13 July 2013

Brad Mehldau and the Naive Audience

I imagine I'm not alone in having substantially modified my listening activities in recent years to take full advantage of the advent of digital music streaming. I now spend long stretches investigating particular artists or other themes, listening once to everything I can find, taking note of the things I'd like to hear again and returning later to spend quality time with them. At that point, I do in fact purchase my own copies, digitally or otherwise, rather than streaming; the internet still doesn't work everywhere all the time, and who knows if it will ever be allowed to.

"You know that record, right?" Yes and no. I probably listened to that record once and forgot all but the name of it, unless it was killing, but even then, it's probably still dangling in the purgatory of Listmania, waiting its turn to either change my life or frustrate the hell out of me. As many elders have pronounced, the danger of failing to truly absorb anything you've heard is now ever-present for students of music. I would take the present situation a hundred times out of a hundred, though, in exchange for almost never having to plop down $5, $10, $20 worrying that it might not be worth it in any number of ways that records, good or bad, relevant or otherwise, often are not. Thankfully, you no longer have to buy the chair having only been shown the legs; now you actually get to sit down in it and scratch yourself.

Truthfully, I can't in good conscience recommend single audition investigation to younger students or any other new listeners. For years, I had to hear something at least 3 times to begin to form an opinion; I didn't just observe this after the fact, but actually felt it in the moment. My formative years would have been quite a bit less formative had I indulged first impressions the way I do nowadays. It makes sense to me, though, that with experience comes acuity, and indeed, my evaluation is now far less likely to change from the first audition to the second, and almost never from the second to the third. Perhaps this also suggests that the well-documented inflexibility of age is beginning to set in; then again, don't these digital treasure troves of damn-near-everything offer by their very scatterbrained nature a particularly powerful antidote to just that affliction? Without the internet, Gentle Giant, Univers Zero and Lightnin' Hopkins would likely have remained mysteries to me until it was truly too late. It used to cost too much to take shots in the dark on stuff you weren't sure about; were we really better off that way?

I've now gone down the Spotify rabbit hole, but plan to keep my eMusic subscription as well, and so for just a bit more than the cost of a new CD, I get a month of unlimited investigation and future offline access to the cream of that crop. As a professional skeptic, I am so optimistic about all of this that it scares me just a bit. I understand that those afflicted with the scourge of audiophilia are not so optimistic, nor are those who aspire to someday raise 2.5 kids solely on their record sales. For me, however, there's no ethical or practical reason not to jump in with two feet. The "promise of technology" is so often just a capitalist ruse, but for musicians, I think this much of it is real. We had better make good on it, don't you think?


One of my first lines of inquiry a few years ago was Brad Mehldau. I have never been one to keep up with the latest developments in music, often feeling too bogged down with catching up on what happened before I was born, but the new digital music paradigm has been a great excuse for me to begin to remedy that, especially since artists active today tend to be represented fairly completely in the digital realm, unlike those who released lots of records before such technology became widespread. For his part, Mehldau has been prolific: my survey took weeks to complete, but it painted a vivid picture as a result. After a couple of years, I have just recently returned to the record that came out at the top of the heap based on those single hearings: The Art of the Trio, Vol. 4: Back at the Vanguard from 1999 with Larry Grenadier (bass) and Jorge Rossy (drums).

Repeated listening has clinched landmark status for this record in my mind for many reasons. Mehldau's playing is original and distinctive, identifiable from the first note, and nonetheless drenched in tradition. The live energy on this recording is positively crackling, the band playing exceptionally well as a unit with all three musicians producing incredible sounds on their instruments. The originals are fresh, the standard material is reinvigorated, and the repertoire is enhanced. I'm purposely repeating every jazz cliche I can think of, and I think they all apply here. Stated in such vague terms, however, they apply to many great jazz recordings, not just this one, which is why we are all sick and tired of reading them over and over and feeling as if we have not really learned anything about the material we are researching. Further, detractors will grant a record every one of these points, even the energy part, and remain unmoved aesthetically. That should tell us something.

I am, as I hope I have made clear, hardly a detractor in this case, nor am I, to be sure, suddenly aspiring to critic-hood, but as the greatness of this record began to sink in, some unique explanations presented themselves which I think go beyond the standard critical tropes namechecked above in a much-needed way. Specifically, I think that the dialogue surrounding audience development for jazz and other art musics is a potentially fascinating lens through which to consider the content of this particular record. Such is my primary purpose here.

As a trained musician with loads of technical knowledge and focused listening experience, this music presented me from the opening piano intro a decisive choice between two distinct modes of listening, and it turns out not to be the structural option that affords me a degree of enjoyment and fulfillment commensurate with a "landmark" jazz record, but rather something more moment-to-moment, akin to what is typically ascribed to the hypothetical naive listener. Why is this? On one hand, it is just plain difficult to hear this music structurally because the style of playing makes the songforms really hard to follow. There is, however, a crucial redeeming quality here, namely that these techniques consistently serve the creation of attractive musical surfaces.

