis for a broad range of possible

Those musical sentiments would include the importance of melody at all times in whatever you’re expressing, which
means playing phrases that have a shape to them and not just running licks. That in turn implies a healthy distrust of
arbitrariness in general. If you’re going play a tune, you don’t fudge on learning the melody. Pete was the first musician
I met who would make periodic pilgrimages to the New York Public Library to get the original sheet music for, say, an
Irving Berlin tune.

That was one of many valuable lessons that I got from Pete early on. If you go to the original source to learn a tune, your
arrangement of it will speak authentically as your own take on that song, instead of being your version of Miles Davis’
version, for example. I think that’s why whenever I hear Pete play a standard, it never sounds arbitrary. He always seems
to create a definitive version of a tune, one that intersects gracefully between an unapologetic affection for the origi-
nal song, and his own personal musical choices for his arrangement. They include the way he phrases the melody, his
improvisation, and a host of other factors that make you smile as a listener and say, “That’s Pete.” ‘Dedicated to You’ on
this record is a perfect example. Listen to how he lovingly treats the melody – it sounds like this is his own song.

The first time I heard Peter Bernstein was at a jam session, playing on a medium-slow blues. With me in the audience
were several musical peers, including Larry Goldings. Larry was just starting to play the organ in addition to piano, and
eventually would form the heaviest, most original organ trio jazz has seen in the last two decades, with Pete on guitar
and Bill Stewart, who joins Pete on this record, on drums. (You can hear Larry Goldings on Pete’s 1996 Criss-Cross date,
‘Brain Dance’.)

The blues had been going on for almost half an hour and everyone’s interest had peaked after about 4 minutes. Solo af-
ter solo ensued, full of well-intentioned but vapid testifying and shrieking from horn players and scat-singers. Just when
it was getting painful, Pete began to solo. He basically annihilated everything that had preceded him and left all of us just
shaking our heads in awe. We were emotionally reduced to jelly; he brought tears to our eyes. I left that day shaken.

What was it in his playing? To start with, there was a gravity to what he was doing emotionally that just drew me in _
‘Dude, this is serious.’ But it wasn’t just serious for the sake of being serious. His playing was informed by what I can
only describe as a profound love for music, in this case specifically the blues, which is so prevalent in Pete’s music. It
was like he had discovered something beautiful, and he wanted urgently to share it with all of us. A serious love that
urgently needs to be shared with other people _ it all translates into something that you might call the humanity in Pete’s
music. I felt like he was telling me something about myself that day, and I always feel that way when I hear him.

Pete’s reading on this record of Strayhorn’s masterpiece, ‘Blood Count’, is a case in point. In a solo guitar setting, he Page 1
Brad Mehldau Writing

Peter Bernstein
Heart’s Content

gives it to us stripped down. The naked desolation of the tune speaks all the more clearly. But Pete doesn’t push the
point. He never veers into sentimentality, and allows the pathos to speak for itself by giving us a reading that’s devoid
of affectation. Many other musicians would be tempted to milk this song much more. The melody, with its exotic chord
tones and glissandos, and the fragrant Strayhorn harmony that underpins it, almost cry out for an overtly expressive, the-
atrical reading. That’s why this tune is so difficult to play – if you give into that temptation it can easily become sentimen-
tal. Pete’s approach is to let the sentiment in the tune speak for itself – it’s already there; it doesn’t need to be magnified.
He coaxes the emotion out of the tune instead of loudly stating it. The effect on me as a listener is that I get more from it,
not less. This version of ‘Blood Count’ has a wonderful twofold quality. It has what I usually associate with the song – a
raw feeling of mortality, like someone hanging on. But Pete gives you a bittersweet kind of recompense: If you’re just
hanging on in this music, then as you slip away, losing your grasp, you’re finally able to see how beautiful everything re-
ally is.

I’ve come to believe that the sort of ‘maturity’ that Pete displays on ‘Blood Count’ is the kind of musical attribute that’s
more innate than acquired. It’s a question of temperament. You start with that temperament already. It can be developed
and refined, but if you don’t have it to begin with, it can’t really be learned. Pete’s no slouch, and he has a real thirst for
new musical discoveries. Over the years I’ve seen how he assimilates them into his own playing and writing – like early
on in our friendship when he got really deep into Billie Holiday, or a few years back when he turned me onto the music of
Donny Hathaway. Nevertheless, there are certain qualities central to his music that he had from the gate. That was one of
the things that always struck me and other musicians who were playing with Pete early on in our own development. Here
we were absorbing all these influences at once, sounding like a different musician depending on what context we were
playing in. But Pete, from the first time I heard him at least in 1988, already had his own identity _ he sounded like Peter
Bernstein in whatever situation he was in. That just blew us away.

