The Mehldau-Radiohead Nexus

by Joe Tangari on January 4, 2011

Brad Mehldau (photo: Michael Wilson)

In college, I shared a room with a Turkish piano player. He was a jazz fan and didn’t know anything about rock, which was what I listened to. I hadn’t yet attempted to explore jazz. Jazz was intimidating: A trip to that section of Tower Records revealed vast discographies for artists I hadn’t even heard of, and to understand a certain player, you might have to listen not only to his recordings as a bandleader, but also his dates in other people’s bands. The compartmentalized world of rock bands was easier to navigate.

For instance, I knew which five guys were in Radiohead. They were a self-contained unit, and they had three albums: Pablo HoneyThe Bends, and OK Computer. This was 1999, and one day my roommate came home with jazz pianist Brad Mehldau‘s Art of the Trio, Volume 3: Songs. We listened to our music on headphones to avoid driving each other crazy, but a few days later, he removed his and asked whether I had any Radiohead albums.

Mehldau had done a version of OK Computer‘s “Exit Music (for a Film),” and my roommate was curious as to whether Radiohead’s version featured improvisation. I had to think about it, and it occurred to me that I didn’t know anything about Radiohead’s working methods. For my roommate, improvising was just what you did in the middle of a song—the simplest blueprint for jazz goes something like “head/solos/recap/end.”

We listened to the original version together. It does not feature extended improvisation. It’s a tight mood piece with a controlled crescendo and diminuendo. My roommate seemed a little puzzled, and we then listened to the Mehldau version, which, to be fair, puzzled me just as much at the time. A cascading piano solo seemed anathema to the claustrophobic character of the song.

But we kept listening to both versions, gradually realizing that the two artists were using the same source to different ends. Mehldau saw in this song a foundation for an interesting trio improvisation, and listening to his version helped me understand that the intent of a composer/arranger needn’t be the only thing that informs the playing of a song. Mehldau undoubtedly also saw the potential to hook listeners who otherwise might not care about jazz.

This, of course, is something jazz has always done—many of its standards are popular songs written from the 20s through the 50s, and jazz versions of rock songs have been common since the 60s—but I think it took a jazz musician tackling something very current to make me pay attention. For my roommate, it was reversed. It took a player he admired to get him to think about rock in a serious way.

Neither of us immediately bought a bunch of records we never would have before, but I think the experience of helping each other understand the music we loved flipped some switches. Today, jazz consumes huge amounts of my listening time. When Radiohead released Kid A in 2000, he borrowed my copy so he could work on his own jazz arrangement of “Everything In Its Right Place,” something Mehldau himself later did in 2004.

Considering Mehldau’s whole output, I don’t think his Radiohead covers are unique in their ability to draw in a rock listener unaccustomed to jazz’s interpretive focus. This is mostly because of his ability to establish and sustain a mood while keeping things melodic. At a time when jazz falls generally outside the purview of pop, that’s a valuable skill for an artist looking to build an audience outside of his genre’s core followers, even at the risk of alienating purists.

Brad Mehldau performs a “synthetic classical-and-pop program” with mezzo-soprano Anne Sophie Von Otter at Reynolds on February 7. Consult the show’s Duke Performances page for tickets and more information.

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