Music like this can actually be a more disconcerting experience for the structurally inclined specialist the more familiar the material is, since there is then a proportionally higher degree of expectation to be violated or neglected. The degree of spontaneous displacement, reharmonization, and riffing that takes place, often at breakneck tempos, is severe, making following along a full-time job, even for large stretches of the warhorse standards "All The Things You Are" and "Solar." On the other hand, I still don't know the form to Mehldau's composition "Sehnsucht" and I don't particularly care to; I would have to listen structurally, and in the case of this record, that is usually not as much fun. The specialist is uniquely equipped to make this kind of decision by reading such performances for technical cues as to how they might best be heard. It is hardly in my nature to do this quite so consciously, but as I say, this record seems to demand a firm decision from the get-go in a way I've scarcely experienced before. What, then, about the hypothetical jazz naif around whom the audience development discussion necessarily revolves? Is he or she not by default the ultimate surface-oriented listener? Does he or she get to make a decision?


The critical dialogue in jazz can, in my opinion, be thrown for quite a loop by the style of playing on this record, which has many contemporary exponents besides Mehldau, and which I would venture does indeed have the potential to polarize reception between initiates and non-initiates to a greater degree than many other jazz styles. Of course, the critical reception of this particular record was scarcely less than glowing; part of my goal here is to unpack why that is and what it means. But I need to clarify what I mean, then, when I claim that this kind of playing is frequently misunderstood.

It is fair to say that the kind of escalated structural deception and rarefied technique on display here is often met with knee-jerk accusations of over-intellectualization and technical overdevelopment. Musicians themselves have many reasons besides taste for leveling such criticisms, but in the case of non-musician critics, I wonder if it is not more significant that such music subverts a dearly held value of the jazz music they know best, namely clarity of structural articulation. I certainly am not writing to plant seeds of ambivalence about structural articulation, to which I once devoted its own outreach-oriented screed. Rather, I want to make the case for understanding The Art of the Trio, Vol. 4 as songform-based jazz where structural articulation is, shockingly, more or less incidental to the listening experience, and which is therefore a prime candidate to connect with listeners whose structural awareness is less than that of the average professional jazz musician.

The most basic lesson here about bugaboos like structural displacement and expansive instrumental technique is that when it all works, no one complains. It sure would be nice to see more analysis from critics as well as musicians that makes constructive suggestions as to how technique might be put to better use in the music under discussion rather than simply declaring how dearly they wish the players' chops had been purposefully stunted. As a model combination of chops and sensitivity, Mehldau should have an important place in such discourse, and those of us who play would do well to learn what we can from him in this way. More germane to the topic at hand, though, I am concerned that musicians and non-musicians only think they are speaking the same language if and when matters of structural articulation and displacement come up for discussion. Most anyone who has not played the music at a high level, whether a professional critic or just an anonymous listener, is reduced to face-value acceptance of futile attempts by musicians to verbalize what they do. Leading questions like "How do you know where you are?" or "How do you all stay together?" are, tellingly, the same questions that young students ask when they lack the grounding and bandwidth to "just play" tunes without getting lost, just all of us once did, possibly for a longer stretch of our lives than we would want to admit to the rare critic who has taken an interest in us.

The teacher, if he is not careful, can sow the same confusion in these students that he sows in critics who ask him these things after a gig if he breaks down and says something like, "You just always have to know where you are in the form of the song," and leaves it at that. As an answer, that is literally 100% true, but it is also highly misleading. The truly inquisitive will follow up with the inevitable, "But you're not really thinking about measures/scales/chords/keys/fingerings, right?" "Right," you say, and send them off more confused than they were before. Or, you just keep digging yourself a deeper semantic hole until you've stopped making sense and they decide to leave you alone.

The ineffability of music is not a new topic of discussion, so forgive me for belaboring the point a bit. The reason I do so here is to highlight the fallacy in reasoning such as this:

Jazz musicians love jazz the most.

Jazz musicians always know where they are in the songform.

Therefore, love of jazz varies directly with the ability to know where you are in the songform.

Jazz songform, unfortunately, is a nuanced, dialectical concept that defies a simple explanation. The diligent student of jazz appreciation following along with "All The Things You Are" is not doing the same thing as the high-level jazz musician "always knowing where they are in the form" throughout a heated performance. In the syllogism above, the musician and the non-musician are, as usual, talking at cross purposes. If we therefore reject equating knowledge gained through high-level participation with that gained from a distance through scholarship but accept the thesis that love of jazz varies proportionately with structural fluency, we thereby resign ourselves to the notion that jazz can only be truly appreciated by people who play it at a high level, since that is the only way to obtain a central skill required to appreciate it. For the reasons I have given, I indeed believe that we equate those two types of knowledge at our own peril, but I also believe that according such centrality to structural concerns is a mistake, and therefore that this conclusion, thankfully, is incorrect.

