What if all the great musicians recalled the songs that made them good? They would understand the drum solos and key changes and godhead glimpses that pushed them toward mastery. And we would understand the nonlinear paths of storied careers such as that of Brad Mehldau, who started as a pre-teen drummer thrashing along with Rush in his Connecticut basement and now leads majestic jam sessions in concert halls worldwide.
Mehldau’s is an American epic that sneaks past gay bullies, predatory principals, and smack pushers. Then he shares Holy Communion with jazz elders, just before they pass. And it all started with “Tom Sawyer.” I mean Geddy Lee’s, not Mark Twain’s.
I’m distilling what Mehldau painstakingly re-creates: a pilgrim’s progress through Blue Note–worthy and Casey Kasem–ranked tracks. His memoir, Formation: Building a Personal Canon, is studious and complete, though he plans another volume, and feels like getting 38 songs to play on Desert Island Discs instead of just 8.
Mehldau learned fundamentals and drifted toward fun. Now when he plays melodies that one’s ear knows from elsewhere, they become alive again with many flourishes and without any lyrics. To be sure, the complexity of his jazz combos goes stratospherically beyond a cover band’s, but to hear Mehldau riff on Radiohead demonstrates new ways that any ear can hear “Everything in Its Right Place.”
His life story has milestones of shatter and shame, and Mehldau explains what we’re hearing in his revivals of “Blackbird” and “Black Hole Sun.” Says Mehldau, generally: “It’s good stuff if you can figure out how to use it…. It’s how you heal, and maybe you can bring some of that healing to other people.”
As with the Beatles and Soundgarden, chemical trips led to bad landings. Now that he’s thriving in his 50s, his decades have added up to something singular, and other musicians have learned that our shared songbook is alive past the Gershwins and Rodgers and Hart. Search your streaming apps: Vijay Iyer adds new thrills to Michael Jackson, Juliana Hatfield summons the Police, and Paul Anka has reached Nirvana.
A pilgrim’s progress through Blue Note–worthy and Casey Kasem–ranked tracks.
Mehldau learned he had a singular gift that defied the usual rankings of teen status and inclusion: he had perfect pitch. Talent, he found out early, sent him on his own path as an outsider, and let misdeeds go unpunished. He had good luck, and he pushed it.
Among the downbeat anecdotes, Joshua Redman once fired him, but it was as if Mehldau asked for it, needing a break from their young stardom. The spiral went further downward, but that talent, honed by good parenting and imaginative instructors, sent him back upward.
Page-turning through his encyclopedic knowledge, you should linger on his descriptions of how, during adolescence, musical taste defines each teenager. This is a 20th-century phenomenon that keeps accelerating as generations overtake each other, with everyone striving to be someone—usually a person all their own but within some codified taste.
Some entries in Mehldau’s nomenclature: “Cock-rocker: Def Leppard, Guns N’ Roses … Poison, Ratt.” (As an example, Mehldau cites his homophobic bully, whom he caught bottoming!) Also: “Classic deadhead/latter-day hippie [who likes the Grateful Dead, plus] Little Feat, Hot Tuna, The Band … as well as a baptismal dip into Dylan…. Is one of only a few at school who goes directly into the North End of Hartford to score the big ounce of sinsemilla from a Jamaican guy there named Les, with no trepidation.”
This goes on a long, worthy while, outdoing Nick Hornby’s characters, the entire Freaks and Geeks anthropology, as well as the “song of myself” misfits of Glee. (I wrote for that series in its final seasons.) If I could have a do-over, I’d hope to be a “Glammer wildcard,” encased in an “ironic superiority over other tribes,” plus “blazer with shoulder pads.”
Those tunes you learn when you’re learning about yourself still resound. (See also Ellis, Bret Easton.) So credit goes to Mehldau for banishing the sing-along but reminding us how the songs remain the same. His mission is to unsettle the score, at substantial risk. Like wedding D.J.’s flipping the bird at requests, he courts trouble with beloved texts by Lennon and McCartney, Liam and Noel Gallagher, Sufjan Stevens. Folks who want him to play the hits find that he plays other people’s music in his very own way, and maybe differently each time.
His memoir shows Mehldau going toward something dangerous in every phase of life, and a musician writing a book is yet another. One would want a piano legend to have the same flow at the keyboard of a typewriter, but aren’t virtuosos best at one thing? He flings himself past failure yet again, because he has re-tuned his instrument more than a few times.
For all his efforts, Mehldau never begs his readers for approval or applause; he discovers flaws that—let’s face it—turn up in other addiction memoirs. But endlessly and imaginatively, he recombines them, makes them his own. It’s his genius.
Ned Martel is a writer and producer in Hollywood. He was a journalist for 25 years