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Jazz pianist Brad Mehldau shares his love of The Beatles on a new album

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We play a lot of music by jazz pianist Brad Mehldau on our show in the breaks and at the end of the show. Well, today, we have a real treat. Brad Mehldau went to the WNYC studios in New York to sit down at their piano for an interview and some music. He spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. Here's Sam.

SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: Brad Mehldau is one of the most influential and acclaimed jazz pianists living today. A recent talk of the town item in The New Yorker said that he is, quote, "arguably the greatest working jazz pianist; top five, for sure," unquote. His many recordings feature a wide range of jazz and American popular song standards, but he's also known to interpret music that lies outside the typical jazz catalogue, playing songs by Radiohead, Nirvana, Nick Drake and Pink Floyd. In particular, he's had a long relationship with the music of the Beatles. Looking back at his dozens of albums, Beatles songs are peppered throughout, like "Blackbird," "Martha My Dear," "She's Leaving Home" and others.

But now, for the first time, Mehldau has a record of all Beatles songs - well, except for maybe a David Bowie tune snuck in at the end. The album is called "Your Mother Should Know: Brad Mehldau Plays The Beatles." It was recorded live in Paris in 2020. Mehldau's most common musical platform has been his trio, but he's recorded many solo albums and collaborated with musicians such as Josh Redman, Pat Metheny and Chris Thile, just to name a few. On his 2018 album called "After Bach," he plays pieces from Bach's "Well-Tempered Clavier," as well as his own compositions inspired by them. He's very busy touring, so we were lucky to get some time with him while he was in New York doing a week of gigs at the Village Vanguard, the historic jazz club. Mehldau also has a memoir coming out this March called "Formation: Building A Personal Canon, Part One," which recounts a difficult childhood and his development as an artist.

Well, Brad Mehldau, welcome to FRESH AIR.

BRAD MEHLDAU: Thanks for having me.

BRIGER: So in 2018, you had done a concert of Bach for a concert hall in Paris, and they asked you to come back for 2020, but they wanted you to do just the Beatles songs. Were you enthusiastic about that idea?

MEHLDAU: I was a little apprehensive at first, but I had a lot of time on my hands because it was just kind of right in the middle of the lockdown. So I thought, well, this would be something exciting to jump into. It was also interesting. They - what they did was they programmed a series of concerts with various artists, and they played the whole Beatles repertoire. So everybody played - everybody picked different tunes. So somebody covered "Revolution 9" somehow. I was always curious how that went.

BRIGER: Yeah. You slightly favor Paul McCartney songs in this album, and I think Paul McCartney is known for writing very strong melodies. Do you think that's why you like those songs?

MEHLDAU: I think very strong melodies but kind of to make a weird comparison, what I get from Schubert is these simple melodies under - with this harmony under it that's so beautiful. So I think of Paul also really as a very subtle harmonist. And so - yeah, definitely both of those things.

BRIGER: Can you give us an example of what you mean by his harmonies?

MEHLDAU: Well, it's not on the record, but it always comes to mind, you know, maybe because everybody knows it, but just what he does with "Blackbird," which I've played a lot over the years. One thing he likes to do is what you call in classical music - maybe you'd call it a pedal point. That's something you find in Bach and Brahms a lot where there's one note that goes through different chords, and it's the same note. And in this case, he's getting that from an open G-string on the guitar. So you have this beautiful harmony that's moving around but always with that G in the middle of it (playing piano). And that's always there (playing piano).

BRIGER: So that note's, like, a home note that's throughout the piece.

MEHLDAU: Yeah. Yeah. And it's very - and it's grounding in the way it relates to everything. It sort of ties - it's also something in another - that Thelonius Monk loved to do on something like "Think Of One," where the F is in everything (playing piano). This is (playing piano) and he has that a lot, you know, on different tunes of his.

BRIGER: So why did you pick the song "Your Mother Should Know?"