One important quality of Pete’s is his rhythmic authority. A good example on this record is his own ‘Simple as That’. This
is the kind of tempo that inspires the cliché, ‘separates the men from the boys,’ It’s a medium-slow groove, and Pete can
wax in this vein like nobody’s business. In the opening melody, and then in his solo later, his lines are relaxed and poised
all at once. Pete’s feel on this sort of tempo has always been devastatingly good _ he sits a little behind the beat and
gets you into this slow-burn state. That quiet authority of his, though, comes from the consistency in his line: He never
gets away from his ideas, he never rushes inadvertently, and nothing is ever the slightest bit unclear in what he’s com-
municating. When I’m playing behind him on a tune like this, his mixture of relaxed swing and total clarity has the effect
of pulling me into his musical statement completely. I’ve only had that experience playing with a few other musicians. It’s
what they mean when they say someone has a ‘big beat.’

That quality of Pete’s is probably both innate and absorbed. He always had this incredible sense of pacing in his playing,
a sort of patience rhythmically. But I definitely remember checking out who he was checking out and seeing what kinds
of players in jazz pointed the way for him. He has his guitar heroes for sure, but more often than not, I’ve noticed how
horn players influence Pete. So, that relaxed kind of rhythmic authority might be informed by tenor players that I know
he loves – the built-in backbeat of Gene Ammons, the behind-the-beat long eighth-note lines of Dexter Gordon, or the
strong, swinging logic of Sonny Rollins’ phrases.

That brings up another thing about Pete that sets him apart for me: I‘ve always thought of him less as a guitarist and
more as a musician. His swing feel – that ‘big beat’ that he has – is something you associate more with a horn player
than a guitar player. But it goes further than feel. Particularly in his writing, he’s more concerned with purely musical mat-
ters, and less with guitar stuff. Incidentally, Pete is a competent piano player. It’s kind of uncanny. Even when he plays
the piano, not on his own axe, he still has a harmonic concept that’s completely specific to him and no one else, like in Page 2
Brad Mehldau Writing

Peter Bernstein
Heart’s Content

the way he voices chords, or the progressions he comes up with when he’s just noodling. I’ve noticed that Pete often
begins writing a tune of his own by getting an initial idea at the piano – a progression or a little voice leading figure – and
then moves over to the guitar to continue writing.

‘Heart’s Content’, the title track of the record, is a beauty. It’s got some quintessential Peter Bernstein things going on.
Check out the simplicity and economy of the melody. Except on the brief bridge and the coda, the melody always stays
wonderfully in one minor scale, outlining a specific shape and building off of it. While the chords under it are moving and
shifting a fair amount, the melody is a constant; the bluesy melancholy it gives off acts as a binder for all the harmonic
activity. A lot of Pete’s tunes operate on this principle of placing a largely diatonic, simple melody over some advanced,
often dense chords that move a fair amount. The effect on the listener is a great kind of give and take. You get pushed
along with the movement of the harmony, responding to the flux, but at the same time are emotionally anchored by the
melody. And Pete is never very far away from that melody in his solo statement.

Two predecessors for that sort of jazz compositional approach might come to mind, mainly Thelonious Monk and Wayne
Shorter. I know that Pete has absorbed their music a lot. There’s something more about Pete that he has in common with
those two jazz composers. His tunes are stitched together so well; there’s so much compositional logic to them, that you
can’t just willy-nilly superimpose your own vocabulary when it comes time to solo. You have to address the tune in some
way in your improvisations; it sort of compels you to do so. If you simply paste your own licks onto one of Pete’s tunes,
you run the risk of sounding strangely irrelevant, like an unwanted dinner guest.

On this recording, there was an immediate empathy between the four musicians, and Larry and I commented to each
other that the date had a certain effortless quality about it. That definitely doesn’t happen all the time. Part of the fun was
that everyone had shared some of their most important musical history with at least one other musician there. I’ve had
the privilege of playing with Pete on and off since 1991 or so. One of my most cherished experiences has been getting
to work with the great drummer Jimmy Cobb over the years, and that’s been in a band that Pete assembled, informally
titled ‘Cobb’s Mob’. Pete’s first Criss Cross release from 1993, ‘Somethin’s Burnin’, features that band. I also played on
Pete’s next Criss Cross release from 1995, ‘Signs of Life’.

The bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Bill Stewart have a serious groove together. They’ve put in a lot of time togeth-
er in the bands of two other guitar players, mainly John Scofield and Pat Metheny. Larry’s also been the bass player in
my trio for eight years. He recorded with Pete previously on ‘Consenting Adults‘, a Criss Cross date from 1994, a collec-
tive effort that included Pete and I, tenor saxophonist Mark Turner and drummer Leon Parker. I’ve always felt that Larry
is one of the most versatile and underrated bass players out there. He’s a very selfless kind of player. He grasps what the
music calls for very quickly in any situation, and that’s his first priority. Once that’s established, he puts his own personal-
ity into the music. He does it in a subtle way, but it’s pervasive – it affects everything in a positive way. I often catch more
things in Larry’s playing when I listen back to the recording than I do when I’m actually playing with him. Sometimes he
affects my musical choices without my realizing it in the moment of playing together. Bill Stewart, as mentioned, has
been playing drums with Pete and Larry Goldings in that trio for several years. Before he got as well known as he is now,
Bill had sort of a cult status among us musicians, and we’d go here him with Larry’s organ trio in New York when they
were just starting out, 12 or so years ago. Bill is another musician like Pete who already had his own approach back
then. His paired-down, distinctive style has already been an influence on a younger generation of drummers. Bill has a
wonderful economy to his playing, one that gives the other musicians total support without ever being obtrusive. He has
a consistency that you can hear on every track on this record. The groove that he establishes at the beginning of each
tune never wavers for a second. I think his no-nonsense policy musically is one big reason that Pete feels so comfortable Page 3
Brad Mehldau Writing

Peter Bernstein
Heart’s Content

with him. Like Pete, he has very little affectation in what he plays.

The hardest thing to express is how someone’s music moves you. With Pete, I always immediately get drawn into the
sound he gets from his instrument. He’s emoting with each note he plays. He has this crying tone on his guitar. His notes
sustain and ring out, like they don’t want to disappear. It’s a fat tone at the same time, earthy and satisfying. That voice
he has on his instrument compels me to listen. The emotions Pete conveys are often wonderfully mixed. One thing he
specializes in is communicating an underlying melancholy that tugs at you steadily, at the same time expressing some-
thing more in the forefront that’s vital and urgent, not down in the dumps at all.

Pete can fuse together those sentiments so effortlessly, I think, because they have to do with who he is in real life. He’s
not simple by a long stretch, and has many layers. But at his core, there’s a deep integrity and honesty – that’s why he’s
not simple, because he doesn’t look for easy answers that don’t ring true in the long run. That really carries over into his
playing. I remember Pete telling me what one of his teachers, the late great pianist Jaki Byard, shared with him about
playing jazz: “You can’t lie.” I suspect what Jaki Byard meant is that even if you try to lie as a player, you’ll wind up telling
the truth to anyone who has ears enough to hear it – that you’re up there on the bandstand, just trying to lie, and you’re
not fooling anyone in the long run.

Peter Bernstein has a rare honesty about him as a musician. Quite simply, that quality comes naturally to him, because
he has nothing to lose by being honest. The music that he offers the listener is always something that he’s carried within
himself first, and then loved into being. It’s a beautiful world unto itself, and ‘Heart’s Content’ is a good place to either
continue enjoying that world, or discover it for the first time.

Brad Mehldau, March 2003 Page 4
Brad Mehldau Writing

Joel Frahm
Don’t Explain

Joel and I have known each other since we were 15 and have been playing together, on and off, in one context or an-
other over the years. So when I hear his playing, I hear everything that he and I discovered and absorbed together from
the time we were just getting started. It’s cool and a little uncanny, because I hear my own influences and history as a
player through him. Hopefully that informs what we got to on this duo record. There’s a rapport we have together musi-
cally that’s not unlike certain friendships that you’re lucky enough to have that begin at an early age and last throughout
your life: You don’t see each other on a regular day to day basis, but when you come together, you resume the dialogue
right where you left off, building on the experiences you’ve gathered since the last time you came together.

Joel and I were vinyl junkies throughout high school, and made pilgrimages to a used record shop in Wethersfield, CT,
near where we lived. We went through a lot of stages together, absorbing jazz from different time periods. There was
a heavy Michael Brecker stage – one of our older classmates, the tenor saxophonist and composer Pat Zimmerli, had
us all chanting the ‘Three B’s’ – Bach, Brecker and Beethoven. ‘Three Quartets’, the classic Chick Corea record with
Brecker on it, was played non-stop for a while. We discovered Miles Davis together – the fifties band with Coltrane all the
way through to his 80’s albums like ‘Decoy’ and ‘Tutu’, which were favorites of ours. We discovered Bird together, and
the vocabulary of be-bop slowly entered our playing around the same time. We went nuts over tenor players like Clifford
Jordan, Booker Ervin and Johnny Griffin.

Joel absorbed a lot of different tenor players and I’d say it was around his 21st or 22nd year that he started to put to-
gether his own sound. When I think of Joel, I think of his sound on the tenor, big and generous, very warm and comfort-
able. He worked toward that for a number of years, and now it’s just there, in everything he plays. A beautiful sound on
the instrument is something he obviously values. What Joel had from pretty early on was a certain fluidity in his line, an
easy grace to his eighth notes that you can hear on a tune like ‘Oleo’ on this date. The effect on the listener is to put you
at ease in that kind of swinging context. It has the same effect on me playing with him – the ideas come out more easily
for me when I comp behind him than they do in a number of other situations.

