When Brad Mehldau starts a song by Lennon & McCartney during one of his sets, a sigh of recognition goes through the room. During the American pianist’s improvisations on the music of the Beatles, you never cease to be amazed by the timeless beauty of ‘And I Love Her’, ‘Blackbird’ and ‘Here, There and Everywhere’. Mehldau recorded wonderful interpretations of composers as diverse as J.S. Bach, Nick Drake and Radiohead, but his Beatles arrangements touch strings of a higher order.
Now there is an entire album on which the pianist focuses almost exclusively on the work of Lennon & McCartney. For Your Mother Should Know, Mehldau selected not the best-known songs, but those that challenge him most musically. ‘Golden Slumber’ and ‘Baby’s In Black’ are both enchantingly beautiful. Mehldau’s solo work may have a melancholic slant, he certainly doesn’t just look back in nostalgia. ‘I Saw Her Standing There’, for instance, he turned into a sprightly and joyful boogie-woogie.
The pianist has most affinity with later Beatle albums like Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sergeant Pepper’s, Abbey Road, Let It Be and the White Album: ‘A lot of their music sounds strange. That has to do with their harmony, form and length. As an improviser, it’s a challenge to tackle some of those alienating pieces. The album begins with ‘I am The Walrus’ from The Magical Mystery Tour, a showcase for John Lennon. As a kid, I found this an unsettling song. As I got older, I began to appreciate it more. At a young age, I did not yet understand the Beatles. Between the ages of 20 and 30, I really entrenched myself in their music. ‘I Am The Walrus’ starts with a harmonically unusual intro. It has a descending scale, as you find in impressionist music. You don’t hear it in early classical music and certainly not in pop music. Above that, the melody snakes with it.’
The music Mehldau heard as a child was pop music from the 1970s. ‘The Beatles I missed because I was too young. I was born in 1970 and their songs were still often played on the radio. I heard a lot of bands that were influenced by The Beatles, though.’
At five, Mehldau started playing the piano himself. One of his idols was Billy Joel: ‘I was struck by the way he used the piano and I wanted to play like him. Joel’s music had depth, his harmonies were bold and he made daring choices. I liked Elton John, the other piano rocker, as well. I had a preference for bands that used the piano in a unique way like the Beach Boys.’
Mehldau normally doesn’t like to use the term ‘swing’ for pop music. ‘Maybe you know someone who says “Bach swings.” I understand what those people mean, but I think that ‘swing’ is really elemental to jazz and to black American music tradition. Yet in ‘Your Mother Should Know’, The Beatles approximate the swing feel when ‘dotting’ the right notes. Without those ‘dots’, a song like this would have sounded square and rigid.’
Another band Mehldau loved as a boy and which captured his imagination because they used an electric piano was Supertramp: ‘They were certainly influenced by The Beatles. Supertramp’s ‘The Long Way Home’ also has that Beatle-like dotted rhythm.’
On Mehldau’s new album, you can hear this effect in ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’: ‘Paul McCartney brought this element into their music. He did the same with the song ‘When I’m 64’. This is the influence of the music McCartney listened to at home as a child. He made something new out of English big band music, which ended up in many of his songs.’