Metheny / Mehldau — On the Record

There are only a handful of jazz musicians who can successfully negotiate the line between artistic integrity and popular success. Since he emerged in the mid-’70s as an exceptionally melodic electric guitarist, Pat Metheny has been one such musician — making humable, breezy records with his Pat Metheny Group while also holding his own with mavericks like Ornette Coleman and Derek Bailey.

Twenty years later, pianist Brad Mehldau seemed to add his name to the short list. An intensely serious musician with classical background and chops, Mehldau also attracted fans from beyond jazz. He did this not only by covering The Beatles and Radiohead, but also by playing with notable — dare we say, “Metheny-esque”? — lyricism and melodic sting. Though he has been inevitably compared to pianist Bill Evans, Mehldau has proven that he, too, is larger than a reductive label; recording with his trio, collaborating with pop producer Jon Brion, and composing art songs for Renee Fleming.

Maybe, then, it was inevitable that Metheny and Mehldau would work and record together. The result, Metheny / Mehldau, was released by Nonesuch on 12 September of this year. Featuring both duets and collaborations between Metheny and Mehldau’s working trio, the album is pensive, dartingly melodic, and as rich as a great meal. With a follow-up volume planned for the future, this is a collaboration of real substance.

Both musicians have talked openly of their admiration for each other. Mehldau recounts listening to Metheny albums as a youngster and knowing that the music spoke directly to him, and Metheny well-recalls first hearing Mehldau when the pianist played with saxophonist Joshua Redman. PopMatters got each musician to answer a few questions about their collaboration and the thrill of playing together.

Metheny is effusive and charming, Mehldau is terser, but both musicians address their music with openness and seriousness of purpose. Here is the record of our critic Will Layman’s exchanges with these two jazz stars.

A Question for Pat: The collective quality of playing on duets is striking. The records remind me not only of the Jim Hall / Bill Evans duets but also the Chick Corea / Gary Burton records in the way the playing is so successfully intertwined. What previous jazz duets did you discuss or consider as you approached this project?

Metheny: Well, first of all thanks for the high praise. The two records that you mentioned probably would be two of the prime examples that I would use as setting the standard by which all duets in this general area of music would be measured.

However, in fact, I can’t recall us discussing those records or any others as we led into this project. I think for both of us, we knew only that we were setting off into uncharted waters since neither one of us really knew the other that well and had never played together before. But the awareness that I think we each brought to the table of the other’s music and history seemed to allow us to just start a dialog that almost instantly dove us both into the deep end. Even when the music is simple, there is a reserve of listening and awareness that I think we were each able to offer the other that made what came out come out the way it did. Whether it had been duets or a large ensemble, I have a feeling that both us have a tendency to regard each situation in an orchestrational way, so that we are intuitively making lots of choices (notes, density, etc.) that allow the music to sound good. What was special about this to me was the extent to which we were both able to do the things that we both do well while at the same time supporting the other in a way that let us both really play full out.

A Question for Brad: When I talk to music fans who know little about jazz, you are one jazz musician they tend to know and enjoy — a trait you have in common with Pat. Given that your music is acoustic and largely “serious jazz”, to what do you attribute this? Is it a goal you set for yourself in any way?

Mehldau: I’ve always just tried to be who I am and be honest in terms of what I play. If that reaches a larger group of people, great. If it doesn’t — if it remains obscure — that’s okay as well. I’m happy to have the opportunity to record the records I want to — I’m very aware that that’s a privilege.

A Question for Pat: Your career has arguably toggled between more accessible music (the PMGroup), and music that is influenced by and veers closer to avant-garde jazz. Toward which pole do you see this project? In many ways it seems to be in both or neither camp. Was that conscious?

Metheny: I am glad you at least included an “arguably” in there. I wouldn’t characterize any aspect of what I have been involved with as a musician over the years that way and often view that analysis as a warning flag. Avant-garde, jazz, pop, classical, country and western, rock, free, straight-ahead, etc. are ultimately meaningless terms in the face of the music being discussed at best — at worst, those terms often serve as code words for what is in fact a cultural / political discussion more than a musical one. In the end, it is all just talk. Music is one big thing to me. This record underlines that philosophy, as have a number of the others along the way.

A Question for Brad: Both you and Pat have a history of using pop material in your jazz performances. Did you consider doing so on this project? At least on the first disc, why did you decide against it?

Mehldau: There was no decision against it per se; it just didn’t come up. We wound up writing a lot of material and had plenty to work with; the record really developed along those lines.

A Question for Pat: Both you and Brad have sometimes taken a “new standards” approach to repertoire, playing strong tunes by contemporary singer-songwriters. Similarly, you have both used modern studio production techniques in the past. Were those approaches considered for this record? Why did you go with a more “classic jazz” approach here?

Metheny: It is true that this is a “documentary” type of production style. It is what it is based on what we played during those days. That was the right way to tell this particular story. To me, there are lots of different stories to tell and you usually find the best way to tell the one you are telling once you are in it.