Finally, one thing I always hear in Joel’s playing is an unapologetic emotional outpouring. He’s not beating around the
bush as far as that goes. You can hear it particularly well here on ‘Don’t Explain’ – no winking or nudging going on here,
just getting to the heart of the song, with all its sadness and resignation, immediately, from the first note.

I’m really proud to be on this record and was grateful that Joel decided to do it in a duo context – that was a special
treat. Hope you enjoy.

– Brad Mehldau, 2003 Page 1
Brad Mehldau Writing

Mark Turner
In This World

Brad Mehldau: Mark Turner: In This World

My first reaction on hearing Mark Turner was gratitude. Here was someone on intimate terms with music. I heard some-
one who had assimilated a wealth of information, but was already looking inward to express himself. There was noth-
ing strident about his playing. He possessed an enviable equanimity regarding improvisation, allowing the ideas to take
shape on their own. These kinds of musical assets probably have to do with a basic, unchanging faith that Mark has in
the creative process itself, and they were in place when I first heard him, in 1992.

What is it that gives a musician his or her personal “style”? Often, it’s the rhythmic and melodic qualities that draw us
in: phrases that stagger “behind the beat”, an inspired improvisation we say “could have been a whole new song.” Less
talked about, perhaps because the terminology becomes more specialized, is the specific harmonic imprint a player can
leave. The twelve-tone scale is always compelling to us. It’s a timeless set of elements containing the potential for infinite
variants. What a musician keeps and throws away within all that is what gives him a subjective voice - a calling card of
sentiment. Melody, because of its monophonic simplicity, is perceived on an objective level - a “good” melody is gauged
on its universality. But when these tones mix together, the experience becomes fragmented as each listener finds empa-
thy with the harmonic implications of a particular body of work. When we are “moved” in this way, it is on a deep, inner-

So it was Mark Turner the harmonist that moved me initially, and still does. His own compositions communicate this
most immediately. Take the opening track, “Mesa.” Over a pedal point of B we hear the saxophonist and piano play the
melody in unison, out of time, coyly giving the impression of mystery. This beginning only appears artless. Three tonal
centers are spelled out - B, E flat and G, respectively. Functioning less as melody, these parallel note-groups serve as
a harmonic blueprint for the rest of the tune. The relationship between three tonal areas a major third apart from each
other, and the crunchy impressionism of the major third and fourth of each row grinding together, are exploited, and the
result is a harmonic landscape throughout this “Mesa” that is very much Mark: opting for mediant relationships instead
of dominant-tonic, and casting a mixolydian blur on the dominant seventh chord with the added fourth, he conjures a
world of half-lights and shadows, filled with achy, suffused longing.

Not just harmonic, but melodic and rhythmic empathy exists in a band that improvises collectively, and it’s something
that’s often in place at the gate, the gravitating force that brings musicians together initially. With perseverance, play-
ers cultivate this, and develop a unique musical language together, as is the case with Mark’s personnel choice for this
recording. Kurt Rosenwinkel and Mark have played together in bands that both of them have led for several years, and
their rapport is evident: witness the uncanny fluidity in the unison melody they play on “Bo Brussels,” and their closely
linked improvisatory approach in this setting. Kurt, and Jorge Rossy as well, met Mark in their school days at Berklee
in 1990. Check out Jorge’s wonderfully lopey rhythmic addition on “She Said, She Said” (he’s checked out his Ringo!),
and his textures on “Bo Brussels.” Larry Grenadier and I started playing with Mark a couple years later. Larry’s role here
is characteristic: a foundation that is strong yet elastic in matters of rhythm. He has the ability, so appropriate for Mark’s
compositions, of supplying a churning pedal point, while simultaneously catching wisps and shards of harmony that the
soloist is implying. Brian Blade is someone we all admire for his ability to transcend his instrument through his con-
stantly compositional approach. Not once is he just marking time, taking up space. Instead, he spontaneously builds a Page 1
Brad Mehldau Writing

Mark Turner
In This World

drum part with its own organic logic. In matters of form, he is often a sort of guide through Mark’s compositions, plotting
courses through different sections, occasionally putting a firecracker under our collective ass when appropriate. Listen to
the way he steers the ship through Scylla and Charybdis with Odyssean cunning on mark’s “In This World.”

Whether it’s the up-tempo treatment of Mancini’s “Days of Wine and Roses,” or a reading of Duke Pearson’s beautiful
ballad, “You Know I Care,” Mark Turner’s sound on the horn is unmistakable: warm, capable of profound gentleness,
never saccharine, it’s a recipe for seduction. He uses his technical command of the altissimo register as a means to
an expressive end. In these upper limits of the tenor saxophone, he often plays with an easy affability, not distorted or
harsh. This juxtaposition of extremity and grace conveys an alluring kind of emotional baldness. Mark’s output involves
very little affectation. He doesn’t court the theatrics often associated with his instrument. Disarming in its sincerity, there
is a unique lack of need to represent irony or unexpectedness in his playing. Musicians in our age group (myself includ-
ed) frequently employ these sentiments to add flux to the plot of their musical storytelling. Mark seems to have already
moved beyond this in many ways, playing with a direct candor usually reserved for older players.

