You probably have one of two attitudes toward jazz. You may ooze with nostalgia when you hear the names John Coltrane and Miles Davis, thinking fondly of a musical era that explored the depths of creativity and utilized “real” instruments, or you may just be kind of indifferent toward jazz. Those names ring a faint bell, but only because you remember seeing them on your parents’ old, dusty records.

Either way, jazz has become somewhat of an anachronism in our culture. Its biggest stars were in their prime more than 50 years ago, and there is no jazz musician we can point to and assume most people have heard of him or her. Yet, there are some who still poke their heads out and appear in the Arts sections of the nation’s leading newspapers.

One such figure is Brad Mehldau, whose traditional jazz talents for extensive and creative improvisation are enmeshed in a playful worldliness. He is known to pick and choose what he likes from popular culture, such as themes from Radiohead’s famous songs, and use them as a base for his improvisations. His Live in Tokyo album from 2004 features a 20-minute long interpretation of Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android,” and also adaptations of the music of George and Ira Gershwin, Thelonius Monk and Nick Drake.

This makes for an intriguing experience for the modern jazz listener, who probably could use some context for the wild creativity that will ensue. The attentiveness needed to fully digest jazz could fall by the wayside, and jazz could again be seen as an uninteresting relic from the past to a listener likely more intrigued by Kanye West’s thrilling production hooks.

Luckily, Mehldau easily integrates the network of popular musical themes into his jazz. And despite combining rather disparate musical elements into one narrative, it never feels laborious. The result doesn’t dwell on the massively popular influences it draws on, and it still breathes Mehldau.

In Mehldau’s latest production, the references aren’t as popular as Radiohead, but rather other jazz musicians and childhood heroes such as Aquaman, who finds himself as a title of one of the songs. But Ode, released this month by the Brad Mehldau Trio, is still a valuable reminder of the more artisanal possibilities that can arise from music like jazz.

Catering to the modern listener likely isn’t Mehldau’s primary concern in formulating his music, and this is a good thing. It keeps the Radiohead inclusions from feeling like one big marketing ploy. Obviously, Mehldau is simply intrigued by the music surrounding him, giving him a worldliness that could give his jazz that extra bit of palatability that it needs to thrive today.

Yet, it’s still hard to tune in to a jazz album. Though, it can be helpful to know that the greatest growth can happen outside our comfort zones, and by giving Mehldau a listen, we can expand our conception of creativity. We are used to often tinny and predictable productions, but Mehldau’s work is far from this. The richness of its classical instrumentation reaches the depths of our eardrums, and when combined with the inherent spontaneity of jazz, the result is music more engaged in the present without the concern of where it’s going to go. It may not exploit knowledge of what hooks tug hardest at our heartstrings, so the experience may not be so easily gratifying. But, it’s freer.

This is not meant to disparage pop music. It’s not to say Mehldau and other jazz musicians are the real deal because they use the piano and string bass and not Auto-tune. It’s merely an invitation to see how spontaneity changes music.

If you suddenly feel receptive to the age-old and annoying-as-hell cliché of “expand your horizons,” and don’t want to get your fingers all dusty perusing old records, maybe you’d enjoy listening to any of Mehldau’s extensive, and brilliant, works.

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