Once there was a way
Bittersweetness meets Beatlemania in Brad Mehldau's solo run at The Village Vanguard
The Brad Mehldau chapter of Playing Changes is titled “From This Moment On” — a nod to the Cole Porter standard found on Mehldau’s 1995 debut, in a suave trio arrangement that establishes both his rootedness in the songbook tradition and his intention to redraw it with a contemporary line. In many ways that process is what the chapter’s about: not just one musician’s story but also the crucial challenge faced by any self-searching jazz musician seeking to honor the language and lineage while carving out space for themselves. “From This Moment On” felt like the right talisman for this aspiration, with its firm declaration of purpose, its hopeful delineation of After and Before.
On Thursday night, Mehldau played Porter’s tune near the midpoint of his first set at The Village Vanguard, where he’d sold out a weeklong solo residency. The tempo was brisk, the right-hand lines boppish and elaborative. I found myself thinking less about some marker for the future than about vestiges of the past: mainly the spirit of a New York piano room like Bradley’s, where aspiring young players like Mehldau, once upon a time, soaked up wisdom and admonishments from the older cats. That particular substratum of experience has largely faded from the scene, but it had a deep influence on Mehldau, as I know he’ll elucidate in a forthcoming memoir.
I’ve had the chance to hear Mehldau perform as a solo pianist many times, always coming away with something new to consider. Rather than a reduction, the solo format usually provides an opening for him — a turn toward some deeper engagement with song form, allowing him to reach inside and rummage around. But even though we have essential documentation like Live in Tokyo, you wouldn’t say there’s one ideal version of Solo Mehldau. A dozen years ago, I saw him play a cycle of original pieces at the Highline Ballroom — somber, ruminative stuff, suffused with post-minimalist pulsation. A few months later I saw him again at The Falcon, and it couldn’t have been more of a contrast: loose-fitting grunge covers, rendered with an offhanded eloquence.
Thursday’s first set began with a song that invokes that Hudson Valley hub: “The Falcon Will Fly Again,” from Mehldau’s Highway Rider. (On the album it’s a portrait of community, complete with familial vocals.) Mehldau segued from there into “Perugia,” one of the most memorable themes from his 2000 album Places. Then came a treat from a more recent vintage: “In the Kitchen,” off the exquisite pandemic album Suite: April 2020. (We talked about that album at the time. It feels so long ago now, in one sense, but the music snaps it right back into focus.) “From This Moment On” was next, followed by another choice songbook entry, Hoagy Carmichael’s “The Nearness of You.”
The centerpiece in the set was Mehldau’s beautiful “Waltz For J.B.” — a triple nod, he has acknowledged, to producer Jon Brion, John-Boy from The Waltons, and Johannes Brahms. As you'd expect, it highlighted the stately side of Mehldau’s solo playing, with the bittersweet ache that he once referenced in another song title: sehnsucht, a German word related to yearning or wistful desire. Here’s a solo version of the song recorded in Italy in 2010, and included on 10 Years Solo Live.
There’s a subtle drift of pop lyricism in “Waltz For J.B.” that I naturally associate with Brion. Peel back another layer, and what you get is Lennon-McCartney — The Beatles being perhaps the most meaningful point of convergence for Mehldau and Brion. So it makes sense, looking back, that this was the hinge in Thursday’s set. The next five songs came straight out of a Beatles pedigree, reflecting the focus, Mehldau said, of a forthcoming album. He added that he’d partly been inspired by Get Back, Peter Jackson’s miraculous marathon of documentary footage from the sessions for Let It Be.
The mix of songs in this mini-tribute was rangy and inspired: George Harrison’s raga-like “If I Needed Someone”; the early Lennon-McCartney country waltz “Baby’s In Black”; the White Album classic “Dear Prudence,” set in an easygoing 7/4 meter. Mehldau also played David Bowie’s “Life on Mars,” reasoning that while it isn’t a Beatles tune, it was canonically Beatles-inspired.
I already knew, based on a tip from Ethan Iverson’s Twitter feed, that “Life on Mars” had entered Mehldau’s solo repertory. And I’d been wondering whether he would bring the same balance of twinkly abstraction and raging catharsis that Iverson did, when The Bad Plus recorded the song. Of course not: Mehldau is a different pianist and a different improviser, with instincts that run more toward elaboration within the frame. His “Life on Mars” was delicate, almost decorous, luxuriating in the shape of the melody. He allowed himself one outrageous flourish at the close of the tune — a cascade in octaves that called to mind the camp grandeur of the Fountains of Bellagio. Actual LOL.
There’s one facet of Solo Mehldau that I’d been missing in the set: a sort of obsessive, exploratory trance mode. He often goes there on tunes by Radiohead, which were notably absent from this set. The most startling example I can point to, though, is an epic version of “God Only Knows” from 10 Years Solo Live. (I write about its effect in Playing Changes. I’ve played this track for a handful of folks, and can report that it’s divisive.)
“Golden Slumbers,” the Paul McCartney lullaby from Abbey Road, was what delivered this sensation in Thursday’s set. Mehldau cradled the melody, playing its first 8 bars (“Once there was a way / to get back homeward…”) in the piano’s midrange with a gentle left hand. His right hand took over the next phrase (“Sleep pretty darling…”), expanding the sonic parameters. And soon we were in deep, with Mehldau’s improvisatory logic in full, expansive effect. He never abandoned the mood of the song, but for a good stretch he fixated on one four-bar repetition, building a cathedral out of a coda. Keith Jarrett used to embrace this strategy too, but Mehldau’s language is entirely his own. I’d put his “Golden Slumbers” up there with some of the best solo work I’ve heard from him.
“Through every chapter,” I write in Playing Changes, “solo piano was the format in which Mehldau made the most dramatic growth in public.” How remarkable that he could still be growing within the format, and how fortunate we are to come along for the ride.