MEHLDAU: Yeah, I just love it. And it's just a great example of these kind of, you know, miniatures that Paul wrote, these short little songs that have a very specific emotional world. And then you're in and out of there in a couple minutes. And it sort of leaves you hanging, you know, and like it - and it's wistful, which is an emotion I get from Paul a lot, kind of sad, happy, happy, sad.

BRIGER: Well, would you play a little bit of it for us?

MEHLDAU: Sure. (Playing piano).

BRIGER: That's great. Thanks so much for doing that.

MEHLDAU: Kind of random. I tried to pack a lot in.

BRIGER: Yeah. Well, you know, that actually answers my next question. I was wondering how much of these are arranged, that you would be playing the same all the time. But that - the way you just played that now was a lot different than the version on the album.

MEHLDAU: Yeah. Yeah, I did think about that a lot. And in the case of that one, I hewed quite closely to the arrangement as they had it. And one fun thing about this record was it was sort of an orchestrational (ph) challenge. There's so much complexity to their music in all these different instruments and things happening. And then trying to bring that all onto the piano was a fun challenge. And then some improvising in there - kind of short but they're great chords, you know (playing piano). And then this very strange interlude (playing piano). And then it's just over, and it's so many elements there all at once in a couple minutes.

BRIGER: You know, a lot of Paul McCartney songs sound like they could be from a different era. And I think they hearken back to, like, the music of his parents. Like, his dad was a swing bandleader. And you actually - you say that - you say this in a good way, but some of the Beatles songs sound frumpy to you.

MEHLDAU: Right. Right. Yeah, I use that, you know, sort of in an endearing way. There's a swing feeling in there, but it's this kind of wistful, humorous thing that Paul brings to it, which is no doubt, like you said, the music that he heard, I think, when he was growing up, and he said that in some interviews I've heard.

BRIGER: So the version of the song "Here, There And Everywhere" on the album, you stick to the melody pretty closely, like, throughout your performance. But you kind of - you're re-harmonizing the song as you're going along. Like, you're playing different chords underneath the melody. And what that does to my ears - it - like, it transforms the melody because it has a different relationship to the chords. Could you explain that and also maybe give us a demonstration?

MEHLDAU: Yeah, that was one example of where I really said, well, let me step outside of the original. Obviously, the original harmony is so beautiful and righteous. And so I sort of come back to it here and there. But I think the model for that is one of my top heroes, Herbie Hancock, and what he did with Miles, what he did on his own records in an improvisational context - exactly what you say, re-harmonizing, putting different harmony. And the only rule there really is to somehow make it connect with the melody. And when you get into the chromatic harmony that's possible, the sky's the limit, you know? As I like to say, you're always half a step away from something, you know?

BRIGER: (Laughter) So how does that sound with "Here, There And Everywhere"?

MEHLDAU: So if you have the original, it's - you know, it's very diatonic. (Playing piano). And then, so I might - (playing piano) and then, maybe come back to it, you know, sort of grounded again of here's five going back to one.

BRIGER: Does that sort of thing work better when you have a strong melody to work with?

MEHLDAU: Oh, that's a great point. Absolutely. It works really well with a - you know, a diatonic, which means, you know, all within one scale. (Playing piano). In this case, it's in G major. So, you know, everything is within that scale, I think. I hope I'm not going to be wrong. (Playing piano). So that's all, you know, just in one scale. So even though they have different chords, it has a simplicity there to work from.

BRIGER: If you're just joining us, we're talking to jazz pianist Brad Mehldau, who has a new album called "Your Mother Should Know: Brad Mehldau Plays The Beatles." More after a break, this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BRIGER: This is FRESH AIR. We're speaking with jazz pianist Brad Mehldau. He has a new solo album called "Your Mother Should Know: Brad Mehldau Plays The Beatles." Here's his version of "I Am The Walrus."

(SOUNDBITE OF BRAD MEHLDAU'S "I AM THE WALRUS")

BRIGER: That's Brad Mehldau playing "I Am The Walrus." I asked him why he chose the song for his new album.

