Jazz straddles a dangerous line these days, teetering on the edge of resembling hotel lounge music or a regurgitation of the past. In an art form stressing the improvisation of the individual, there seems to be a general rubric for expressing that individuality. Artists rely on the structures and forms of the “greats” before them, adhering to a confined code of what “jazz” should sound like. Yet, while there is no way to denounce jazz legends Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, if current jazz musicians continue to model their compositions after the same riffs and chord patterns, their creation becomes little more than a museum practice.
The hype machine has churned out pianist Brad Mehldau as the “savior” of jazz, and you can see if he lives up to the buzz when the Brad Mehldau Trio performs tonight at the Michigan Theater.
Gaining recognition among younger crowds with his tumultuous 9-minute cover of Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android,” Mehldau has made a name for himself among jazz cats and critics alike, taking pop songs as an inspirational starting point and building upon the basic melodies. His ability to take the emotions in songs like the Beatles’s “Blackbird” and Oasis’s “Wonderwall” and move them into an ethereal state through a series of Chopin-esque progressions and improvisational trills, pushes jazz into a more accessible realm. Mehldau is able to connect with his audience, avoiding the alienation that plagues many composer-audience relationships.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Mehldau’s music is that you can see the individual artist in both his covers and his original compositions. Like a painting that reveals the artist through its brush strokes, Mehldau’s compositions are revealed in watching his fingers as they travel across the keys. The left hand constantly builds the melody while the right hand hangs restlessly, awaiting a moment of inspiration to take the improvisational lead. The conversation between his hands, and then between the two other band members, speaks of the “now” that is missing from much of jazz. Unlike the jazz that rehashes history, these moments of creation generate a testament to the nearness in which Mehldau is able to reach and translate the transcendental experience.
“Jazz, in its most inspired moments, makes a kind of exalted fuck you to mortality in the flux of its improvisations,” Mehldau wrote in his liner notes to his album The Art of the Trio IV: Back At The Vanguard.
Perhaps it is this aspect that listeners identify with that has contributed to his growing fanbase, or perhaps it is the commodity he becomes through covering pop songs. Either way, Mehldau reaches an audience outside of the jazz world. He stands a chance at keeping jazz out of hotel lobbies.
“Jazz musicians want to make the earth move now, they don’t want to interpret how someone else did it,” Mehldau writes.
Concerning the trap that jazz musicians fall into when they improvise according to a predetermined structure, Mehldau suggests, “The listener is treated like a tourist, while curator-musicians guide them through specific corridors of jazz history.”
Maybe tonight we will experience a show where the listener is treated like a listener, and the musicians have no need for hyphenated identities, where jazz is heard on the streets instead of in the museums.