Consider, if you were not already aware, that there are circles of jazz musicians working today, peers of Mehldau's in age if not always in stature, who take structural obfuscation and displacement on standard material to absurd lengths, far beyond what takes place on this record. As a nominal fellow professional, I will refrain from naming names, but I don't doubt some readers will know just who I'm thinking of, and if they have people in mind I've never heard of, better yet. I have alternately tried listening to this music in each of the two modes I referenced at the outset, that is structurally and non-structurally. I found neither appealing. Displacement does not always create an attractive surface, and it also makes the alternative of structural listening difficult and unpleasant. I have had a foot in gnarlier music than this my whole adult life and this music appeals to neither my head nor my heart. I am secure in dismissing it.

Mehldau has never been so easily dismissible on these grounds, and for better or worse doesn't seem likely to put himself in danger of it from hereon out. This may actually be one of his least accessible records, one which, even if it goes down as his best, as I think it could, will never be recommended as a starting point for students investigating his work for the first time. Even so, accessibility has always been one of Mehldau's defining qualities, and without getting on too sharp a razor's edge about what the word itself might mean, I would posit that no one has ever made more accessible jazz music with such a healthy disregard for traditional structural articulation, and yet without ever begging the question of why form was not abandoned from the outset. Donning my critic's hat for just a moment, I contend that this is a staggering achievement that deserves to be part of this music's enduring legacy. That is to say that if this record is remembered first and foremost for "deconstructing" or "messing with" standard songforms because the non-musician critics drank the structural listening kool-aid and the musicians had their fingers too far up their noses to be able to break the rest of this down for them, I will turn in my grave. (I'll double-time it if it is remembered first and foremost for covering Radiohead, though after checking out some other versions of "Exit Music," including the original, I can't say I'm not impressed with how much Mehldau manages to squeeze out of it.)

Songforms shape the surface qualities of this music profoundly, but they do so from an immeasurably greater distance than textbook jazz appreciation is accustomed to dealing with, and that is to say that the clarity or obfuscation of the underlying songform is irrelevant when the work's defining feature is its surface. This music demands to be heard moment-to-moment and in that sense is made for the naive listener as well as for the specialist. That is not to say by any means that any particular naive listener is guaranteed to like what they hear on that surface (witness this lonely and inadvertently hysterical Amazon review), but it is right there for them to judge, served up with a loving transparency that would make Kyle Gann blush. We do violence to the voices of naive jazz listeners and to the larger dialogue about audience development in jazz, if we indeed want to have one, by insisting on a structural hearing where none is necessary. Similarly, sending grant-funded troupes of mediocre local heroes and underdeveloped college jazz majors out to perform in acoustically disastrous spaces isn't going to win jazz very many new fans, but presenting music like this could. First, though, we must give some thought to how to spot it among the mayhem of the burgeoning digital archive.


I am tempted in spite of my formalist tendencies to argue that the defining feature of every work of music is its surface, but you don't have to be willing to go that far to be led to question the need for listeners to hang on every structural landmark. I have to think Mehldau would agree: in his notes to Sam Yahel's album Truth and Beauty, remarking on the band's ability to "[make] an unconventional meter sound natural and fluid," he adds that "It only becomes tricky when you try to count it!" And now we are back to cliches about jazz, but this one, I insist, is crucially important, for only in taking just such a step back from The Art of the Trio, Vol. 4 is the true depth of Mehldau's contribution revealed.

It is true that "surface" and "depth" are concepts which often cohabit plenty of slippery ground, but I am nonetheless content that this language helps immensely in communicating the essence of how I hear this music and how I suspect it is most readily underappreciated, if only relatively so. Such it is that exalting the "surface" could be taken to imply the charge of superficiality. I would not go quite that far. I have already called this record a "landmark," which I stand by, but hand to heart, I cannot bring myself to see it in the very top echelon for precisely this reason. It is unusually intricate surface-oriented music achieved by means of frighteningly intricate but inessential deeper structures. It is not music where I notice something shockingly new every time I listen, one of those faux-intellectual litmus tests of musical profundity, but one which throughout my journey I've only become more perversely inclined to accept. And of course, returning to questions of methods, it now occurs to me to ask whether this is not precisely the kind of music that the listen-bookmark-return method is destined to privilege over every other kind. It's hard to imagine this dynamic doesn't exist at all; only time will tell, I suppose, if it proves a hinderance.

