In their effusive praise of Mehldau's musical approach, some critics have attempted to pigeonhole him as a Bill Evans or Lennie Tristano clone, citing his penchant for the trio format and a propensity for evocative reworkings of familiar ballads. But Mehldau wants no part of the "sounds like (insert jazz legend here)" game. In fact, Mehldau used a good portion of the liner notes on Art of the Trio 4: Back at the Vanguard, recorded in 1999, to launch a vitriolic counterattack to the Evans and Tristano comparisons.
"The non-stop claims of their influence on me are not about musical content," he writes. "Notions of an introverted intellectualism and cloying overemotionalism give the piano trio its otherness in this false appraisal. What's really going on, I fear, is good old-fashioned racial troping -- the piano trio as sensitive-white-guys club. If all this sounds defensive, it is. When you're trying to create something personal, it's frustrating to be categorized away with no explanation."
Clearly Mehldau isn't the type of musician who seems obsessed about what jazz critics think of his music -- and he definitely isn't afraid of defending his individual approach to jazz. For example, after spending most of the early 1990s working on New York City's intense jazz scene, Mehldau decided to head to Los Angeles in 1996, a relocation that many East Coast musicians and critics regard as a career-killer at worst and pandering to the industry at best. But for Mehldau, the move has proved a smart one.
Since arriving in LA, Mehldau has shown that he's not afraid of straying outside the jazz box: Mehldau played piano on Willie Nelson's Teatro and also backed up ex-Stone Temple Pilots vocalist Scott Weiland (whom he met in LA rehab) on the singer's 1998 Atlantic solo debut, 12 Bar Blues. Mehldau even played some live gigs with Weiland, working with him at the Universal Amphitheatre in Los Angeles at radio station KROQ's annual "Acoustic Christmas" show. He also covered both Radiohead ("Exit Music [For a Film]") and Nick Drake ("River Man") on his Art of the Trio, Vol. 3.
But Mehldau remains an admitted classicist at heart, which makes sense, given his background (and his penchant for Brahms, Schubert and Beethoven, among other classical composers). He began playing the piano at the age of 6 in his native Florida and was soon immersed in serious classical lessons. His family moved to Connecticut when Mehldau was 14; by then, he had begun to show a strong interest in jazz.
"I think the first real jazz record I listened to was an Oscar Peterson and Joe Pass duo album, one of those Pablo things," Mehldau says. "I had been sort of improvising a lot on classical piano. Not really jazz, of course, because I had not been exposed to that. When I was 8 or 9 years old, I would just sit down and improvise at the piano. But I think when I heard Oscar, after hearing recordings of Horowitz and other classical virtuosos, I could relate to that, in the sense that his technique was so astounding. That kind of roped me in with jazz, to know that was possible to do that on the piano."
Soon after discovering jazz, while still in high school, Mehldau established himself as a rising talent. As a junior, he won the Best All Around Musician award in the annual Berklee School of Music's prestigious high school competition. And by the age of 18, Mehldau had relocated to Manhattan, where he was studying with such jazz musicians as Jimmy Cobb, Junior Mance and Fred Hersch in the New School for Social Research's Jazz and Contemporary Music program.
But while absorbing his share of jazz tradition, Mehldau was also working regularly with up-and-coming musicians such as Mark Turner, Peter Bernstein, Jesse Davis and Chris Potter, striving to develop his own unique approach to the music.
"I think with most jazz musicians in their developmental stages, you go through this period when you become entrenched with the history of the music, and it's fun as hell," he explains. "In college and high school, that's what I did with friends, just listening and becoming obsessed with the chronology of the music, and who proceeded who, and what came out of that. I think that's very important, but it was not a defining point with me. I think, for me, it's all about getting to the point of developing your own voice, and that's how I judge my growth creatively."
Much of Mehldau's development as a pianist has been focused on work within the trio setting. After an early-'90s sojourn with sax player Joshua Redman that propelled him into the national spotlight for the first time, Mehldau decided to focus on his own group in 1994. He had worked with bassist Grenadier and drummer Rossy in other bands and liked their sound, so he decided to ask them to join his new trio. The three have been working together ever since.
"For me, it's all about rapport that you get with people and also a certain level of trust that comes with playing with people over and over again and giving each other leeway," Mehldau says. "So, for me, more and more, I have really become cognizant that this trio is really it for me. Every time we play together, it's just constantly evolving."