To close on a different note, a little about Mark Turner, the person: it’s been my observation that this graceful straight-
forwardness is something Mark carries into affairs outside of music. Comforting, that.

– Brad Mehldau, 1998 Page 2
Brad Mehldau Writing

Sam Yahel
Truth And Beauty

Brad Mehldau: Sam Yahel: Truth And Beauty

Sam Yahel’s musical identity can be seen as a reflection of his general character. I’ve known him since 1990 when he
came to New York City. Already then, Sam had a wide-ranging curiosity about a broad range of knowledge, and an inher-
ent ability to quickly absorb that knowledge and assimilate it, bringing it into the context of whatever he was doing. He
is always probing deeper as a musician, never content to rest on what he already has mastered. I’ve admired that trait
from the beginning of his development, watching how he created his own sound. Sam’s own voice as an improviser,
composer, and bandleader, comes through very clearly on the present recording, Truth And Beauty, which is arguably his
strongest recording as a leader thus far.

As a listener who has followed Sam’s playing for quite some time now, the music here strikes me as the fruition of a lot of
labor and love, and could be seen as a summation of sorts. Everything that he has gathered over the years presents itself
in a cohesive statement, and makes for a rewarding, deeply pleasurable listening experience.

Sam’s versatility has been an advantage for him throughout his career thus far, and has kept him busy. Practically from
the beginning, his phone was ringing, and as long as I’ve known him, there have always been people who want to play
with him. As a result, for quite some time, Sam has been the consummate sideman. More recently, for example, he has
worked with Joshua Redman, Bill Frisell, and Madeleine Peryroux – three fascinating musicians, each with a very distinc-
tive identity. Sam’s ability to move with ease among such company is a testament to his versatility, and again, it points to
certain character traits of his. In this case, it’s a question of integrity. As a musician, Sam is in it for the long run, and his
creative decisions along the way have reflected that stance. One such decision has been to pace himself in terms of his
own output as a leader, and meanwhile, leave his mark on other people’s projects.

If you want to lead a band in the jazz world, where do you look to for a model? How do you develop your own style?
There are thousands of recordings from which to draw guidance, but nothing can replace being a sideman in someone
else’s band and learning through that experience. And the more disparate your various tenures are, taken as a whole,
the more opportunity you have to find out what works for you as a leader and what doesn’t, when the time comes. The
soundness of this apprenticeship approach seems obvious enough, and it’s the path that Sam has followed throughout
his development. Not everyone jazz musician necessarily adheres to this approach, though. Many people rush to form
their own bands and record their own records as quickly as possible, and what they will then perhaps lack down the road
is a valuable way of gauging their own output.

When you are a sideman, to varying degrees, depending on how dictatorial the leader is, you are submitting yourself to
his or her vision; you are momentarily relinquishing your own identity. As a younger musician, this is not usually tragic,
because the identity isn’t there so much yet, but it becomes much more interesting when you really start to excel at what
you do: Your identity starts to smash against that of the leader, and while a certain amount of friction can be exciting,
usually an excellent sideman will try to find a compromise, where he can retain his own preferred approach in a given
playing situation, and still give the leader what he or she wants. When a musician masters this ability to retain his iden-
tity in a variety of situations, while still honoring the vision of the other players around, we can say that he “has his own
sound.” That is no small distinction; many musicians never find their own sound. Page 1
Brad Mehldau Writing

Sam Yahel
Truth And Beauty

I came to New York in 1988 and Sam arrived two years later, so we really “grew up” musically together, and I had the op-
portunity to watch Sam develop his own sound. There are perhaps several valid ways of defining what constitutes having
one’s own sound, but the above definition applies to Sam, and also to Joshua Redman and Brian Blade, the other two
musicians on this recording. The three of them share this ability to assert their own musical principles without relinquish-
ing a spirit of flexibility. I believe that this flexibility is a hallmark of ‘Gen X’ players, and perhaps the younger jazz musi-
cians coming up now. While it is risky business to write historically while the history is still unfolding, it’s nonetheless
possible to identify this common attribute that Sam, Josh and Brian share – a certain healthy malleability – as at least
partially informed by the climate in which they developed their respective voices.

All of us who began sharing our music with the public in earnest in the early 1990’s, in our 20’s, have a strange distinc-
tion: We are the first generation in jazz that has no distinguishing playing style to speak of. There are many styles that we
have latched onto, and some of us have made the rare leap into originality, but there is not one form of playing jazz that
takes precedence over others for us, the way, for instance, be-bop, hard bop, modal playing, and fusion did at various
other times. This characteristic of our generation is typically expressed in negative terms, as the absence of something,
but that absence of identity also implies an absence of constraint. Without one strong identity, we are without a play-
book, and are free to wander between various disciplines.