MEHLDAU: Yeah, I remember that when I first heard this song - I think I heard it on the radio. It was one of those ones I did hear when I was a kid. And this one, "Strawberry Fields Forever," some of the ones from "Magical Mystery Tour," they - I just found them disturbing, and I didn't really like them too much - also, "For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!" (ph). You know, they were sort of like a - like, not necessarily a nightmare, but one of those dreams you have that's kind of weird. But with "I Am The Walrus," the harmony is so interesting.

BRIGER: I remember, I had this album as - when I was a kid. And the end of this song is - there's a lot of cacophony, and there's a lot of weird stuff going on. There's, like, this weird chorus of some - of people singing, umpa, umpa (ph)...

MEHLDAU: Yeah.

BRIGER: ...Stick it in your jumper. And then, there's these old men talking. And I would just put the needle back over and over again to hear that part of the song, and I...

MEHLDAU: Trying to figure out what - yeah.

BRIGER: Or just what's going on. Like, yeah.

MEHLDAU: Yeah.

BRIGER: Like, trying to figure out what they're saying. So I imagine that that was a particularly hard part to figure out how to play 'cause it's like - there's so - it's just so dense sonically.

MEHLDAU: Yeah. Yeah. Well, there's a lot going on in that song, and there's these sections, you know? But the ending is really cool because it's - again, it's diatonic, and it's almost willfully naive what they do. They just start on A's in unison, and then, they just go the other direction. You can do it on the white keys of the piano. So what they're doing is just going in other directions - down on the bottom and up on the top. So it's (playing piano) - keeps on going (playing piano). And that's a very, very condensed, 20 times as fast, you know...

BRIGER: Right. Right.

MEHLDAU: So I had a fun time doing that on the piano and getting into a little - I wouldn't say virtuosic, but really kind of fleshing that out on the piano.

BRIGER: Yeah. That's a really cool part of your rendition. Would you mind playing a little bit of this?

MEHLDAU: Sure. Maybe I'll do that ending, see if I can...

BRIGER: OK, great.

MEHLDAU: ...Whip it off. I don't know. (Playing piano).

BRIGER: That's great. That's hair-raising.

(LAUGHTER)

BRIGER: Yeah. The interesting thing about that, like, the song fades. It's unlike - there's another song, "A Day In The Life," where they sort of do get to that...

MEHLDAU: That's true. It does fade.

BRIGER: ...Resolution. But...

MEHLDAU: Yeah, that's right. That's right.

BRIGER: ...I'm glad you don't fade out. And you actually...

MEHLDAU: Yeah. I guess I'm kind of thinking of my version because the - it's literally the - it's in A minor at that point. And of course the A is the lowest (playing piano) note on the piano, which I love to play if I...

BRIGER: (Laughter).

MEHLDAU: ...Have an excuse to play it.

BRIGER: I read that in your 20s, you decided to spend more time with classical music in order to develop your left hand a little bit more. Were there particular composers that you concentrated on?

MEHLDAU: Certainly, Bach. I really went headlong into "The Well-Tempered Clavier." And I think it was for whatever reason, I always - Brahms was a composer who was just really close to my heart when I played Brahms' music for the first time when I was a kid. And then when I got to New York, I don't know why that was, but I really started discovering more of his music and sort of went on a mission - his chamber music, his choral music, his four symphonies, everything, his leader. And then just from all of that, there's - you know, in that piano literature, there's always a call to do stuff with your left hand.

You know, people think of Bach a lot, certainly, but, you know, in Brahms, in Beethoven, you know, in all these composers, there's things that the left hand that, you know, that don't come as much in - and I wouldn't want to say that, you know, jazz, you don't have to use your left hand as much, but there's a certain kind of jazz that's a lot of - a time period that's my grits and gravy, which is kind of beginning with bebop and going through, you know, modern stuff, you know, right up through the middle '60s, let's say, where the piano is in a rhythm section, and the left hand is playing a role that's a chord. It doesn't play melodies as much, so it doesn't need to be used in that way.