A Question for Brad: Did you have to change the chemistry of your trio when incorporating Pat? How did that go?

Mehldau: I guess chemistry always changes when you play with someone else, but if that someone else is an inspiring musician like Pat, then that’s exactly what’s fun about it, and that was definitely the case here. There were a few different hook-ups going on that were intuitive when we recorded quartet, though, so there wasn’t a feeling of adjustment. Pat and I had already been recording together as a duo before the trio came in, so we were very locked in to each other’s playing. But Larry and Pat had also played a lot together in a trio that Pat had a few years ago, so they had a precedent for communicating with each other already that was independent of my trio.

A Question for Pat: Surely it was difficult to find space within the sound of long-standing trio like Brad’s. How did you approach becoming a member of that group without losing your own identity as a player?

Metheny: Sometimes I try to lose my identity, and I can’t get rid of it!

In fact, I have been such a fan of that trio over the years. I realized that every time I have ever heard them, the entire time I am listening to them, I have been playing along with them in my brain. I knew we would all be able to play together just fine. The surprise was just how much fun it was. Every day that we played was a blast. It was an intense week — as intense as it gets, actually — but in the best possible way. We all challenged each other but had the payoff of the music coming out the way it did as a reward for really just about every piece we tried. It was great.

A Question for Brad: In writing tunes for this project, did you find yourself thinking specifically about Pat’s style and sound on guitar? How did that change your writing, if at all?

Mehldau: The thing is, whenever I think of Pat as a musician, there’s such a broad range of stuff that he does. In terms of his sound, for instance, ‘sounds’ would really be more accurate — he has a palette that he draws from by using different guitars in different contexts. So I felt like I had many options and could do pretty much anything.

A Question for Pat: Brad is an amazing and deeply involving player, yet on this record you seem to bring out the more emotive, Romantic player in him. What does his playing bring out in you?

Metheny: I have already learned so much just from watching and listening to him. I admire his commitment to creativity. He really has a way of almost stopping himself from giving away too much too soon and really waiting for things to come along. He has enormous patience. I think he brings out that quality in me, too. I have gone through many phases over the years — wanting to leave LOTS of space, wanting to FILL every space, playing a very chromatic kind of way, playing in a very simple diatonic kind of way, etc., and I have always waited for things to emerge in the music to follow. Brad is giving me a chance to follow that instinct even more.

A Question for Brad: To my ear, this is one of your warmest performances on record. Your playing sounds utterly relaxed and at ease. Do you think that is an accurate description? If you agree, to what do you attribute it?

Mehldau: Thank you; I guess I attribute it to being relaxed and at ease in general as a musician, not only in this setting — I’m not particularly unrelaxed or not at ease in other settings.

A Question for Pat: You and Brad have done a remarkable job of keeping your two chordal instruments from clashing — and I notice that you often play accompanying lines of melody rather than traditional ‘comping’ while Brad leads on some tunes. Could you discuss this approach and how it affects the music?

Metheny: I think that the melodic piece of the puzzle in music is the most esoteric and difficult to quantify. One of the early things about Brad that struck me was the way he would keep each idea going until it organically led to the next thing. He wouldn’t abandon things midstream. And I think that that same level of detail and narrative flow is at work harmonically and rhythmically with him. Those are all qualities that I aspire towards and have always tried to invoke, so it was a really natural fit. When all three elements (melody, harmony and rhythm) are being addressed with that level of consideration of the other musician, you can start swapping them around — a melodic phrase can be “comping”; a rhythm becomes a melody. As much as the tern “free” gets thrown around, that level of mutual listening is always liberating.

A Question for Brad: You and Pat seem to share an arcing melodicism in your playing. Did you worry that this would make the record too pleasant-sounding or seemingly saccharine?

Mehldau: I guess you’d have to explain how being melodic in itself seems saccharine. As far as being ‘too pleasant’, I suppose you’re using the word pleasant as a trope for surface or vapid, which implies that you hear that tendency in either my playing or Pat’s already. In any case, it’s all good; the answer is no; I didn’t worry about that.

A Question for Pat: I could not agree with you more that this collaboration seemed inevitable because of some natural compatibilities between you and Brad. Are there any other inevitable collaborations you’d hope for? And if you could hook Brad up with similarly ideal projects, what would they be?

Metheny: As much as I have done collaborations over the years, I am actually kind of a reluctant partner. There has to be a real strong reason to do something with someone for me. With Brad, it just seemed like the most natural thing in the world — and I could say the same about the duet record with Charlie [Haden], the projects with Ornette [Coleman], with Mike Brecker, with Sco [John Scofield], with Jack [DeJohnette] and Herbie [Hancock] and on down the line. Each thing has been somehow an organic outgrowth of a connection that goes pretty deep. That would be the only thing I would ever require to do something with someone — that it feels right and has a purpose.

A Question for Brad: Tell me a great story of the time you spent in the studio with Pat. What is a memory of the date that you expect to carry with you forever?

Mehldau: I’m not much of a storyteller with words! The music itself, I suppose, is the thing that will survive in my memory, happily.