Musicians like Sam, Josh and Brian have initiated a way of wandering around various disciplines – hard bop, modal
jazz, funk, free playing, classically informed composition, pop harmony – in such a way that the transitions are organic.
Indeed, often there is no discernible transition; there is simply this wealth of disparate influences that coalesces into their
own vision. The music on Truth And Beauty can be seen in this light. It might be tempting to refer to this playing ethos as
“postmodern”, but that would be misleading. For “postmodern” often implies a pastiche of styles: the disparate elements
of a given piece of music, artwork, etc., will not necessarily gel into a cohesive whole. The idea is then to exploit this lack
of unity and revel in the incongruity of the material. This implies a necessarily ironic stance, and irony for its own sake is
not what Sam, Josh and Brian are up to here. (One could level a critique against that ethos of pastiche that permeated in
the 90’s and inevitably entered into the jazz scene through mostly Gen-X adherents: many of its offerings were crippled
by a lack of sincerity.)

On the contrary, the strong identity of this trio, and the way Sam has arranged the music here, eclipses the choice of
material. As a listener, you may recognize the original source and smile at that, but ultimately you’ll be moved by the
strength of the present performance itself. Consider the juxtaposition of two tracks here: “Night Game”, an overlooked
gem of Paul Simon’s; and Ornette Coleman’s essay, “Check-Up”. In terms of their genres – pop and free jazz – these
two tunes look like they’re on opposite poles of this record, on paper at least. But in fact they sit alongside each other
in terms of mood. Both are in major key signatures, and both have a rhythmic ease – “Check Up”, while free of a fixed
meter, nevertheless communicates a wonderful laxness. They are two of the warmest, most placid tracks on the record,
and effectively buffer the up-tempo animation of tunes like “Truth and Beauty” and “Saba”, or the darker minor key hues
of “Man O’War” and “Bend the Leaves”.

Sam, Josh and Brian have so far played and recorded together in two different settings: the Joshua Redman Elastic
Band, and the collectively led Yaya 3. Sam’s approach helped to define the sound behind both of these projects, and as
the leader here, we can immediately hear his empathy for the other musicians. That manifests itself in the way he shapes
the music – in his own writing on the six originals here, and also, importantly, in the way he has arranged and paced each
performance. The architecture of the songs – which soloist is featured where, for instance – exploits the natural strengths
of all three musicians. The effective and imaginative way that Sam allows form to follow function throughout this record Page 2
Brad Mehldau Writing

Sam Yahel
Truth And Beauty

is probably another trait that he has garnered from his sideman experience over the years. It’s all about making everyone

There are countless sonic options that a player has on the Hammond B-3 organ through use of the drawbars on the in-
strument, and Sam has honed in on several specific arrangements of those drawbars to develop his own sound palette.
Some of those settings are more directly informed by the history of the instrument and its chief practitioners, while others
are more idiosyncratic. On this record, the listener can hear how Sam’s choices in this regard always fit a given context.

His sonic gambit on “Bend The Leaves” is particularly effective, and more generally, this track shows how Sam, Josh and
Brian are always intuitively orchestrating for each other. For the majority of the song, Sam favors a dark, woody sound
that works great with Brian’s hand drumming at the beginning of the tune, creating a mood of muted sorrow. When Josh
enters, his plaintive reading of the melody adds to this verklemmpt feeling, because of the way he carefully calibrates his
tone with what’s already going on. Especially in the alto register of his horn, he thins his sound slightly, and holds back,
not unleashing everything. Here, Josh displays an important strength he has as a horn player: although he has a large
sound and a lot of reserve power on the horn, he is always so attentive to how he blends with the instruments around
him. This ability of Josh’s isn’t mentioned as much as other more obvious attributes of his, like his great virtuosity on
the instrument, yet it’s an important component in his own recordings, and is definitely put to use throughout Truth and
Beauty. Just listening to the way Josh blends with his surroundings on Sam’s melodies is a pleasure in itself.

Sam’s shift of a few drawbars, though, is the secret weapon on “Bend The Leaves.” It takes place during the poignant
transitional material that occurs after the main theme and between the solos. A higher drawbar is employed in such
a way that the organ suddenly shimmers slightly, and the timber change highlights the dramatic effect of this section,
which is all about emotional release from what has thus far taken place. It’s a subtle masterstroke.