As a result of that, because I hadn't been playing classical music, I stopped classical lessons when I was 13 and then went headlong into jazz. So my left hand, by the time I was 19, was - in a way, it wasn't as strong as it was when I was 13. You know, it didn't have the fluidity. So I - it was sort of a little bit of an ego thing of, you know, just - I want to get this back, you know?

BRIGER: And then did you start incorporating more complicated left hand movements within your playing in jazz?

MEHLDAU: Yeah. Yeah, that kind of happened intuitively and naturally. And, of course, there were jazz pianists who were, you know, at the top of the heap for that. In the small group, certainly Oscar Peterson, who was one of the first ones. His left hand was unbelievable. Phineas Newborn - another one - and Art Tatum, you know, if we're going earlier into that earlier style. So there were one - those ones, as well, were, you know, big lights for me.

BRIGER: I want to play something. This is from earlier in your career. This is with your trio. It's from "The Art Of The Trio Volume Two: Live At The Village Vanguard." And you're playing the Thelonious Monk song, "Monk's Dream." And this, to me, it sounds like you're really doing independent things with your right hand and your left hand. It's a really intense part of your solo where there's just these waves of sound, but you still hear the melody, like, woven through. But first, just before we listen to that, could you just play the - like, the simple melody for "Monk's Dream," so we can hear it?

MEHLDAU: (Playing piano).

BRIGER: Yeah. So let's hear you playing this live with your trio. This is "Monk's Dream."

(SOUNDBITE OF BRAD MEHLDAU'S "MONK'S DREAM")

BRIGER: Let's take a short break here. If you're just joining us, our guest is the jazz pianist and composer Brad Mehldau. His new album is called "Your Mother Should Know: Brad Mehldau Plays The Beatles." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BRIGER: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Sam Briger, sitting in for Terry Gross. And right now, seated at a piano bench in a studio at WNYC is jazz pianist and composer Brad Mehldau, who's joined us for a conversation and some music. The acclaimed musician has a new album called "Your Mother Should Know: Brad Mehldau Plays The Beatles." He also has a memoir coming out in March titled "Formation: Building A Personal Canon, Part 1."

So Brad, as I said, you have a memoir coming out in March called "Formation." And it's the story of your youth and development as an artist. It's very personal. And it's a pretty distressing read. You felt like an outsider a lot of your youth, in part because you were adopted. But you were also - you were bullied as a kid. You were sexually groomed by your high school principal. And the traumas of your childhood led you to feel alienated as a young adult, confused about your sexuality and, as you say, filled with self-loathing, for which you sought relief in alcohol and drugs, eventually heroin, which almost led to your death. Why, at this point in your life, did you decide to write this book and publish it?

MEHLDAU: Jeez. It's pretty heavy when you hear it all back like that (laughter).

BRIGER: Well, yeah, it's all in there.

MEHLDAU: Yeah. Yeah. You know, it had been sort of this big blob on a hard drive for at least 15 years. And there were pieces of it there about some of the kind of political/musical discussion. There were a couple of the memories. So I knew I had a book in there somewhere. But I think, for whatever reason, over the years, I found a story in there. And I think it - for whatever reason, it took kind of half a lifetime later past the actual events to get the story right.

And the way that's played out for me as a musician is that I think, in some very kind of mysterious way, a lot of those really difficult experiences made me the musician that I am, you know, for instance, this kind of loneliness and alienation that I experienced. I think - and I don't like to analyze myself too much. But I think there's a kind of - something that I can get to, for instance, in playing a ballad, and sort of going in this interior zone that's informed by, you know, experiences that I wouldn't have asked for, you know, at the time, you know?

BRIGER: You said that you always felt apart from other people, and that at first you kind of felt that that meant you were inferior, but that you were able to sort of transform that feeling and imagine it like - that you were sort of this cool outsider. And you say that you even thought of yourself as somehow marked as different, like Cain from the Bible, Cain who kills his brother Abel. God marks him for that act. Can you talk about that a little bit more?

