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Metheny and Mehldau: jazz here, now

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen, CO Colorado
Jazz guitarist Pat Metheny headlines Friday at Aspen's Wheeler Opera House, performing with pianist Brad Mehidau. (Jimmy Katz)
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ASPEN ” In the liner notes to his 1999 album “Art of the Trio 4,” pianist Brad Mehldau made an aggressive swipe at the tendencies of jazz critics. Mehldau took exception to the frequent comparisons made between himself and white pianists of an earlier generation who specialized in the trio format, especially Bill Evans. The complaint touched on racial grounds, and on the validity of the references in terms of style.

The core of Mehldau’s argument, however, has to do with the nature of jazz. Being rooted in improvisation, jazz ” at its best, and in the way Mehldau approaches it ” is about spontaneity, is tied up with the moment in which it is made. That means the music should reflect not only the player’s contemporaneous emotional state, but also the broader times in which it was made. Which means looking backward, to Bill Evans or Lennie Tristano or Thelonious Monk or whomever, for anything but general inspiration, subverts the essence of jazz.

“The act of improvisation is a perpetual birthing,” wrote Mehldau, referring to jazz as “a music that evades the burden of history.”

On a certain day in 1994, guitarist Pat Metheny wasn’t reading liner notes. He was driving, listening to the radio. But the music he heard made that same argument that Mehldau would make several years later in the liner notes. The tune was “Chill,” a track from saxophonist Joshua Redman’s then current CD, “MoodSwing.” Among the sidemen was Mehldau, 24 years old at the time.

Metheny had been put on notice about the hot, young pianist. Sometime earlier, when Metheny and Redman were playing gigs together, the saxophonist pulled the guitarist aside and told him, in meaningful tones, that he had just hired a piano player who Metheny was going to love. But even thus warned, when Metheny heard Mehldau’s playing, even before the piano solo came around, he had the proverbial pull-over-to-the-side-of-the-road moment.

“In the comping, while Josh was playing his solo, I said, ‘This has got to be the guy,'” said Metheny, from his home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. “There was so much stuff going on. There were so many things at work there that, as a fan of music, I love to hear.”

Metheny says he can count the moments he was similarly affected by a piece of music: the first time he heard Shostakovich; the late saxophonist Michael Brecker’s version of “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight.” They are musical experiences that transcended technique and tonality to pierce what Metheny calls “the X factor”: “The freshness and originality,” continued Metheny. “All the things I was hungering to hear were in place.”

Above all, what Metheny sensed in Mehldau’s playing was a music embedded in its time. Mehldau wasn’t paying homage to anyone, but was pouring forth his own, specific experience.

“To really be living an referencing the moment in culture he finds himself in … ,” said Metheny. “It is acoustic jazz, and maybe a little close to the tradition, and I’ve been more of a dissenter against that. But there’s also a sense of getting to the tradition by addressing the particulars of your moment within that culture.

“If I look at all my favorites in jazz history, there’s not one of them pretending to live in any era other than their own. There’s a strange vapor when a music is living in the time. And a more fragrant sense when the musician has the ability to express his experience.”

Metheny compares Mehldau to some of his other favorite musicians: Shostakovich, and Brecker (who died from complications of leukemia in January, and with whom Metheny had occasionally recorded). Pianists Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett. Composer Steve Reich. And the field is not limited to musicians; Metheny mentions painter Paul Klee among those who were able to capture contemporary life in their art.

“It’s not really about style,” he said. “They’re really investigating who they are, and looking at everything that was in their background and reflecting it in a very detailed way.

“I hear that in someone like Brad and I go, ‘OK, I’m not crazy.’ It’s a relief there are people out there like this.”

If Metheny’s first reaction to hearing Mehldau was relief, what followed soon after was the desire to make music with him. The two musicians did meet within a year of Metheny’s momentous hearing of “Chill,” at a piano festival in France. Over the years, the two busy, globe-trotting musicians, both parents of young children, would cross paths now and again, but for minutes at a time. The conversation was usually limited to: “Let’s record together.”

“The musicians’ version of ‘Call me’ is, ‘We should play sometime,'” said Metheny. “But every time Brad and I said that, we said ‘We should really play sometime. It was kind of an unspoken thing that we would.”

When the collaboration didn’t materialize, Metheny finally took the extreme step of booking a recording space in New York. The two convened, along with drummer Jeff Ballard and bassist Larry Grenadier, both from Mehldau’s current trio, for several days in December 2005.

Metheny was confident that the two would click musically. Metheny had seen interviews in which Mehldau mentioned him as an inspiration. There was an age gap ” Metheny is 52, Mehldau 36 ” but Metheny had fruitful relationships with musicians (Gary Burton, Charlie Haden, Jack Dejohnette) significantly older than he. The gap of 16 years meant that the two would share at least some common background. Besides, there were bigger factors than age.

“There’s no real generation gap,” said Metheny, whose use of synthesizers and embrace of contemporary styles demonstrates an interest to confront the present. “We’re all involved in the same kind of research. He was aspiring to the same things I was aspiring to, to have all 12 notes going at all times.”

Still, there was the chance that the sessions would be a dud. For one thing, Metheny and Mehldau had never had a conversation of more than a few minutes before meeting in the studio. For another, piano and guitar are not ideal mates in a combo; Metheny says the two instruments provide “the constant potential of clashing.” But the two slipped into an easy groove, and the result is not one album, but two: “Metheny Mehldau,” featuring mostly duo pieces, released in September; and “Quartet,” released this week.

The two have been playing often since; their tour, with Ballard and Grenadier, comes to Aspen’s Wheeler Opera House on Friday, March 16.

“This particular occasion is unlike anything I’ve done, and I can speak for Brad too,” said Metheny. “We didn’t have any idea it would work at all. I had enough trepidation that we didn’t tell anyone, not the record company.”

Instead, they booked the studio, walked in, and faced the moment. Remarkably, between the two principals, they came into the studio with 24 tunes. They came out with 24 recorded tracks, of which 21 made it onto CD.

“If you had told me that was going to happen, I would have said no way,” said Metheny. “But I felt like I could play anything. We always felt we could be ourselves. We were both sort of taking a lot of liberties.”

It’s not so different from another of Metheny’s recent projects. In late 2001, he went to his home studio for a night of recording. As with the Metheny Mehldau project, he was on unfamiliar turf. His instrument that evening was a baritone guitar, with the unusual “Nashville” tuning. The result was the 2003 album “One Quiet Night,” Metheny’s first-ever solo guitar recording, and winner of the Grammy for best New Age album.

“It’s that thing of setting up no expectations,” he said. “That works very well for me. I hadn’t set up to record, just to play. If I had said, ‘OK, I’m going to play my first solo guitar record, I probably wouldn’t have happened like this.”

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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