Pianist Brad Mehldau has become one of the leading figures in modern jazz over the past decade in part because he is so modern.
His performances include an eclectic repertoire featuring his own original music, essentials from great jazz composer songbooks such as Jimmy Heath’s “C.T.A.” and John Coltrane’s “Countdown,” and crafty takes on modern rock from the likes of Radiohead, Soundgarden, Oasis and Nick Drake. As a trio, he, Jeff Ballard on drums and Larry Grenadier on bass have been together since 2005, and they play together as intuitively as any group there is.
Mehldau, who performs at the Mondavi Center on Thursday, responded to questions by email.
The first time I saw/heard you play was about 20 years ago at the old Yoshi’s in Oakland just before it moved. You were with the Joshua Redman Quartet with Brian Blade and Larry Grenadier. What was that time like for you as a musician/person?
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That was a great time for me, getting to play with Josh. It was the kind of situation I had dreamed about, and there I was, playing at a world-famous club like Yoshi’s. I still miss the old Yoshi’s, although, of course, the new one is a great club.
Since then I’ve seen/heard you mostly with your own trios. Can you talk a little bit about what you like about working in that format?
Well, since you mention Larry, he has really been a big part of making music for me most of my adult life and has been with me in many of what I consider to be my biggest musical achievements, recording and performance-wise. We’ve played so long together that when I play with him, I don’t know where I end and where he begins. So the first thing for me is always the particular more than the general – the specific people I get to play with more than the format. This is also very much the case with Jeff Ballard. I really think of rhythms that I associate with him, and often that leads to something that I write. The trio format is one that I feel at home with in a way that we can continue to grow together. I feel that I know how to orchestrate for those variables and hopefully am still thinking of new ideas.
You also have been working with Mark Guiliana in a different project. Can you talk a little about that?
It’s quite different in many respects than anything else I’ve ever done, but again that’s very much first and foremost about that specific individual, Mark. He is a very special musician and has given me all sorts of new ideas and also has given me a way to express other musical ideas that had been sitting inside of me for a while that I hadn’t had a chance to express.
The duo setting – more than the fact that I am playing a “plugged in” rig with Mark – is what makes the project exciting and challenging night after night when Mark and I have performed. There is just one other guy there to communicate with and spar with; there’s no way for us to hide from each other.
Fred Hersch has said you worked with him as a young artist. What was that experience like?
Fred was a fantastic teacher. He really opened me up to the idea of using the whole potential of the piano at a time when I had gotten a bit stuck in being a certain type of jazz piano player who stays within a rhythm section. That was very liberating for me, and many of the things Fred showed me have stayed with me, particularly when I’m playing solo.
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The Brad Mehldau Trio
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Where: Jackson Hall, Mondavi Center, UC Davis
Information: www.mondaviarts.org; (866) 754.2787