MEHLDAU: Yeah. I think, you know, in the book, I'm talking about some of these experiences, sort of how I always knew I was adopted. And it wasn't a traumatic, messed-up adoption by any means. But I think there's a little sketch I give there of when I felt how that was different when we were doing this family tree thing in fifth grade and that experience. And then as I got older, I discovered, you know, that my sexuality was fluid. And, you know - and it was 1984 or whatever. And then I had these really not-so-great experiences that I describe in the book, too, that all gave it a negative view. And so then I wanted to make a story about that. So I think the Cain story was a way of sort of making that special.

And when I read that sort of reverse reading of the Cain and Abel, it was in Hermann Hesse's great early novel, "Demian," where he talks about that, you know, everybody says that Cain was - you know, he was marked. And then he was banished. And God put a mark on him. But Hesse has this idea that the character, Demian, is explaining that, no, actually, it was the other way around, you know, that Cain was really - he was special. And he was cooler than everyone, you know? So it was a story that I tried to put on myself. But in fact, it wasn't really quite right, you know, because there was still the pain involved with it, you know? But it was a way that I started to differentiate myself, probably in a way that wasn't very helpful.

BRIGER: So when you were in high school, there were all these cliques. And you didn't really feel like you fit into a lot of them. There was a jazz clique. But there was a lot of - you were dealing with a lot of bullying. But you fell into a group of older musicians, jazz musicians, who would hire you on to go to weddings and play at parties. And then you actually even had, like, I think, a regular gig at a club in Hartford called the 880.

MEHLDAU: Yeah, that's right. Yeah.

BRIGER: And with these older musicians, you kind of found a community. What was it like hanging out with all these old guys?

MEHLDAU: It was really fun, you know? There was one in particular, Larry Donatelli (ph), who's a drummer who gave me and also Joel Frahm, who's a fantastic tenor saxophonist, and another guy, Pat Zimmerli, now who's a classical composer - he gave us all a chance. You know, we were just really beginning. And he gave us a gig at the 880. And he mentored us, you know? And that's really important. And he was my first model for a bohemian jazz musician. And I loved it. You know, bohemian in the sense of, he said whatever he want. He didn't live in the kind of suburban - we lived in West Hartford, which was very suburban, kind of conservative - nothing particularly bad about it, but kind of stifling.

And that was the model for me - and also a kindness there, too, you know? And that's what I experienced as - when I came to New York and I started meeting older jazz musicians, who were also mentor figures, like Jimmy Cobb - the great Jimmy Cobb, the drummer - and Junior Mance, the pianist who I studied with, different musicians I worked with. There was a kindness there as well, so pretty much nothing but positive in that sense for these older models, you know, which definitely, I think, was - made me think, yeah, I want to do this.

BRIGER: If you're just joining us, we're talking to jazz pianist Brad Mehldau, who has a new album called Your Mother Should Know. Brad Mehldau plays the Beatles. More after break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRAD MEHLDAU'S "HAPPY TUNE")

BRIGER: This is FRESH AIR. We're talking to Brad Mehldau, the jazz pianist, who has a new album called "Your Mother Should Know: Brad Mehldau Plays The Beatles."

So, you know, you were in New York in the late '80s when there were just these - lots of jazz clubs, some of them which no longer exist. And you could go and see terrific musicians, like, every night. Like, veterans of the bebop era and hard bop era were still playing. What were some of the acts you would go see?

MEHLDAU: Well, there was a - I mean, really the one as a pianist, you know, or just any jazz musician, was Bradley's, which was on University, I think, and 12th or 13th. And that was really the piano room, and so - you know, always somebody on a top level and always of that generation. I don't think they really - when Bradley was around, he wouldn't book younger. You know, so that was Cedar Walton. That was Tommy Flanagan. That was Barry Harris, Kenny Barron, Hank Jones - yeah, players on that level. So they were players that - they were pianists I had been listening to on records for the last four years. And then, now I was getting to - I'd go into Bradley's, and I'd sit at the bar. If I was lucky, I'd get this seat, you know, close to the action and just - and, you know - incredible, just sublime to be witnessing that.

