Brad Mehldau
Photo: Nonesuch Records

Brad Mehldau Draws Inspiration from the Beatles

Jazz pianist Brad Mehldau is at the peak of his powers, paying tribute to the music of the Beatles on Your Mother Should Know.

Your Mother Should Know: Brad Mehldau Plays the Beatles
Brad Mehldau
10 February 2023

Pianist Brad Mehldau is the ultimate jazz chameleon, at home covering songs by composers as diverse as Cole Porter, Thelonious Monk, Radiohead, Stone Temple Pilots, Nick Drake, George Gershwin, and Massive Attack. His approach to these compositions never feels like a pop culture goof or a winking, “hey, how weird would it be for me to play ‘Interstate Love Song’ on the piano?” kind of parlor trick. He respects the sophistication that can be derived from these compositions and treats them all with equal reverence. While he’s no stranger to the Beatles‘ oeuvre – over the years, he’s recorded versions of “Martha My Dear”,” “Mother Nature’s Son”, “Blackbird”, among others – Your Mother Should Know is his first attempt to make a complete Beatles covers album (except for one song, which we’ll get to). By any measure, it’s a spectacular success.

Recorded live over two nights in Paris in 2020, Your Mother Should Know won’t surprise Mehldau fans, as it’s a pretty typical approach for the pianist. Leveraging the Beatles’ unique ear for melodies as a starting point, he often shifts into more extended soloing before returning to the song’s original structure, although the soloing seems a lot more reined in this time, with a couple of exceptions. In the record’s extensive liner notes, Mehldau quotes literary scholar Harold Bloom’s explanation of what makes particular works of literature endure to explain the Beatles’ cultural longevity: “The answer, more often than not, has turned out to be strangeness, a mode of originality that either cannot be assimilated or that so assimilates us that we cease to see it as strange.”

In other words, the Beatles have been so baked into our collective consciousness that we accept their frequent compositional oddities, of which there are many. As if to illustrate the point immediately, Your Mother Should Know begins with the baroque psychedelia of “I Am the Walrus”. Mehldau’s interpretation is deeply faithful to the original, and hearing the full band chaos transferred to solo piano only highlights the beautiful weirdness.

The Beatles’ love of different musical genres affects this album to the extent that it makes it one of Mehldau’s most eclectic. The gleeful up-tempo rock of “I Saw Her Standing There” is transformed into barroom boogie-woogie, an unusual style for Mehldau, but he handles it with great ease. The deeply melodic waltz of “Baby’s in Black” gets a bluesy, almost gospel-flavored treatment.

Mehldau explains in the liner notes that the Beatles’ “rhythmic lurches” are part of what made them unique and, in many cases, head and shoulders above their contemporaries. “Unlike in the progressive rock that began to appear in the following (post-Beatle) years, though, these rhythmic quirks in the Beatles’ music – and there is a fair share of them – never feel self-conscious, demanding dutiful attention. They just happen along with everything else, and we accept them easily enough as part of the fabric of the music.” This is certainly the case with “She Said She Said”, covered here by Mehldau in a way where the odd phrasing and rhythms are perfectly executed and never seem to draw attention to themselves. Mehldau interprets the Beatles as composers who are naturally gifted, period.

As the Beatles ushered the way for more artists to work sophisticated chord progressions and harmonies, “a new kind of melodrama in pop music became possible”, Mehldau writes in the liner notes, “heard in songs from artists like Queen and David Bowie“. As a tribute to this new musical direction brought on by the Beatles, the “encore” track of this set is Bowie’s “Life on Mars”, which follows Mehldau’s lengthy, gorgeous take on “Golden Slumbers”. The Bowie track is such a melodic gem that Mehldau doesn’t need to do much heavy lifting to make the song soar, which it absolutely does, even as he adds some lovely bluesy touches.

After all these years, Brad Mehldau is still one of the most exciting and enduring voices today, not just due to his natural skill behind the piano, his choices, and his determination to treat all compositions with equal merit. Your Mother Should Know is an artist at the peak of his powers, interpreting the songwriting of a group of musicians whose music will last long after we’re all gone.

RATING 9 / 10