Growing up as a pianist in the Hartford, Connecticut area, it was impossible not to know about the local jazz phenom Brad Mehldau. Even at a young age, Brad had already mastered both the jazz and classical idioms, and was well on his way to becoming a bona fide star. Brad was actually among the crop of new “young lions” that ushered in the resurgence of jazz in the mid 1990's. Let’s examine a few elements of Brad’s work on both electronic keyboards and acoustic piano. Practice these to inject a little “Mehldauisms” into your own playing.
In his new group Mehliana, it’s common for Brad to comp interesting chords in a fast, repetitive rhythm using an organ patch, while he solos simultaneously on the Rhodes EP. Both sounds usually have some sort of delay or effect on them. To illustrate this in Ex. 1, I’ve chosen a Vox Continental as my organ sound. For the effect, I’m using a freeware delay with circuit bent properties called Fracture. The Rhodes spins a twisty line that ventures into atonal territory in the middle of bar 3. The rest of the motivic material comes from the F Mixolydian mode (F, G, A, Bb, C, D, Eb, F) in the first and third bar, and the F Dorian mode (F, G, Ab, Bb, C, D, Eb, F) in the second and fourth bar. When venturing out of your current key, stay relaxed and treat the “outside” notes with the same physical approach as you do the “inside” ones. Just let your lines fall naturally into other keys.
2. Fugue It
Another thing I love about Brad’s playing (especially from his early piano trio period), is how he improvises fugues over jazz tunes, as seen in Ex. 2.To do this on your own, start by comping in your right hand, as you solo in the bass register with your left hand. Then slowly “trade” lines with your right and left hands until you are playing two different solos with both hands. Practice doing this on one tune for a few months and soon you will start to internalize the concept. Bach’s famed Well Tempered Clavier is THE source for counterpoint, so refer to it whenever possible for inspiration. In this example, notice how one voice will rest while the other one moves. Try to keep this conversational aspect between the hands in your own improvisations. Also note that our major and minor scales are augmented here with a few chromatic embellishing tones. Check out the Charlie Parker Omnibook for more great bebop lines to inspire your own improvisations.
3. Classical Chording
Repetitive, stabby chords like those in Ex. 3 appear again and again in much of Brad’s music. I often think this style of piano playing comes from Franz Schubert’s Lieder (German for “songs”), which were the precursor to pop tunes hundreds of years ago. In this example, the right hand keeps time with crunchy rock piano voicings, while the left hand plays an interesting melody in the bass clef with notes coming from the E Mixolydian mode (E, F#, G#, A, B, C#, D, E). Brad will often pedal these chords to give them a ringing, “bell like” quality.
4. Analog Accents
Mehldau usually has at least one analog modeling synth in his rig with Mehliana. In Ex. 4, I play a fat, sawtooth bass line, using the mod wheel for expression. The bass line is constructed mostly from the C minor pentatonic scale (C, Eb, F, G, Bb, C). There is also an E natural in bar 4 for a “momentary major” sound. When a note is held, the mod wheel is added to give a crazy LFO effect. I am also throwing in in a few notes from another mystery key. When slide stepping (as this technique is called), try going a half step up or down, or a minor third up or down. The interval doesn’t really matter - it’s the sound of moving to another key that matters most.
5. All’s Swell
Another alluring texture of Brad’s electronic work is his use of dreamy pads - warm swells on a patch like the Prophet 5 sound used in Ex. 5. (I cheat a little on this example to make it sound like there’s more than one keyboardist playing. Here, I’ve actually sampled both chords and assigned each to one key on my MIDI controller. The lowest “F” key gets the Fmin11 voicing, and the “D” below it gets the D7sus chord. As I play the sampled chords with two fingers of my left land, my right hand improvises on the Rhodes. Again, add a little swirly delay to both sounds. Most of the motivic material from this improvisation comes from simple modes; F Dorian on the Fmin11 chord (F, G, Ab, Bb, C, D, Eb, F) and D Mixolydian on the D7sus4 (D, E, F#, G, A, B, C, D).
“Whether playing piano with his trio, or using spacey synths with his duo Mehliana, Brad Mehldau’s playing is always tasteful, lyrical, and uniquely his own,” says keyboardist and composer Brian Charette, who has performed and recorded with artists like Joni Mitchell, Michael Buble and Rufus Wainwright in addition to leading his own jazz groups. Charette recently won Downbeat Magazine’s “Rising Star Organ” award and just released the album Good Tipper. Find out more at www.brian-charette.squarespace.com.