BRIGER: Would you ever go up to them and say, excuse me, sir, I'm a jazz pianist myself? Or was that - were you too nervous to do that?

MEHLDAU: I was too nervous. I don't think I ever approached any of them.

BRIGER: You didn't, huh?

MEHLDAU: Yeah, I was just too - I was always kind of shy. You know, McCoy Tyner was another titan for me. And to me, he had - you know, with the work he did in the classic Coltrane Quartet, there's a spiritual authority. Those guys were like - they were like priests, you know? And the music, they - and I remember I'd go to Sweet Basil's to see him play with his trio. And I'd be there sitting at the bar. And he'd come up, and he'd have his tonic water, and he'd be sitting next to me at the bar. And I couldn't talk to him. I couldn't - I just - I couldn't, you know? That would have been the moment, you know?

BRIGER: Would you try to absorb some of him just sitting there?

MEHLDAU: Yeah, I guess so. I guess so. You know, just sort of try not to look at him...

BRIGER: Yeah.

MEHLDAU: ...But be looking at him, you know?

BRIGER: So when you were young, you know, you would emulate your heroes. Like, one night, you'd go out, and maybe you'd sound like McCoy Tyner or maybe Bobby Timmons. But you say you went on the road with the alto sax player Christopher Hollyday. And you say you came back with your own style. What changed out on the road?

MEHLDAU: I think it was - it was interesting 'cause it's not something I realized myself. But it was the first road gig I got, and we went out for a good eight months, kind of really hitting it hard, you know, playing five nights a week in the States. And I think just the act of playing so much live, like I was saying earlier, you change as a player, you know, from what you study and listen to and all that work. But you really change in the gig-to-gig experience.

And somehow having that regular gig - when I came back, friends of mine, like Sam Yahel, the pianist, and Peter Bernstein and different people who I played a lot with in New York, they said, wow, you've got something that's different now. It's like it kind of - you know, it's kind of, like, your thing, man. And I couldn't see it myself. But I think that was maybe when I started to get something that I recognize as me.

BRIGER: How would you describe you?

MEHLDAU: Oh (laughter). Well, I would describe me by, you know, everybody else, you know? It's an amalgamation of everything I love, you know? So it's all those players I named. It's - you know, it's Billy Joel. It's Brahms. It's all of it put together. And then, you mix that with my personality. And I think maybe what I have a talent for is some way of assimilating it versus sort of paraphrasing different players, you know, which can also be good. And there's a lot of, you know, players who do that really well, who we're like, oh, now he's doing this Erroll Garner thing, and now it goes into Wynton Kelly.

And, you know, it's - I don't think there's anything wrong with that, but I think my talent is more sort of bringing them together, and so you might not know who it is. You know, for instance, when I tell people who's informing a performance, if someone says, I really liked what you did there and it reminded me of Radiohead, I say, well, yeah, actually, that's more from Chopin, or vice versa, you know? So maybe people don't even know what those influences are, and you've sort of managed to make them your own to a degree. But it's still - it's from all that stuff.

BRIGER: You incorporate a lot of different styles into your playing. Could you sort of show us, like, the difference between, like, sort of modal playing and maybe, like, more bebop lines, like, how those sound different, the tonalities there?

MEHLDAU: Yeah. So if we're going back to a C blues, same tempo, a more bebop would be (playing piano). And then, same tempo, same key, C blues, more in a modal sort of - I'll say McCoy and Herbie, let's say.

BRIGER: OK.

(LAUGHTER)

MEHLDAU: (Playing piano).

BRIGER: So the second one, you're sort of going outside the harmony a little bit more? It's like...