Although Sam’s means of expression here is the organ, to understand him as a musician, it helps to consider the way he
has balanced his musical output between the organ and the piano throughout his career. Sam began with the piano and
discovered the organ later. In addition to absorbing lots of jazz piano, he also studied classically for several years, and it
plays an important part in Sam’s musical expression on the organ as well. Cross-pollination between the world of Bach
and Chopin and the world of Jimmy Smith and Larry Young doesn’t sound immediately obvious, but it’s not so much a
stylistic influence from classical music that you hear; rather, Sam has absorbed certain musical principles from that oeu-
vre and assimilated them into his writing for the organ trio, and his improvisatory approach as well.

One such principle is voice-leading – the notion that each voice in a chord moves with logic and integrity, and cor-
responds with the other notes. The tendency in jazz is often to split the music into a single note melody and a chordal
accompaniment, and for a jazz pianist that division takes place, more often than not, between the right and left hand
respectively. Individual voice-leading often takes a back seat in this approach when the left hand plays fixed chords
that have been worked out ahead of time, and therefore will not necessarily have any melodic integrity in the way they
move between each other. An organist has a further challenge, because the left hand is already busy playing a bass line.
One way to answer this challenge is to have the right hand supply the melody and harmony both. Sam does just that
in a myriad of ways on this record, but one particular way that he gives the listener melody and harmony on this record
shows up several times, and it’s where his ear for voice-leading comes into play. It’s a minimalist approach in the best
sense of the word – he gets the most out of a few notes by finding just the right notes to play. Page 3
Brad Mehldau Writing

Sam Yahel
Truth And Beauty

Take the opening title track, “Truth and Beauty.” After the brief introduction that establishes the simmering groove be-
tween Sam and Brian, we here the melody on the organ. The first time through, Sam plays it in single notes, with only the
bass line under it. The simplicity is just right, because it allows the listener to initially hone in on the melody. We hear its
opening motif, the way it arches outward and develops, and curves back downward, making a succinct opening para-
graph for us, one that is completely diatonic. Next, Sam gives us the same melody with an added note below it, imme-
diately moving in contrary motion with its own melodic logic. The second voice, with its chromatic movement, effectively
enriches the harmonic implication of what we heard the first time, deepening the hue of the tune and developing the plot
of the story we are hearing thus far.

A similar strategy is used on the haunting waltz, “Man O’War”, where the melody is heard first played by Sam in single
notes in a casual, swinging fashion, punctuated by funky chords that give us a sketch of the harmony. The second time
through the same material, Sam harmonizes the melody, and phrases it more deliberately – it’s a great effect, as if to say,
“Now listen more closely this time; I’m revealing more.” After the bridge, when Josh enters on the melody, the whole the-
matic statement has a gravity and wonderful inevitability about it, because of the logical way it has developed thus far.

Again, the narrative aspect of Sam’s vision strikes me. In both of those tunes, his storytelling comes through in two
concrete ways: in the song itself, and in the way he arranges the ensemble. The strategy of keeping Josh on deck for the
initial thematic statement, and bringing him in a little ways into the tune, is simple but very effective: First, the listener is
drawn into how much two musicians like Sam and Brian Blade can do together. A mere pair, they nevertheless sound
orchestrally complete, due in no small part to Brian’s constant invention on the drum kit. Just listening to Brian’s drums
alone on the initial duo statement of the melody in “Man O’War” – the way he begins minimally, at a softer dynamic, and
then progressively spreads out, using more drums, varying the rhythm and building dynamically – is a lesson in thematic
development. Here it must be said that one factor that sets apart Brian Blade as a drummer – and I would even say one
of the most important musicians of his generation on any instrument, period – is his ability to shape a song and give it
glue in such a rich, inventive manner. He gives any particular composition added heft as soon as he starts playing. It
could be a composition of Sam, but also of Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, or Wayne Shorter, to mention a few other musicians
and songwriters who have sought him out over the years.

Thematic development within the genre of jazz composition is a particular challenge. The word a musician uses to
describe a particular piece of music is telling: He or she will say, “I wrote a new tune.” The word ‘tune’ suggests some-
thing casual and offhand. In the best examples of jazz composition, though, this kind of self-effacing description belies
the deeper meaning that can reveal itself within an admittedly shorthand genre; most of the time jazz tunes try to stay
relatively compact so they can provide a fluid and concise format for the improvisation that will ensue. It strikes me that
Sam’s writing on this record has reached a new level. His tunes here are not just great vehicles for improvising. Each one
is miniature story.

Sam often develops the plot by casting the initial material of a given composition in a different light. On “Man O’War”,
we can see an example of the first of those two strategies. In its chordal movement, the mysterious organ introduction
establishes a link between two very distant keys – the tonic C Minor and E major. Setting these tonal centers adjacent to
each other spurred the imagination of composers like Brahms, in his first symphony or first piano quartet. They are op-
posite in mood – C Minor is dark and tends toward somber, while E Major is all light and joy. When the “head” of the tune
proper starts, we are clearly in a minor-keyed world for a stretch of time, until the bridge section arrives, beginning on E
major. At this moment, the heraldic effect on the listener comes in part because of the freshness of the harmonic change,
but also because we’ve been prepped for the moment – we realize that the introductory material of “Man O’War”, with its
mystery and uncertainty, was in fact a thesis-like, condensed statement of the entire song. It is a way of telling what Page 4
Brad Mehldau Writing

Sam Yahel
Truth And Beauty

the song is “about”: the distance between these two tonal centers is conveyed in the introduction, and the actual journey
takes place throughout the rest of the performance.