It must be borne in mind that surfaces are not by definition "accessible" in the abstract, though we might say that they are by definition more accessible than whatever it is that constitutes the corresponding depth. Bach's most densely populated fugues, for example, could legitimately be said to present a simpler underlying structure but far more daunting surface than Ligeti's Lontano. Dealing in thousands upon thousands of tiny grains of time and pitch right at the threshold of perceptual recognition allows Ligeti to construct larger units with shockingly simple-sounding, blurred surfaces; Bach's voices are, meanwhile, coarser grains with fiercer independence, thus running up against a wholly different set of perceptual limitations.

I was, in fact, reminded of both of these composers during the imitative passage between the left and right hands in "Solar." (I trust that those who "know" the record will follow my references and those who don't probably won't want to be bothered with listening to it right this second. And if they do want to be bothered with it, they should listen to the whole thing!) The contrapuntal technique here is somewhere between Bach and Ligeti, not exactly a true blur but nonetheless similarly disorienting in the context of a swingin' jazz piano solo, and yet lent ample clarity by the space between the voices and Mehldau's stunning independence. Does this snippet make this a "great" solo? Like most of them on this record, it is a solo that takes a moment to get going and doesn't always seem to develop in an ideally straight line. And yet there are extraordinary moments that leave you breathless, moments which wouldn't be nearly so powerful if they were more numerous and happened in the "right" order. I'm not sure the power of a more terse, sculpted solo could rival this one's cumulative impact.

Two other breathless spots in "Solar," once it gets cracking: the F blues romp that emerges out of the contrapuntal section referenced above, and shortly thereafter, the snatch of unison that materializes between the two hands in middle of a driving bebop line. (Sure, I'm being lazy about references again, but if you "know" the record and can't recall these, do you "know" the record? And if you don't "know" the record and have read this far anyway, are you really going to cue it up just for me and my stupid blog?) Mehldau's writing reveals a near-obsession with issues of irony and sincerity, and it is a credit to him that all three of these gestures are deathly serious, not to mention utterly shocking (in the best way) the first time you hear them. A credit due, this time, to the listen-bookmark-return method in that given enough intervening time you get to hear these moments for the first time twice.

It stands to reason that just how shocking they remain to new listeners of the future will directly impact the long-term critical standing of this music. Beethoven specialists eventually started sounding like idiots to just about everyone else when they continued building their interpretations on the supposed shock value of starting a piece on a secondary dominant or introducing a non-functional flatted seventh over the tonic triad. There are better explanations for that music's staying power. In the postmodern era, even such purely contextual shock is in danger of ceasing to be possible, but from my necessarily limited vantage point, it is a defining feature of this record nonetheless, which is precisely why the record, as great as I think it is, doesn't grow on me the way other music that is otherwise equally great often does.

That is to say that with each hearing the shocking parts lose their luster a bit. You cannot hear them the way they demand to be heard if you know they are coming. The first note of the out head on "All The Things," stated with a directness, metrically and otherwise, that hasn't yet been heard at this late stage of the tune, is stunning the first time and too obvious after that. The suspended alternating-hands figure in the piano that is high point of the "London Blues" solo (you know, where the knucklehead in the crowd starts shouting) is so exciting that at first you don't even notice that the last chorus of it starts with a comically plain C7 sound. Once you start to hear through the odd voicing, this becomes a disappointing resolution to one of the swingingest passages on the record. And the angular non-sequitur lick in "Nice Pass" only truly works as intended (that is, I have to think, unironically) when it is unfamiliar enough as to seem that the band really did collectively decide to stop on a dime in the 29th bar of Rhythm Changes and go all Cecil Taylor on it. Additional hearings of this epic performance inevitably confirm that the selfsame lick ends the tune, which colors its first appearance tremendously and outs all of this as the one ironic lapse on the record. (And really, wouldn't it just happen to be at the expense of the avant-garde?)

If anyone reading this hasn't heard this music and is inspired to check it out, I fear that I've now ruined it for you once and for all. Similarly, if I could shout through a computer screen, I would shout at the people in charge of musical outreach programs of all types: STOP PREPARING YOUR AUDIENCE!!! The truly profound in music tends to endure quite a bit more sturdily in the face of such tampering but does not offer up its secrets quite so readily. Hence, that this is decidedly music-for-the-moment should not detract from its greatness, especially not in jazz, which of course has always been moment music of a sort. As great as I think this album is based on my initial reactions, and as important as that stance implies I am willing to take initial reactions to be, I find surprisingly little here that threatens to grow on me in that "timeless" way. By speaking so directly, though, it just might speak to the naif in ways the specialist wouldn't normally anticipate. It's likely that anyone serious enough about music to be evangelizing for it has been shaped disproportionately by music of great depth which may not be a reliable hook for newbs, but I would hope it is also clear that mediocrity isn't going to hook anyone either. What is needed for this purpose is great surface-oriented music that lives in the moment. I for one will be looking to this record as a model.

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