MEHLDAU: Yeah, going outside of the harmony and - a little more - if I'm in a mode, it's more mode (playing piano) and not a diatonic (playing piano) bass - that gets really into kind of...

BRIGER: In the weeds, a little.

MEHLDAU: Yeah, musical, yeah, wonky stuff, yeah. But you know what I mean. That's 'cause you're asking the question. So, yeah. Yeah.

BRIGER: You know, as a piano player, you can't head out on the road with your instrument strapped to your back. You have to kind of play the hall or the club's piano. Does that prove challenging?

MEHLDAU: Definitely, yeah. Yeah. And I have a fantastic tour manager and sound engineer, Vincent Rousseau, who I've been with for almost 20 years. So we go around, and we collect the serial numbers of all the Steinways. And then, we give a simple grading system from 1 to 4. And there's even a zero. And a zero means absolutely never play that again.

BRIGER: (Laughter) Yeah.

MEHLDAU: And then, 1 is you'd really have to fix this up - you know, all the way to 4, which - I've only had two 4s in the 15 or so years we've been doing it. So 4 is the golden, incredible Steinway D. And so that's one way of trying to sort of police it - you know? - because what you have a lot is you have a promoter who will say - you get - and the piano sounds atrocious. And then, they'll say, oh, well, so-and-so played it. You know, I always used to get...

BRIGER: Oh, they loved it. Yeah.

MEHLDAU: You know, Chick Corea played it, you know, three months ago, and he loved it, you know?

BRIGER: Yeah.

MEHLDAU: And, you know, you never know whether that's true. The other thing that happens is that a piano can be really great, and then, a year later, it doesn't sound as good. They need to be maintained. You can't just have a Steinway - just because it's a Steinway - it's going to be great. You know, they have to be regulated and voiced and everything.

BRIGER: Well, what do you do when you come upon a zero or a 1? Like, do you just have to make do?

MEHLDAU: There's only been, I think, maybe two times where I've downright refused. And I've never called off a concert. But then, they came through, and they got another piano. But, no, most of the time it's making - yeah - making do with what it is, trying to work with the technician who's there to try to, you know, do a little damage control and then make do with what is.

And then, again, like I was mentioning earlier, don't tell the audience and complain, you know? That's the most frustrating part because you're playing - and let's say - a lot of problems you encounter with a piano that's not in good shape is that it has no dynamic range because of the condition the hammers are in. You have - instead of being able to play pianissimo to fortissimo, you have a range that's more like mezzo piano to mezzo forte or only loud, you know? And then, you have to make do with that.

And then, you know, you play the concert, and someone says, oh, it was great and (vocalizing). And you just think, I could have showed you so much more, you know? But you can't say that, you know? So that's the most frustrating part, I think. It's like, if only they knew what I could do - you know? - if this piano was in good shape.

BRIGER: If you're just joining us, we're talking to jazz pianist Brad Mehldau, who has a new album called "Your Mother Should Know: Brad Mehldau Plays The Beatles." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRAD MEHLDAU'S "JOHN BOY")

BRIGER: This is FRESH AIR. Our guest is Brad Mehldau. The jazz pianist has a new album of songs called "Your Mother Should Know: Brad Mehldau Plays The Beatles."

As I said before, in your memoir, you talk about the difficulties you had stopping using heroin. You were addicted to heroin for many years. And, you know, recovering addicts are often told to avoid, like, the people they did drugs with or, like - or even the places where they did drugs...

MEHLDAU: Right.

BRIGER: ...Or the kinds of places that they did drugs. And jazz is music of the night and clubs. And I was wondering if that can be difficult for you sometimes. I mean, looking at your touring schedule, you're often playing concert halls. But you also play at clubs.