In “Saba”, another original, Sam also uses tonal and metric relationships, to great compositional effect. Here, the idea is
to contrast two very different moods from each other. We could maybe describe them as waking reality and its antidote
of daydream and fantasy. During the opening ‘reality’ theme, heard in A-flat Major, the meter is a tricky, asymmetrical
hopscotch of three, three and four. The rhythmic dynamic here is very much the domain of Sam, Josh and Brian. Worthy
in complexity of Bartok’s music or prog-rock, the feel is a rollicking, funky dance. This is something these guys excel at –
making an unconventional meter sound natural and fluid. It only becomes tricky when you try to count it!

This A-Flat major section – I kind of picture a jaunt through midtown Manhattan during rush hour, adeptly skipping
around oncoming pedestrian traffic - is contrasted suddenly by an interlude in D Major. The tonality change is significant
because of the tri-tone relationship between the two keys. D Major is furthest possible key from A-Flat Major; they sit,
so to speak, on opposite ends of the circle. We immediately sense a radical shift in mood. Appropriately, the time feel
downshifts for this D Major bit, along with the overall dynamic level of the trio, and we’re at half speed now, in a killing
7/4 groove, at once stately and dreamy, punctuated by Brian’s perfectly minimal commentary as he moves away from
the cymbals, favoring a drier sound for this section. Although this interlude is radically different than what preceded it –
we’re now perhaps in the daydream of that virtuosic pedestrian after he or she has boarded the subway and sat down
– it’s nevertheless possible to discern that, as in “Man O’War”, the moment has been prepared for us to some extent.
The melody reminds us, strangely, of the syncopated hustle-bustle of the first melody, in a very far-off, removed kind of
way. The reality theme and the dreamy one have a motific resemblance: in both, the center of gravity is squarely on the
tonic, and in both cases as well, the melody approaches that tonic from the flatted 7th scale tone a step below the tonic,
playing with that stepwise relationship. A listener hears this kind of underlying architecture intuitively, and it gives Sam’s
compositions on this record their depth.

The title of the record, Sam explained, comes from a poem by Keats. In it, truth and beauty are equated with each other:
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” - that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know. The sentiment is twofold: Beauty
must contain truth in order to exist, so when we perceive beauty, it communicates that truth to us. The idea is an old one
and has appeared in various contexts over the years. Perhaps it takes its cue from Plato, who posited idealized forms
that lie behind everything, hidden, and give the visible world a shape that makes sense to us. It has taken a beating over
the years by empiricists and relativists alike because it posits truth as something objective and outside of us, and not just
a human construct, subject to the vagaries of our perception, which constantly shifts with historical circumstances. Basi-
cally, these arguments rest on a rejoinder: If beauty communicates truth, then what is truth?

However unanswerable that question may be, the idea that truth and beauty are one in the same has never completely
lost currency in the realm of art, as a way of explaining the mysterious rightness of a particular artwork – the way it
pleases a large group of people immediately and without explanation or effort. With art, the argument goes, the conceit
that truth and/or beauty are objective is temporarily permitted, because art for us is already bracketed out of everyday
reality: Art is a bridge between those eternal, hidden forms of Plato and our ordinary perception. It reveals truth obliquely,
showing us only its contours, and we submit willingly to its shadow game of abstraction. If art doesn’t do this, one could
argue – if it only represents the reality that’s already around us – then it remains topical, like those pastiche offerings that
merely communicate the abundant, immediately perceivable disharmony that’s all around us. Page 5
Brad Mehldau Writing

Sam Yahel
Truth And Beauty

Sam’s gloss on the poem is to locate truth in the intent of the musician. Far from being a self-evident proclamation, Sam
explained that the title of the record points to a realization that gestated for years, and crystallized relatively recently. He
examined his own motives as a musician, and found that they were not always “true”. For example, he reflected that his
playing was at times too involved in a quest to excel and be the best, and that this desire obscured the potential beauty
of the music-making experience for him. Furthermore, he saw that when this more ego-driven desire was absent, the
music was more beautiful. The beauty, then, comes from honesty about the nature of one’s motivation as a musician.
Although it can be uncomfortable to confront the more ego-related aspects of one’s musical persona, this process of
self-examination is ultimately rewarding for the musician and the listener alike. The music here is not trying to be any-
thing other than what it is, and this secure alignment of intent and actual creation – of truth and beauty – contributes to
its aesthetic success.

Brad Mehldau Page 6