MEHLDAU: Yeah, yeah. I mean, it's interesting. That time period I'm writing about when I was in the addiction, there were only a few other jazz musicians who were getting into that. And I think it was more of something that was going on in the '90s with heroin, which - you know, you had, like, supermodels doing it and A-list actors. And it was something - so that was something more that I found - I was using heroin with, you know, NYU students and, you know, people who were these, you know, kind of privileged kids like myself. So I didn't get pulled too much into the classic, you know, idea that you have with heroin and jazz. I think that time had already sort of come and gone, you know?

BRIGER: The idea that, like, Charlie Parker did heroin, so I should probably do heroin, too.

MEHLDAU: Yeah. Exactly. Exactly.

BRIGER: Is it hard to - for you to listen to music that you recorded from that period?

MEHLDAU: Not so much. I mean, what I do hear is that there was - and I kind of try to stress this in the book; I probably should have underlined it more - is that it wasn't so much that I - it impeded my playing, but I was kind of on autopilot in the sense that I wasn't developing. I had this natural thing I could do, and it even had something that was my own. But it wasn't developing.

And I remember that I - I finally got clean. I went to a rehab in Los Angeles. And then, I stayed there, and I got my Steinway B that I still have now. And I had an apartment, and I started practicing and, you know, getting on my feet again. And it just flowed. All of a sudden, I was writing, and my playing was developing in a way that - and then, it just went from there. So it really only flourished. So I can listen to that. But that's what I'm aware of most of all, is that it's kind of this autopilot, you know, in a way.

BRIGER: You know, in your memoir, the young Brad Mehldau comes across as a pretty unhappy person, someone not at home in the world. But, you know, the book ends - I think you're, like, in your late 20s, almost 30 at that point. You're now in your early 50s. You're married. You have three kids. You couldn't ask for a more successful musical career. You're considered one of the most important jazz musicians of your generation. Like, have you found your place in the world? Are you do you feel more comfortable in your own skin?

MEHLDAU: Yeah, definitely. Definitely. Things are just easier that - as you get older. You know, I think, thank goodness. Otherwise (laughter), you know, I think I had a friend read the manuscript early on who was with me for a lot of that. And he said, wow, man, this is pretty depressing, you know? And if - because I remember we had a lot of good times, too, you know? And that certainly was the case, too. So I tried to describe some of the - you know, the ecstasy of hearing all this great music and some close friendships. But it's definitely a dark story there. And yeah, thank goodness things haven't been dark. I'm blessed now, really.

BRIGER: Well, I'm happy to hear that. I was hoping that you would play a little bit of "Golden Slumbers" as we end this interview. This is another Paul McCartney song that you describe in your liner notes as an amen-inducing ballad. Why did you pick this song?

MEHLDAU: You know, it's that zone of Paul where these - I think these kind of cadences that are - yeah, it's like it has a church quality to it, you know, another - "Let It Be," "Hey Jude," have that. And then you see on his first solo record right after this one, "Abbey Road," there's a tune "Maybe I'm Amazed." That's just a great one. That's the same kind of amen thing. (Playing piano).

BRIGER: Well, Brad Mehldau, thank you so much for being here today on FRESH AIR.

MEHLDAU: Thanks for having me, Sam.

GROSS: Brad Mehldau spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. His new album, "Your Mother Should Know: Brad Mehldau Plays The Beatles," comes out this week. We'd like to thank WNYC for letting us use their studio and their piano and engineer Irene Trudel for recording Mehldau.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, as the Manhattan District Attorney's Office presents evidence to a grand jury about Donald Trump's hush payments to Stormy Daniels, we'll get an inside look into the criminal investigation of Trump's finances. Our guest will be Mark Pomerantz, who worked on the case, then resigned last year after a new DA decided not to file charges. Pomerantz's new book is called "The People Vs. Donald Trump" (ph). I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF OXANA YABLONSKAYA'S "STANDCHEN (FROM SCHWANENGESANG), S560/R245, NO. 7")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley, Susan Nyakundi and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF OXANA YABLONSKAYA'S "STANDCHEN (FROM SCHWANENGESANG), S560/R245, NO. 7") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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